The greatest pop voices of our time. Day 4: Karen Carpenter

February 23, 2011 • 5:55 am

Confessing a love for the Carpenters—Karen in particular—is like confessing a love for Sugar Daddy suckers, or Hello Kitty.   Yet since I was a lad, when I first saw her black bangs and heard the amazing voice that issued from below, what I felt for the Songbird of Downey, California was something akin to love.   Yes, her songs (many written by her brother Richard) were sometimes more than a bit cheesy, but her voice redeemed them all.

And what a voice it was! Rich and mellow, with a thrilling quality in the low range—”the money notes,” Richard called them—her sound has never been equaled in pop music.

Carpenter’s story is sad (there’s not much I don’t know about her).  She started off as a drummer in high school, and sang and drummed in her brother’s band, which included a tuba (see her drumming here).  Her voice was noticed by Herb Alpert, who recorded The Carpenters on A&M records, and she quickly became a star.  That’s the good part.

Carpenter was a romantic, but never found true love (I would have volunteered, for she was only two months younger than I); and she lived through one unhappy marriage. She was also an anorexic (you can see her emaciated state in this video), swallowing laxatives like candy.  Her body couldn’t take it, and in 1983 she died of heart failure. She was only 32.  Her brother now spends his time endlessly remixing and reissuing their songs.

But let’s remember The Voice.  There are many Carpenters songs on YouTube, but most are recordings.  Even her stage performances there are often lip-synched, so I’ve chosen some genuinely live ones.  They all come from a “Live at the BBC” performance in 1971, when she was just 21 (Richard was 25).

A medley of her two most famous songs, “Close to You” (recorded version here) and “We’ve Only Just Begun” (recorded version here; it was originally a commercial for a bank), both showing her off in the low range.  Richard plays piano and sings harmony, and there’s a cute little rap beginning at 3:50):

Superstar (a live concert version from Japan is here, the recording is here):

Rainy Days and Mondays (Australian concert version here: she plays drums while singing! The recorded version is here.)

And my favorite among all Carpenters songs, “For All We Know” (recorded version here). How many weddings used this song!  Every strand of my DNA vibrates when she sings the title line: four money notes for sure.

For more low notes, go here.

Karen’s own favorite Carpenters song was the lovely “I Need to Be in Love.”  You can see it here, and watch a LOLzy Carpenters video that always makes me want to shout, “Take ME!”

Finally, for something more sophisticated and jazzy, listen to her wonderful rendition of the Rogers and Hart song, “Little Girl Blue.

A little bird told me that we have some Carpenters fans in the audience, so feel free to note and embed your favorite songs (one embedded video per post, please).

57 thoughts on “The greatest pop voices of our time. Day 4: Karen Carpenter

  1. YESSSSS!!!! Karen Carpenters’s voice is so, so, so good.
    It has an edge, a sweetness, depth and a little bit of vinegar that makes it an absolute favourite of mine.
    OK – first one of prof. Coyne’s “greatest pop-voices …” I can TOTALLY agree with.

  2. Orbison’s voice was described by Dwight Yoakam, as sounding like “the cry of an angel falling backward through an open window”.

    Carpenter’s voice is as if I was sitting unawares in a dank, dark, cold, tiny cave and then WHOOSH, it gets illuminated with warm, yellow light, becoming a spacious, enveloping, comfortably furnished home that I always yearned to be in but didn’t know that I did.

  3. When I was in high school, it would have been social DEATH to admit that one liked ANY of the Carpenters’ songs. This was instead the heyday of Jethro Tull, Zeppelin, etc. Yet, there WAS that voice, and the well-suited and memorable melodies. Now, there is not a Christmas that goes by without my listening to ‘Merry Christmas Darling.’

    1. Luckily I had a childhood/youth where I proudly cited Jethro Tull, Led Zeppelin AND The Carpenters among my favourites (With Stravinsky, Schubert, Bach and Brahms etc etc)

  4. The Carpenters were just about the only “pop” band played in our classical music loving household as I was growing up in the 70s. I loved them as a teenager, then was embarrassed to be the only 20-something who knew the words to all their songs, and now I’m no longer petrified of being uncool I can love them again.

