He began his career singing for Detroit’s Lando Records as “Little Carl Carlton.” If you’ve heard him sing, you can probably imagine why. His voice bears some similarity to that of Stevie Wonder, and the “Little” was stuck on Carlton’s name to try and make some hay on the great Motown star’s early ’60s name.
There were a couple of minor hits for Lando including “So What,” and “Don’t You Need A Boy Like Me,” both of which went on to become popular on England’s Northern Soul circuit. The records got the attention of songwriter and producer Don D. Robey, who was a sketchy character to say the least. Robey signed Carlton and moved him to Houston to record for Robey’s new label, Back Beat Records.
It was at Back Beat that Carlton had his first major hit with a cover of Robert Knight’s 1967 hit “Everlasting Love”. The song was written by producers Buzz Cason and Mac Gayden who had the Motown sound on their minds when they recorded Knight. According to lyricist Cason, the title of the song comes from a line in the book of Jeremiah. The producers thought that “Everlasting Love” would be the B-side of something called “The Weeper,” but cooler heads prevailed and it was released as the A-side and reached #13 on the Billboard Hot 100. Carlton’s version would do even better seven years later.
Carlton recorded his version of “Everlasting Love” in Nashville as well. The session took place in Cason’s Creative Workshop, although Cason was not involved in the recording. It was Carlton himself who had chosen the song based on his admiration for the version that had appeared on David Ruffin’s My Whole World Ended album in 1969.
Carlton’s cover of “Everlasting Love” was produced by Papa Don Schroeder and Tommy Cogbill, and this time it actually was released as the B-side, in October, 1973, with “I Wanna Be Your Main Squeeze” as the A-side. It took several months, but “Everlasting Love” was finally issued as the A-side in July, 1974 sporting a disco-fied remix. It became one of the first disco hits to cross over to the pop charts.
By November, 1974 Carlton’s version of “Everlasting Love” had made it all the way to #6 on the Billboard Hot 100. It did well on the R&B chart as well, reaching #11. These days the record is a staple of oldies radio with BMI estimating that it has been played more than four million times.
Robey sold his label to ABC Records in 1972 and four years later Carlton found himself enmeshed in a royalty dispute with the new label. He signed with Mercury in 1977, but only released one single there. For several years he didn’t have a record deal, but he finally signed with 20th Century Records, where he had another huge hit.
“She’s a Bad Mama Jama (She’s Built, She’s Stacked)” made it all the way to #2 on the R&B chart and won Carlton a Grammy nomination for “Best R&B Vocal Performance, Male” in 1982. He kept recording through the ’80s and ’90s, but had only a few minor hits on the R&B chart. Carlton released his first gospel single in 2010, and he is said to be working on a new album. In 2011 Carlton was nominated for a Detroit Music Award for “Outstanding Gospel/Christian Vocalist.”