If you remember Carl Carlton at all you might know him from his big hit “She’s a Bad Mamma Jamma”. That song from his fourth album Carl Carlton or Sexy Lady (in some overseas markets) seemed to have come from out of nowhere. Carlton actually had been recording since the mid ’60s usually under the name Little Carl Carlton in Detroit. Little Carl was something a young Stevie Wonder disciple.
Carlton’s music had come a long way thanks mostly to producer Leon Heywood. Heywood would get him a major record contract and essentially free him from the musical little leagues. Over time Carlton’s voice and musical style evolved into slick funk/R&B in the mode of Jermaine Jackson.
He apparently was proud of his evolution enough to poise shirtless on the cover as to suggest that he was no longer “Little Carl Carlton”. The boyish smile big afro and buff torso could have been interpreted as a sex album in the vein of Prince or Rick James, but this was fun light hearted R&B.
Carlton actually had a small string of light hearted hits through the ’70s, but it would be the 1981 release of Carl Carlton that would put him on the radio again. Leon Heywood would help hone a bouncy rhythm driven sound that was rooted very much in the late ’70s but free of disco impulses (for the most part). Much of it sounded familiar in that it mirrored the better R&B of the era like EWF, Shalamar or The Brother’s Johnson.
A lot of people never got beyond the memory of “Bad Mamma Jamma”, but the album actually has more than a few great songs. The varied collection ranged from the all out dance of “Sexy Lady” and “I’ve Got that Boogie Fever” to the quiet storm of “This Feeling’s Rated X-Tra”.
This album was recorded during a transitional period when electronics were slowly replacing musicians. As this happened the teams of horn players from old school soul and R&B had faded away first. Carlton Carlton retained the real horn sections and had its share of star musicians in the background. They included George Duke and James Ingram with Ingram doing a little writing.
Despite hits on both sides of the Atlantic, Carlton’s 15 minutes were up by the time he released his follow up The Bad C.C a year later. He might have appeared as just another one hit R&B artist, but Carl Carlton was proof that his talent was bigger than his chart success. In some ways Carlton’s short stab at popularity opened the door long enough for others who emulated his vaguely Jackson-like style follow like Rockwell a few years later.