    Thanks for the live recordings, I don’t have anything similar to share, but I can wholeheartedly recommend this wonderful homage to them:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/If_I_Were_a_Carpenter_%28album%29

    1. Just curious, does anyone know:

      Where does one go

      To be in the know

      About what is “cool” or not?

      Faith Popcorn? Barbara Walters?

      I don’t give a farthing about the latest on Lindsay Lohan, or Lady Gag-Gag, but the local paper sure does.

      As Duke Ellington said, “If it sounds good, it IS good.” That would seem to be true at any time in the past, present and future.

      Once, when I discussed The Dave Clark Five’s sunny hit song “Because” with someone, she mentioned The Beatles song, “Because.” Now, as I’ve heard a lot of, and personally prefer, the Beatles’ earlier material, I don’t claim to know every Beatles song. So I naively (foolishly? uncoolly?) stated (acknowledged? CONFESSED!??) that I did not know that song by the Beatles.

      Well, call 911, Ah reckon! Such drama queen machinations, such eye-rolling, such breathless sputtering and bloviation. “YOU HAVEN’T HEARD ‘BECAUSE’ ?!?” A dispassionate observer would have thought that I had committed vile blasphemy against some religious doctrine. Then her husband piled on, “And you grew up during that time!”

      As Gomer Pyle might put it, “Shame! Shame!”

      Of course, this was from someone who believes that the Earth was created less than 10,000 years ago. In light of that, I sat there trying to think of something related to science, history, what have you that I thought that they should know – that I would be surprised that they didn’t know – and I couldn’t come up with any such thing.

  5. Finally we agree on a singer. I saw Karen and her brother in Las Vegas years ago, in a lounge show. There were only about 10 of us there, and it was fantastic.

  6. I’ve just been staying away from this whole subject all week. For a guy who is only 6 years older than I am, sometimes JC seems like he’s older than my parents. Karen Carpenter was a damn good singer, though, despite her lightweight pop tendencies.

    1. Again, Dukle Ellington: “If it sounds good, it IS good!” I don’t see how that’s time- or generation-dependent. I’m about your age, so I suppose that I have even less of an excuse. As Alex Hailey put it, “Find the good and praise it.”

  7. Yep. A true alto. The lower register just shoots right through you.

    The only other comparable popular singer who comes to mind is Patsy Kline. Try listening to “Crazy” without having chills run down your spine.

  8. Totally agree about Karen’s singing, despite how un-cool it was to like the Carpenters in the 70’s. Not enough snarly attitude nor distorted electric guitar to be trendy at the time. I mean, Nixon said he really liked them! It was similar for Sinatra in the 60’s– he had plenty of attitude but the songs and arrangements were too old-fashioned. The hip culture obviously changed its opinion about him, and I think the same has happened, to a lesser extent, with Karen Carpenter. But her appeal to younger rock fans may be limited: too much longing, not enough defiance.

    1. The “hip culture” “found” and welcomed “back” Tony Bennett several years ago. He was appreciative enough of their regard, but allowed that he had never left to be so welcomed back. He had stuck to his (to some “old fashioned”) musical guns, and wasn’t doing anything differently then he had always done, and was mystified that someone presumed to be in a position to re-legitimize him by issuing some sort of musical/pop culture papal bull.

      “Defiance”? Is it “uncool” to be not (much) defiant? “Oppositional Defiance” characterizes too many students’ behavior in school nowadays. It’s apparently not “cool” to cooperate and concentrate on academics. Such a “cool” attitude increases ones chances of visiting the “cooler.”

  9. I often sing Carpenter’s songs to my little kids at bedtime. Fortunately they are too young to notice how bad a singer I am.

    I also consider Karen’s case one of those unfortunate major events that seem to be necessary for some positive change. Her case made anorexia recognizable to the general public, leading to the diagnosis and treatment of many others who might have died otherwise. Similarly, it was the Titanic that forced laws ensuring that all boats/ships had enough lifeboats for everyone onboard.

