Carlton began his career in the mid-1960’s as “Little Carl” Carlton. This was a marketing ploy to capitalize on some vocal similarities to Stevie Wonder, who recorded under the name “Little Stevie Wonder” in the early 1960’s. His first recordings were for Lando Records, for which he recorded some minor local hits, including “So What” and “Don’t You Need A Boy Like Me.” In 1968, Carlton was signed by Don D. Robey to his new label, Back Beat Records. Shortly after signing with the label, Carlton relocated to Houston, Texas to be closer to his new label. His first single with the label, “Competition Ain’t Nothing” became a huge hit on the UK northern soul scene after its release on the UK Action label. Carlton finally saw major success in the United States with a cover version of Robert Knight’s “Everlasting Love.” This song went to #6 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 chart, and #11 on the Billboard R&B Charts in 1974.
Robey sold his labels to ABC Records in 1972. Beginning in 1976, Carlton became embroiled in a royalty dispute with ABC Records that caused him to stop recording for some time. He then signed with Mercury Records in 1977, but only released one single on that label. Carlton was unable to land a new recording contract for several years until Leon Haywood helped him get a singles deal with 20th Century Records.
A Haywood-penned single, “She’s A Bad Mama Jama (She’s Built, She’s Stacked)”, became a major hit, peaking at #2 on the soul chart and earning Carlton a Grammy Award nomination for Best R&B Vocal Performance, Male. in 1982. The track peaked at #34 in the UK Singles Chart. Carlton’s subsequent album, Carl Carlton, went gold in 1981. “She’s a Bad Mama Jama” has since become a staple of compilation albums and soundtracks and is often sampled in rap music.
Carlton released several more albums in the 1980s but had only a few minor R&B hits. After 1985’s Private Property, he did not release another album until 1994’s Main Event, which also failed to chart.
In late 2002, Carlton appeared with many R&B stars on the “Rhythm, Love, and Soul” edition of the PBS series American Soundtrack. His performance of “Everlasting Love” was included on the accompanying live album that was released in 2004.
On August 1, 2010, Carlton released his first gospel single entitled: “God is Good”. He is currently in the studio completing his yet to be titled new album. On April 16, 2011, Carlton was nominated for a Detroit Music Award in the “Outstanding Gospel/Christian Vocalist” category.