February 4, 2012

Three Decades Without Karen Carpenter

It was 29 years ago the world lost the voice of my generation.

Karen Carpenter passed away then, but almost 30 years later, the music she created with her brother Richard lives on.

After years of frustration in the Los Angeles music scene, Herb Alpert, the mastermind artist behind A&M Records, had the wisdom to sign the young duo to a recording contract. The first album, "Offering" was not a hit, but Herb got them back into the studio and insisted on them recording a minor Burt Bacharach number, "They Long to Be Close to You", and the string of hits began.

She and Richard were poorly portrayed in their videos, almost always miserably represented on their album covers, and mocked by many of their peers, but they were eventually very good live in concert in their later years.

The real magic came forth in the recording studio. Karen's tones were pure as fresh spring water and as warm as honey. Songs with her voice front and center and all those wonderful overdubbed vocals sparkled, revealing Richard's genius in arranging the songs and producing Karen's voice. Whether it was the complicated and elaborate "Only Yesterday" or the simple layered background vocals of "Our Day Will Come", the blending of the sibling voices created an irresistible charm.

Richard's often overlooked songwriting teamed with Karen's ability to sell a song, creating some timeless classics. "Close to You", "Yesterday Once More", "Top of the World", "For All We Know", "Rainy Days and Mondays", and the wedding song for a generation, "We've Only Just Begun". (Go ahead, I'll say it again. You can sing along. Admit it, you love it.)

Dozens of hits all over the world, Japan to England. But don't stop at the hits, and you'll find the definitive versions of some other songs you know- great songs covered by other artists after the Carpenters introduced them: "This Masquerade", "A Song for You", "I Just Fall in Love Again". Sure they did their share of covers ("Please Mr. Postman", "Baby It's You", "Ticket to Ride"and "There's a Kind of Hush") but Karen's performance of the Eagles' "Desperado" on their beautiful and landmark Horizon album bests Linda Ronstadt's lovely version.

Karen and Richard crafted a legacy by being original regardless of covering a previously recorded song, introducing new material, or debuting an original by Richard and songwriting partner John Bettis.

In fact, they could surprise you by being unexpectedly bold. It was most noticeable on their 1977 album Passage, but even back in 1972, they were taking chances. Once they had firmly established themselves as the reigning Prince and Princess of Soft Rock, Richard shocked and eventually delighted both fans and critics by releasing the ever first "power ballad". By adding the fuzz guitar solo by virtuoso Tony Peluso on his own composition "Goodbye to Love", Richard created a firestorm in the industry and almost single handedly, a new type of song was birthed.

Karen and Richard's love for music also meant they experimented with various genres. Whether it was country ("Top of the World", "Sweet, Sweet, Smile"), jazz ("All I Can Do", "Bwana She No Home"), pop opera ("Don't Cry For Me Argentina"), or standards from the American Classic Songbook ("I Can Dream Can't I?", "When I Fall in Love", "Little Girl Blue"), Richard and Karen showed such love and respect for the songs and the artists they loved. And when no one was recording it, they set the new standard for Christmas music with their 1978 release of "Christmas Portrait".

Karen played her voice as the instrument it was, showing as much versatility as their diverse song selection. She could be playful, mournful, forceful, and even sensual. The "A Kind of Hush" album cut "Boat to Sail" reveals a very laid back, breezy arrangement partnered with a silky voiced Karen cooing to her man. Since she rarely pushed her voice or screamed out the lyrics, Karen was often dismissed and taken for granted as the great vocalist she was. She even held her own on a wonderful duet medley of songs with Ella Fitzgerald, and even earlier with crooner Perry Como.

Each and every album has its gems. But don't just listen to them for the hits. Go deeper into their catalogue and discover the bluesiest Carpenters classic you've probably never heard: "Ordinary Fool", a Paul Williams penned ode to the lost hope of love. It's got one of the best saxophone solos ever put to record. (Check it out here.) It's the perfect match of the premier vocalist of her generation with one of the best arrangers and producers of the 70s. My absolute favorite recording.

Vocalists as varied as k.d. lang, Madonna, Shania Twain, Christina Aguilera, and Gloria Estefan have listed Karen as an influence. A wider range of artists created a 1994 tribute album, If I Were A Carpenter, showing love and respect from peers to the artist that got little during her lifetime. Her influence is still heard today. Every time I hear Adele sing "Someone Like You", I hear Karen and her first take- the one released as a single- on the Leon Russell classic "Superstar". There's a reason so few Carpenters songs are remade. It's just impossible to match the original definitive versions.

Karen is still greatly missed- and Richard is as well. He's missed from being in action. There's plenty of material left in the vaults, but sadly for us, he is comfortable living with their legacy. But what a marvelous legacy it is!

Follow this link if you want to read about Karen's last hours and the documentary that was made.
If you want to read about my reviews of each Carpenters album starting at the beginning, go here.

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