Carlson was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the son of Charles and Leatha Carlson. Charles Carlson was a Swedish-American immigrant who arrived as a child in Minnesota; Leatha Carlson was born in Downing, Wisconsin of a Danish father and Swedish mother. He began a promising career with Procter and Gamble after earning a BA in Economics in 1937 from the University of Minnesota where he served as President, and Recruitment Chair for Sigma Phi Epsilon Fraternity- MN Alpha Chapter. 
Carlson founded the Gold Bond Stamp Company in 1938. Carlson used "Gold Bond Stamps", a consumer loyalty program based on trading stamps, to provided consumer incentive for grocery stores. Carlson was the first entrepreneur to develop a loyalty program for the grocery chain through the issuance of trading stamps. What began as a simple loyalty program for grocers in the Midwest grew into one of the largest service providers of frequent shopper / buyer programs across a variety of retail and hospitality sectors.
Carlson achieved his success by following an unusual management philosophy, which continues to influence those who served as executives under him. "Every one of your employees is out to screw you," he told the youngest Vice President in Carlson Companies. "You can never trust them.
Carlson expanded his offerings by purchasing the downtown Minneapolis Radisson Hotel in 1960 and building it into a national chain. He also acquired TGI Fridays, Carlson Leisure Group and hundreds of other hospitality businesses.
The Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota is named for him. Curt Carlson created an estate in Lake Nebagamon, Wisconsin for his family to gather. Publicly known as Minnesuing Acres after the lake it is located on, the Carlson family refer to it as "the lodge". This estate was where his family gathers for important holidays. This estate was later converted to a business resort for corporations. It continues to host business seminars as well as Carlson/Gage family get-togethers.
- Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences Linnean Medal presented by H.M. Carl XVI Gustaf, King of Sweden
- Viking Baron Award from the American Swedish Cultural Foundation
- Horatio Alger Award; the Swedish-American of the Year Award, Stockholm, Sweden in 1981
- Chairperson Emeriti of the Swedish Council of America from 1985–1989
- Town and Country magazine Philanthropist of the Year Award, 1987–1988
- International Citizen of the Year Award from the City of Minneapolis
- Good as Gold : the Story of the Carlson Companies (Carlson Companies, Inc., Minneapolis, MN, 1994)
- Former Owner /CEO of Radisson Hotels, Carlson Travel (Murat Shrine.org 
- Carlson, Curtis L. Minnesota entrepreneur.Founder of Carlson Companies (New York Times. February 23, 1999) 
- Curtis Leroy Carlson (The University of Houston, Conrad N. Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management)
- Business leader Curt Carlson(Star Tribune. March 26, 1999)
- Gold Bond Stamp Company / Carlson Companies 1938 - 1998 (Harvard Business School) 
- Obituary of Curtis L. Carlson, Founder and Chairman (Hotel Online data base of News and Trends) 
- The Carlson Family Foundation
- University of Minnesota. Carlson School of Management
- Minnesuing Acres