American orchestrator, arranger, composer, and studio musician Carl Marsh has deep Tennessee roots of childhood classical training that grew into a prolific and multifaceted music career. One of a handful of musicians to blend classical, rock, R&B, country, and pop genres, Carl is a Grammy-nominated professional who has contributed to hundreds of projects reflecting his eclectic path, from ZZ Top and Art Garfunkel to Garth Brooks and Manhattan Transfer.
Marsh began playing piano at age five, adding bassoon, recorder, and guitar by age twelve. He developed a love of music that blossomed into an exploration of diverse musical directions. By the age of twenty, Marsh was proficient on over thirty instruments. His young musical path wound its way through an array of experiences: substitute organist and choir member at his childhood church, bassoonist in Tennessee All-State Ensembles, performer in local high school rock bands, member of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra, DJ for the classical radio station WKNO-FM Memphis, and creative force behind R&B and pop projects in Memphis recording studios.
Carl earned a Bachelor of Music degree in Music Education from University of Memphis. He found musical inspiration during these formative college years from artists spanning genres and generations, from Maurice Ravel and Charlie Patton to The Beatles and Nat King Cole. Marsh soon began recording as a studio guitarist in Memphis. His career as a studio guitarist and as a classical bassoonist ran in parallel for many years. However, a more definitive career choice loomed on the horizon. In 1973, Marsh was faced with a choice between classical bassoon study with Bernard Garfield, legendary bassoonist of the Philadelphia Orchestra and work with Memphis R&B phenom Steve Cropper.
He chose the latter, embarking on a path that in 1974 led to unexpectedly covering vocals on a demo submitted to the legendary Clive Davis at Arista Records in New York. As a result, Carl was signed as a recording artist with Arista. The following year, Carl was asked to arrange and orchestrate three important projects: John Prine’s Common Sense, José Feliciano’s Just Wanna Rock ‘N’ Roll, and Big Star’s 3rd. 3rd was subsequently chosen as one of Rolling Stone’s 500 best albums of all time.
The success of these three albums caught the attention of colleagues in the Memphis music industry, and opened the door to thousands of recording sessions in every imaginable genre. In 1976, Carl shifted his studio focus from guitar to keyboard, in part to bolster his arranging skills. His studio experience in Memphis included work with artists such as The Temptations, Leon Russell, Wilson Pickett, and many others.
As the late 1970s ushered in a heyday for synthesizers, Marsh became interested in music production and synth programming, using a Fairlight computer at Ardent Studios in Memphis. By 1978, he was working as a keyboardist and arranger/writer on records across the world for Three Hats Productions (Toronto), the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section (Alabama), Joe Cocker and Fastway (London), Debra DeJean (Memphis), and Diane Tell and Jim Corcoran (Montreal). Carl’s work with Corcoran landed him a Felix Award, the French Canadian Grammy, in 1984.
Soon, Marsh relocated to Nashville and became an active member of Music City’s studio scene. Throughout the next decade he performed as a session keyboardist for artists from Bon Jovi to Willie Nelson, and countless others. Carl’s studio work introduced him to producers who hired him to write for and conduct studio orchestras. After so many years as primarily a session musician, Carl transitioned to more work as an arranger / orchestrator / composer, bookmarked by his 1992 collaboration with AmyGrant and producer Brown Bannister on the album Home for Christmas. Marsh’s orchestrations have taken him to London’s famed Abbey Road Studios over fifty times, to conduct the London Sessions and Royal Philharmonic orchestras. (See LISTEN page.)
Alongside his myriad credits as instrumentalist, arranger, and orchestrator are Marsh’s songwriting credits, appearing on works with seminal New Orleans funk band The Meters, the legendary R&B duet Sam and Dave, multi-platinum artists The Spinners, ZZ Top, The Jeff Healy Band, and French artist Axel Red.
Today, Carl continues his influence in the North American music scene. After serving as orchestrator and music director for Opera Carolina’s 2018 production of Douglas Tappin’s “I Dream,” Marsh is re-orchestrating that successful score for an expanded 2021 Opera Carolina production. Meanwhile, Carl and his wife, violinist and music educator Elisabeth Small, enjoy life in Nashville, making music as part of the city’s ever-expanding music community.
For more of Carl’s credits see the PROJECTS page.
-Bio by Briana Murphy
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