Here’s some end-of-the week music, and if you hate The Carpenters, or think they’re schlocky, then just pass this post by. (Actually, there are three versions of the song here, two, by Willie Nelson and Leon Russell, below the first one.) I think that would be a shame, because although some of their songs are indeed schlocky, Karen Carpenter had—along with Barbra Streisand—the best female pop voice of our time. (Or so I think: you can argue below.) And the song is a very good one: “A Song For You”: composed and made famous by the late Leon Russell. (It was released in 1970.)
I came across this video as a “suggestion” on the right side when I was browsing YouTube. Because I thought I’d heard every Carpenters song but hadn’t seen this one, I listened to it. And I decided, that of all the versions I’ve heard, including Russell’s own (below), this one’s the best. Why? It’s Karen’s voice, which handles the high and low notes of this song easily. Richard called her low notes “the money notes,” and that’s pretty obvious from this version, recorded live on the Bob Hope Special on October 5, 1972. Can’t you feel your bones vibrate when she hits those low notes? I have to say that Richard’s kind of stiff in this version, but, in contrast, Karen was more expressive than usual.
I’m going to give you two good versions below hers; you might like them better.
Here’s Russell playing his own song at some kind of informal gathering or jam session:
A spare but wonderful version by Willie Nelson, accompanied only by his favorite guitar, “Trigger“:
19 thoughts on ““A Song For You””
Leon Russell deserves a lot more credit than he gets. He was a member of The Wrecking Crew, a group of LA studio musicians who are responsible for a lot more of 1960s music then the recording artists. I think the best album from that period was Pet Sounds from The Beach Boys. Most of the music on the album is actually from The Wrecking Crew. None of the Beach Boys actually play on God Only Knows. That is all Brian Wilson with the Wrecking Crew.
If we are just looking for who can sing the song I really do not see a contest. Carpenter is far superior. Willy could write some songs but often others sang them. Patsy Cline comes to mind.
While she has the nicest voice of these three performers, I prefer the Russell and Nelson versions. The Carpenter version is, to my ear, over-produced. The song doesn’t need all those other musicians. The strings turn if from a soulful expression of love into something that would fit into a Lawrence Welk Show episode.
I have to agree even though I love Karen Carpenter. Imagine if Karen had sung it minimalist style like Willie. Would have been incredible.
I agree. If it was done with just guitar or piano I would likely have made it my top choice.
Loved them all, but Willie’s version made me weep.
That last picture of the guitar scandalized me: you should have given a Trigger warning.
Absolutely! It’s hard to imagine that kind of damage happening from any normal playing – though maybe I’m doing it all wrong…
Willie uses a pick and these guitars, meant to be played with the fingers, don’t have a pick guard. That accounts for the hole. There’s a cool video of the repair person doing Trigger’s annual checkup here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uhQuJTc5yFY
Part II is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1fDij2CWLZY
I got to see Leon perform this song (twice) in his later years at shows here in Austin. First time was after his brain surgery and he had to be helped just to walk out to the stage. He was very frail but once his hands hit the keys it was like he was as alive as he had ever been. He didn’t miss a note.
Karen Carpenter had a beautiful alto voice, one of the best I’ve ever heard among popular artists. As was typical of many artists of the 1970’s, songs by the Carpenters tended to be over-produced—too many symphonic elements, too many tracks, too much over-dubbing, too much reverb, a number of other things I could get into but won’t here. New, multitrack mixing consoles enabled this, but using all of the available tracks led to the over-productions that I mention. Too much orchestration removed some of the humanity in Karen Carpenter’s lovely, vulnerable voice.
Karen Carpenter was a treasure who died too soon. I love hearing her songs.
Taking away nothing for the praise poor Karen Carpenter has rightly received, I’ll make a plea for those who don’t know her to listen to Sandy Denny. Best known for her work fronting Fairport Convention in their glory years, her voice was powerful and expressive. Try ‘A Sailor’s Life’ from Unhalfbricking, or ‘Matty Groves’ or even “Who Knows Where the Time Goes’ from Liege and Lief. So sad to think she used way too much gin to overcome her stage fright, had her husband kidnap their daughter and run off to Australia, at which point she drank some more, fell down stairs and died of a midbrain haemorrhage. What a waste.
The song picks the artist and it shows. It’s not always the case.
Carpenter’s version for my rock n roll sensibilities is a little too refined, nice all the same.
Loen Russell wrote some good tunes but I particularly like (when in the mood)his “Hank Wilson’s Back” pretty much all cover renditions.
I love the Carpenters’ version. Her voice had a different kind of soulfulness and warmth.
Donny Hathaway’s cover is particularly good, too.
Like you, I had never heard Karen Carpenter sing this song before. I totally agree that she had one of the finest female voices of her generation and her cover of this song is a showcase for her talent. That said, I agree with other commentators that the song is “over produced”, but this is simply a reflection of the the style of the Carpenters. My favorite version of this song is by Donny Hathaway who totally cuts it up, making it his own with a sparse and soulful rendition. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HeHiio1sTTI
The best female pop voice of our time was Linda Ronstadt, though I suppose one could argue that she was not really a “pop” singer.
Ronstadt did have a wonderful voice. We raised our kids on a video of Pirates of Penzance staring Linda (and other greats).
Just to say once again, I totally agree with you, Jerry, about Karen Carpenter and Barbra Streisand.
I hadn’t heard “A Song For You” before, and loved it. Many thanks!