Friday Favorites 4/25/2014
I have a pretty good ear for music. When a song by an artist I know comes on the radio, I usually know the artist within a few bars although it may take me a few minutes to come up with the name. Those of you with Younger Eyes are probably saying, That’s nonsense, Bud. If you don’t know the name, you don’t know the artist. Those of you with Older Eyes like mine know just what I mean … I can see the artist in my mind’s eye, maybe come up with an initial and the name is dancing tantalizingly on the tip of my tongue. There are several options at this point: if I’m in the car and the song is on Sirius XM radio, push the Display button until the Artist shows up; I can Google the title of the song (not while I’m driving, Younger Eyes); or wait while my memory rummages through my brain cells, which these days seems to work like a very large file alphabetical file cabinet. Modern science suggests that seniors should look up answers instead of racking their brains because the latter practices not remembering … but I still like to prove to myself that the old filing system still works sometimes.
A name that I can attach to a voice the instant I hear it, though, is the lovely contalto of Karen Carpenter. When the Carpenters were making their remarkable run on the charts in the 70s, rockers like Led Zeppelin were dominating the airwaves. Richard and Karen recorded elevator music covers like Ticket to Ride and cornball tunes like Top of the World and Sesame Street’s Sing. Richard filled the Carpenters’ songs with too many wah-wah-wahs and aaaah-aaah-ahs choruses instead of sticking to his piano and Karen’s voice, at least for my taste. They made it hard for a thirty-something rock and roller to be a fan, but oh, my, there was that voice that even made it worthwhile putting up with dorky songs. I think perhaps the Carpenters recording of the Bonnie Bramlett – Leon Russell song, Superstar, shows off that voice best, in spite of a few too many aaah-aaah-aaahs in the chorus.
If you are curious what it would sound like with just Karen’s voice, there is a nearly accapella version here.
Richard and Karen Carpenter were born at Grace New Haven Hospital in New Haven, CT, the birthplace of Older Eyes a half decade earlier. Richard was a piano prodigy and interested in music at a very young age but Karen, more interested in playing baseball, didn’t take to music until high school when she learned to play the drums. She is said to have considered herself a drummer who sings and according to a number of drummers, including Buddy Rich, she was very good at it. When the Carpenters first began their run up the charts, Karen would sing from behind the drums but at 5′ 4″ tall, audiences couldn’t see the source of the voice that became the group’s signature. Against her wishes, she gradually acquiesced to singing out front with someone else playing drums.
The Carpenters successful years were not happy ones for either Karen or Richard. The Carpenters touring and recording schedule was brutal and critics panned them as too saccharine in spite of their success. Richard became addicted to quaaludes and entered a rehab in 1979. That seems to be the point at which Karen became obsessed with her weight and began trying to control it, allegedly with a combination of medications, laxatives and emetics. Richard tightly controlled everything Carpenter, including choice of music and Karen’s vocal arrangements, using keys that emphasized the lower register of her voice. During his year of addition recovery, she recorded a solo album that departed from the Carpenter norm and used more of her three octave range. However, when Richard returned to the studio, he sided with A&M records to squelch her solo effort. Karen’s anorexia worsened until in 1983, she died of a heart attack brought on by anorexia nervosa. Supposedly, she called her producer about her solo album the day before she died, saying, I hope you don’t mind if I curse. I still love our fucking record! Twelve of her solo recordings were finally released as an album 13 years after her death and many of the unreleased tracks have surfaced on the internet. The album isn’t perfect, but it gives us a taste of what might have come if she’d lived.
I found an unreleased track from one of her solo performances on YouTube that not only shows off her voice but seems like an epitaph to her life. It’s titled Something’s Missing in My Life.
What a voice. What a loss. Friday Favorite. Rest in Peace, Karen.