    I’m not trying to claim one person’s death is the same as the hundreds that died on the Titanic. Rather that it seems that in many cases positive change only happens after a tragedy, which is unfortunate considering the warnings are usually quite abundant before. Hopefully climate change and the like won’t be other examples.

    1. One necessarily takes TV dramatizations with a grain of salt. As not a few (including me) go through a “chuffy” stage of late childhood/early adolescent physical development, so apparently did Karen Carpenter. An ill-considered statement from a significant adult can result in a row of culinary-psychological dominos such as that with which she had to contend.

      (Re: “domino.” Remember that flap with Dan Quayle and the plural of “tomato”? My dictionary lists the plural of “domino” as either “dominos” or “dominoes.”)

  10. So far, I’m good with three out of four (I’ve never been a big Streisand fan). I have always admired the Carpenter sound, from Karen’s voice to Richard’s arrangements. The use of polychords in his vocal parts, in particular, were a real change from most pop artists charts at the time. Karen’s early death was a tragedy. It is a shame that Richard has done relatively little with his own career since his sister’s death.

  11. My love for WEIT is now complete.

    I’ve never fully warmed to Richard’s ‘horror vacuii’ school of arrangement, but Karen’s voice always managed to overcome it.

    BTW: Karen’s “Ave Maria” is a knockout.

  12. Karen was a great vocalist, no doubt about it. My favourite from that era (I’m about Jerry’s age) was Mama Cass… talk about chills up your spine.
    Someone on another blog a few weeks ago said “Tell me when you turned 18 and I’ll tell you about 80% of your favourite artists”.
    True dat!

  13. Karen Carpenter had an amazing voice! I adored her as a kid. I literally wore out the vinyl Carepnters’ Greatest Hits album. You’re right — no one today comes close to Karen’s voice, or even approaches it in quality.

  14. It’s funny – I was very young in the 70’s and I grew up with this music in my house (along with a liberal sprinkling of 50’s and 60’s R&R). By the time I was a teenager I pretty much rejected most of it. Now that I’m older, I find myself listening to it more and more. The thing I find cool about the Carpenters is that they’re almost throw away songs. Karen is the difference – she makes them unforgettable.

  15. The quality isn’t so good (there’s a better-quality shorter version as well) but the first appearance of the Carpenters on television is my favorite. Seventeen-year-old Karen steals the show on drums and vocals.

    1. If I correctly recall, the RC Trio performed in a talent show at Cal State – Long Beach. The song was “Dancin’ in the Street.” Dennis James mc’ed. William Shatner was one of the judges.

  16. I went to Downey Senior High School in California with Karen Carpenter. We even had the same geometry class in 10th grade, until she dropped it. She went very much unnoticed in high school. I believe there was a senior talent show where she came in third out of four singers. In the one picture from the show, she looks uncharacteristically overweight. Perhaps this was the beginning of the later problems.

    I’m not a music sound studio technician, but the rumor (fair or unfair) was that a lot of overdubbing was necessary to give depth to her voice. Her brother was very much the musical phenom and studio technical master. Without Richard I doubt that she would have emerged on her own merits. Just not the type of personality that would do the pushing required to succeed in show business. In 1977, at our 10 year HS reunion, they put up a big picture of her, but she didn’t show. Too bad, because perhaps with all the congratulations from the people she knew in HS might (speculation) have given her greater strength and self-worth. Some of my core group of friends from 4th and 5th grade through high school still e-mail five times a week.

    Instead, no one was there for her in the end to possibly fight the anorexia with her, to put her on a path for a healthy and fulfilling life. Definitely a loss for music and our culture.

    1. Thanks for this. Re the studio wizardry: I think the live recordings above show that her voice had plenty of moxie, even without technical manipulation And, according to her biographies, her family and friends tried to help her with anorexia: she went to various doctors but in the end wouldn’t comply with their regiments.

      Oh, and yes, she is described as being chubby in high school; a few early photos testify this.

      1. I cannot say she was “chubby”, 10th grade through 12th, all the time. When I first saw the HS annual picture of her singing, overweight, I thought “misprint, somebody switched photos”. Since she was in the marching band, one would know very quickly who was thin and who was not. My recollection (always subject to revision by the Memory Dept) was that she was average in size and build, thin boned, during HS.

