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True Soul: Carlton J Smith

If you go out in Shanghai, you’ve probably run across Carlton J Smith. Heck, you’ve probably been pulled on stage by him. A Shanghai celebrity by night, the lounge singer has been bringing soul to the city for the better part of the last five years.

“Ifirst came to Shanghai to replace a jazz act at the House of Jazz & Blues back in 2004,” Smith explains. “I enjoyed it even though it wasn’t quite the atmosphere I was used to playing in.” He stayed on in the city, livening up crowds across town from Park Hyatt to Brown Sugar. His charismatic style quickly made waves, earning him the nickname of ‘Soul Brother Number New’.

Happy to be christened as a fresh version of the one of his idols, James Brown, Smith is adamant that the forefathers of soul and R&B receive their due respect. Performers like Brown, Al Green and Marvin Gaye gave their hearts and lives to the art form, instilling in fans like Smith long-lasting values. “Those guys taught me how to live; how to be a man, how to treat women, how to be proud of my heritage and identity as a black man,” he says.

Recognising the importance of history and respect, he concentrates on his total performance, from every musician being on point for every beat to looking his absolute sharpest when performing on stage. “James Brown used to fine his band members if their shirts were wrinkled or their shoes weren’t shined,” Smith explains. “That’s how serious he was about being a performer.”

Smith carries on the legacy of his musical heroes every time he performs. From his perfect lapels to his polished shoes, he brings an air of class to the stage and then singes it with a blistering performance that no audience can resist. “Music is a way to drop knowledge, a way to spread a message to your audience,” Smith says.

He has been reaching out to audiences around the world with his music for years, and the distinctive stage presence that made the multi-talented singer a mainstay in the Shanghai circuit has translated to the small screen, silver screen and the stage. He had a recurring role on the soap opera As the World Turns, and starred opposite Cyndi Lauper and The Band’s Garth Hudson on Broadway in Largo. In 1999, the comparison to James Brown became complete when he was cast as the Soul Brother Number One in the Barry Levinson film Liberty Heights

“I remember talking to James [Brown] right after he had watched the movie, and he actually thought that most of it was old footage of him from the 50s,” Smith chuckles.

Now an official resident of Shanghai, Smith considers the city his home base, a place where he can write and produce all of his own music. He also unleashes a combination of spot-on covers and original songs in venues throughout town almost every night of the week.

Ever the optimist, he frequently plays his own version of the popular Black Eyed Peas song “I Gotta Feeling”, a crowd favourite regardless of its lack of lyrical substance. “Every night before I play that song, I try to emphasise that every night is a good night. We should always be thankful for what we have,” he explains.

As any live music fan in town can tell you, a Carlton J Smith concert experience is not to be missed. With palpable emotion and unflagging energy, he bounces around the stage, incorporating the audience into his act with impromptu duets, shout outs to happy couples and the occasional ribbing for the uninitiated.

“It’s not about the venue. The crowd is the most important part of the concert; it’s all about the people in the audience,” Smith describes. “When the musicians are on point and the audience is feeling the vibe, everything just clicks, and it doesn’t matter where you’re playing. I’ll really play anywhere. It’s more important for me to be heard than to get paid.”

The future seems to be pretty wide open for Smith. While he enjoys being in Shanghai and taking advantage of the all the opportunities the city offers, he wouldn’t mind travelling more, noting that being able to see his daughter in New York City is a necessity no matter where he is.

For the moment, he’s taken a young protégé under his wing. Alina Lina, a young singer from Russia, works with him nightly, and he boasts “she just keeps getting better and better”. He is currently finishing a one-man play about the resurgence of a fictional singer in a “modern day ring-tone society”. Smith also recently recorded tracks for a new album entitled The Good News Is Love, which his fans in Shanghai can expect to hear on stages across town soon.

Carlton J Smith can be seen Wednesday through Friday nights at O’Malley’s (42 Taojiang Lu). He also performs Saturday nights at Chinatown (471 Zhapu Lu).


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