Carlton Jumel Smith
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About Carlton Jumel Smith
Carlton Jumel Smith is a singer, songwriter, producer, and actor whose nickname since the 1990s has been "Soul Brother Number New," thanks to his cinematic portrayal of James Brown in Barry Levinson's 1999 film Liberty Heights. With a smooth baritone that is alternately grainy and sweet with a distinctive falsetto, he has been bringing his revue-style shows to stages across the United States, Europe, and Asia since 2002, including several stints in Shanghai, Helsinki, Las Vegas, and London, England. He also played a lead role in the Broadway musical Largo written by David Henry Hwang, where he played opposite Cyndi Lauper, Fisher Stephens, and Garth Hudson. He also had a recurring role in the soap opera As the World Turns for a time.
Smith grew up during the '60s and '70s, and his expressive baritone and ethereal falsetto were deeply influenced by Brown, Al Green, Bobby Womack, and the Temptations. While his 21st century recordings come right out of soul and funk's golden ages, he began his singing career performing and recording with house and techno producers. His first single, 1986's "Excite Me," a 110-bpm dancefloor groover, was co-written with Andre C. Lovell and produced and released by Kevin Calhoun and Yvonne Turner (Loleatta Holloway's manager). In 1994, under the alias Napoleon Soul-O, he was the featured vocalist on Frederick Jorio Presents Sextravaganza on Tribal America. Through the rest of the '90s, he was the frontman for the Thrill Cycle, who issued an EP and an album. Smith's first two solo albums appeared on Exile Records in 2008: The Skinnybone Tree and Diagram of a Relationship. His third album, 1634 Lexington Avenue, was recorded in Finland and released in 2019 on Timmion Records.
Smith was born the only son among four siblings in Harlem and raised in Spanish Harlem where he maintains an apartment (his 2019 album was titled after the address). He credits his mother Corrine Brown as his biggest early influence and his "first deejay". While neither of his parents were involved with music formally, his mother played records at home almost constantly. Smith's father passed when he was young; his mother helped him cope by taking him to concerts and buying him records. In 1968 at age eight, his mom took him to the Apollo Theater to see James Brown. The event went a long way in guaranteeing his life's direction. In 1977 he started being coached as a singer by Rick Torres of Full House. During his second year of college, a friend got him to skip school to see Stevie Wonder at Madison Square Garden. He never went back. In the '80s, Smith began performing locally. While he wasn't yet taking his music career seriously, he was writing songs and making homemade demos with purpose. He sent a demo to Holloway and she recorded it. It was never released but did establish a connection, resulting in his debut single "Excite Me." In 1991 he co-composed Napoleon's "Come on Girl."
Smith got serious about music during the '90s, networking and performing whenever possible, particularly with house and techno producers. He sang on Frederick Joria Presents Sextravaganza, a house album as Napoleon Soul-O, and recorded a few more singles under the moniker before joining the Thrill Cycle before the decade's end. Their first EP, First Taste Is Free, was independently issued in 1995 and followed by the full-length Get Your Swerve On in 1998. That same year, Smith left the group after he was cast to play the Godfather of Soul in Levinson's Liberty Heights, thanks to the eyes and ears of Harry Weinger, who saw him in a video performing Brown's songs. He passed this tip on to the director, who cast him before he called to ask. In the film Smith plays Brown circa 1954, and co-stars alongside Adrien Brody, Bebe Neuwirth, and Joe Mantegna.
In 2002, Smith got his first gig at B.B. King's in New York as a substitute performer for Ray Charles, who had to cancel due to illness. Smith's debut, Carlton J. Smith Live at B.B. King's was cut during that gig in 2003. That night he delivered songs associated with Charles and other soul artists, as well as originals and a funky version of Bobbie Gentry's "Ode to Billie Joe." The crowd responded. Due to popular demand, he became a regular performer on that stage, offering revue-style soul tributes to some of the music's biggest artists including Green, Curtis Mayfield, Sly & the Family Stone, the Temptations, and Marvin Gaye. Smith also got a chance to fill in for James Brown in New York. Brown had been scheduled to perform at B.B. King Blues Club & Grill in Times Square on New Year's Eve, but he had passed away on Christmas Eve. Smith was on a bus headed to the airport to do some shows in Europe when he received a phone call from the venue offering him the spot behind headliner Chaka Khan. He performed Brown's songs exclusively and wept with gratitude for the opportunity. He got more New York bookings at the New York venue and made the circuit of those clubs; he played in Europe and eventually China, where he spent a decade performing in Shanghai, coming home every few weeks for acting and singing gigs.
In 2008, Smith issued two albums: The Skinnybone Tree and Diagram of a Relationship. They got positive notice from European and American critics as well as deejays who spun them on neo-soul nights. Over the next decade, Smith traveled and sang for his supper in Turkey, the U.K., Switzerland, Romania, Bali, Indonesia, Russia, Norway, and France. He eventually made his way to Helsinki, where he got acquainted with its most famous R&B outfit, Cold Diamond & Mink (whose eight-piece lineup features saxophonist Jimi Tenor and trumpeter Jukka Eskola). They began playing gigs together and, at year's end, entered a Helsinki studio to record Smith's third studio offering, 1634 Lexington Avenue, released by Timmion Records in May 2019.
- East Harlem, New York, NY
- May 11, 1960