        Added thought: there is such a thing as voice training. Perhaps she started off with some deficits, but the record-chart success required that she get some training and improve her range and expression, and so it happened.

        1. Chiming in rather late on this, but I thought I would add something.

          There was a documentary on the Carpenters I saw recently, and in it was said that Karen Carpenter’s remarkable richness of voice was present only when she sang softly, and it disappeared when she attempted to project. Thus, her success came only after she learned to use a microphone to her best advantage.

          1. Earlier in high school, Karen was overweight, but at 17 went on a diet under a doctor’s supervision and lost about 25 lbs. Funny that in order to drop phys ed, she joined marching band (where she discovered the drums), and she hated geometry, so in order to drop that, she joined choir (where she sang, of course. She actually had a solo record deal at 16, but the label folded and she wouldn’t be signed again until 19 with the Carpenters. You can hear “I’ll Be Yours” and more on YouTube). She also had a bit of vocal training in college. The harmonies were the things that were overdubbed to create the “Carpenters sound”; Karen’s lead wasn’t overdubbed. It was perfectly strong on its own. Check out her belting a solo in college choir- it’s awesome!

            [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wMqRPai92fk&w=480&h=390%5D

            She could indeed belt it, but the Carpenters’ songs called for a softer sound, which she also did amazingly well (of course). The voice she used for that was very soft; almost a whisper that was picked up by the mic for that intimate sound.

  17. don’t know if Sir Coyne reads the comments, but you might want to add the super-fine voice of Lani Hall to the mix. She was the “lead” singer of the eternally awesome Brazil ’66…Another A&M win from back in the day. Herb was actually married to her for a spell…

  18. Sonic Youth have some sort of fixation with Karen, starting with their song ‘Tunic (Song for Karen)’ in their Goo album – dealing specifically with the anorexia
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eLjH8xm3NAA

    e.g.:
    dreaming, dreaming of a girl like me
    hey what are you waiting for – feeding, feeding me
    I feel like I’m disappearing – getting smaller every day
    but I look in the mirror – I’m bigger in every way

  19. Some favorites:

    Crescent Noon
    Someday
    Honolulu City Lights
    Those Good Old Dreams
    Touch Me When We’re Dancing

    (I played those last two over and over on the jukebox at the officers’ club at Naval Forces Marianas in Guam.)

    Johnny Angel (wonderful version by Karen, and Shelley Fabares was wonderful on her original hit.)

    Before I forget it, I wish to raise a toast to wonderful vocal harmony, as gifted to us by The Carpenters, and other groups such as:

    Fleetwoods (Tragedy, Come Softly to Me)
    Beach Boys
    Spanky and Our Gang (Like to Get to Know You)
    Lettermen
    Mills Bros.
    Inkspots
    Drifters
    Paris Sisters (I Love How You Love Me)
    Pied Pipers
    Modernaires
    Mamas and Papas
    Kingston Trio
    Peter, Paul & Mary
    Vogues
    Brasil 66
    Four Freshmen
    Singers Unlimited/Hi-Lo’s
    McGuire Sisters
    Manhattan Transfer
    5th Dimension
    Friends of Distinction
    Simon and Garfunkel
    CSN
    Interstate Rivals (a superb barbershop quartet; most sound the same to me but this is a great group)

  20. A little late to this discussion but just wanted to wholeheartedly agree with this selection. A stunning voice.
    The only person today who comes close to having a similar “it” to her voice is k.d. lang.

  21. Nobody sings like Karen Carpenter. If there is a heaven, and angels are singing, let Karen sing ‘Superstar’ to me, for I will have reached heaven and heard the voice of an angel.

    For me, Karen Carpenter is up there with Roy Orbison, Freddie Mercury, and Janis Joplin – singers that can never be imitated. A very rare group of people that can make you laugh or cry with their voice at an instant.

    Carpenters get a hard time for cheesy music. But if anyone can sing like Karen Carpenter (and play drums at the same time!), where are you?

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