“Superstar”

This song was written in 1969 by Leon Russell and Bonnie Bramlett, and first recorded by Delaney & Bonnie. But the definitive version was by Karen Carpenter, and so I’ll show this as a second tribute to Leon Russell, who died exactly a year ago after a heart attack.  When Bette Midler performed this on the Tonight Show, Richard Carpenter heard it, arranged it, and the rest was history. Released in 1971, this song went to #2 on the American charts, and, despite the existence of covers by others (e.g., Sonic Youth, Cher), this is by far the best version.

After listening to a bit of the Carpenters recently, I decided that Karen had the best voice of any woman pop singer of our time (Barbra Streisand was second). Within one or two words after she begins singing, you instantly recognize the voice as hers. There is no voice that sounds anything like it; no voice more beautiful.

This is a live version from the Carpenters’ BBC concert (1971), which, like many BBC music shows, was great (you can see the whole thing here).

A fun fact about this song:

A line in the second verse was considered too lyrically risqué at the time, and was changed by Richard Carpenter to better fit the duo’s image. The Carpenters’ version of the lyric, “And I can hardly wait to be with you again” is “And I can hardly wait to sleep with you again” in the original version.

And from Wikipedia:

The Carpenters’s treatment of the song underscored the deep loneliness and sense of loss intended in the lyric, and established the song as a standard for years to come. Karen’s vocal was praised for its intensity and emotional nature. When asked in a 1972 interview how she could communicate the heart of the song while lacking the personal experience it depicted, Karen replied, “I’ve seen enough groupies hanging around to sense their loneliness, even though they usually don’t show it. I can’t really understand them, but I just tried to feel empathy and I guess that’s what came across in the song.” In truth, Karen struggled with loneliness herself, and the personal implications of the song made it one of the three she found most emotionally difficult to sing, the other two being the previous “Rainy Days and Mondays” and the subsequent “I Need to Be in Love.”

My rescue fantasy is that I could have saved her.

36 Comments

  1. Ken Kukec
    Posted November 13, 2017 at 7:24 am | Permalink

    Sorry, Richard Carpenter, but that’s the worst lyric bowdlerization since the Stone’s “let’s spend the night together” got changed to “let’s spend some time together” on Ed Sullivan’s really big shew.

    • Heather Hastie
      Posted November 13, 2017 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

      I dunno. I heard a version of John Lennon’s Imagine at a Times Square New Year’s Eve concert (can’t remember the singer – it was on TV) that turned it into a religious song.

      All the way through everything was swapped around. “Imagine there’s no heaven” became “Imagine there’s a heaven” etc. It was horrible!

  2. Randall Schenck
    Posted November 13, 2017 at 7:55 am | Permalink

    I always got the idea somehow that she did not know how good she was. To always call yourself the Carpenters as if people were lining up to hear that guy on piano.

    • Posted November 13, 2017 at 8:48 am | Permalink

      Well, you have to give Richard some credit as he arranged and composed many of their songs. Karen was The Voice.

      • Taz
        Posted November 13, 2017 at 10:43 am | Permalink

        And initially, the drummer.

  3. Stephen Caldwell
    Posted November 13, 2017 at 8:34 am | Permalink

    I was listening to this song last night. Great song, but didn’t know about the lyric change. I had read somewhere Karen Carpenter was kind of tired of the squeaky clean image. It would be neat to hear her do the original lyric.

  4. Linda Calhoun
    Posted November 13, 2017 at 8:42 am | Permalink

    “When asked in a 1972 interview how she could communicate the heart of the song while lacking the personal experience it depicted…”

    This brings to mind the time a colleague of mine, with whom I was taking a course in grad school, was doing a presentation to our class on marital therapy. One student asked her how she could do marital therapy when she’d never been married. She took off her glasses, looked right down his throat, and said, “Young man, how many obstetricians do you know who have ever had a baby.” (This was years ago, before so many women entered medicine.)

    The notion that you can’t understand something that you’ve never experienced is odd – suggesting that there’s no such thing as an empathetic imagination.

    L

  5. Carey Haug
    Posted November 13, 2017 at 8:46 am | Permalink

    This is my favorite sad song. Carpenters are no longer a guilty pleasure, thanks to PCC.

    • Posted November 13, 2017 at 8:49 am | Permalink

      I was going to say exactly that but didn’t. I feel no guilt whatsoever about liking the Carpenters.

      • Carey Haug
        Posted November 13, 2017 at 9:06 am | Permalink

        In The World in Six Songs, Dan Levitin describes the vocal techniques Karen uses to reinforce the meaning of the words. She delays the pronunciation of the word “far”, reinforcing the idea of distance. While holding the word “away” she brings out a subtone in her voice that conveys the sense of deep loss and separation.

      • Frank
        Posted November 13, 2017 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

        When I was in high school, it would have been instant social suicide to claim any admiration of the Carpenters. Indeed, one had to take every opportunity to denigrate them. Now, nearly 50 years later, it is once again becoming that time of year where I never fail to listen to “Merry Christmas Darling” on my holiday playlist.

  6. Paul S
    Posted November 13, 2017 at 9:06 am | Permalink

    I also like the Me First and the Gimmie Gimmies punk version.
    If you’re into punk.

  7. Saul Sorrell-Till
    Posted November 13, 2017 at 9:07 am | Permalink

    I still prefer the Sonic Youth version. That’s the first time I heard the song.

    I have a theory that the first version of a song you hear will tend to be the version you prefer…even if it’s a cover, and you hear the original at a later point.

    So many times I’ve heard a wonderful song, discovered it’s a cover and then been disappointed by the original…and so many times the reverse has been the case. There’s an asymmetry there. My first hearing of a song, whether it’s a cover or the original version, often sets it in stone for me.

    I think the same might be true about film adaptations of books – whether you see the film first or read the book first tends to colour your opinions. Eg. I loved ‘Atonement’; then I read the book and thought it was excellent but couldn’t get past having seen the film first.

    I would need more data to find out if this is true, or if it’s just me.

    • Carey Haug
      Posted November 13, 2017 at 9:32 am | Permalink

      That would be really interesting to study. I experienced this intensely when my husband asked if our first dance at our wedding could be I Only Have Eyes For You by the Flamingos. I had always loved the Art Garfunkel version. During that dance, I kept thinking the song would be better without the shoo-bops.

      • Saul Sorrell-Till
        Posted November 13, 2017 at 9:51 am | Permalink

        Yeah, I’m not sure if shoo-bops work in a first dance.

        Anyway, thanks for the testimony – I have now doubled the size of my sample. 😉 A few more people agreeing with me and I’ll be able to settle this for certain. I think that’s how it works anyway.

        • Heather Hastie
          Posted November 13, 2017 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

          It’s always been my experience too – that the first version you hear is your favourite, especially when it’s a song you really like. In fact, my reaction to new versions is often that they’ve butchered it. I’ve also been shocked to discover that my favourite isn’t the original, but I still like the version I heard first, the best.

          • Thud
            Posted November 13, 2017 at 4:52 pm | Permalink

            When I hear a cover I like, I like to go to iTunes or some source and check out other versions. The classics and traditionals and pop oldies often have dozens if not hundreds of versions. Pick and choose! Some styles you like, some you don’t, and often there are pleasant surprises, including exposure to musicians you haven’t paid much attention to.

          • Diane G.
            Posted November 14, 2017 at 1:36 am | Permalink

            Sometimes I don’t even like it when the original artist feels the need to mess around with his/her own song! At some concerts I’ve been disappointed to have one of my favorite arrangements all bollixed up.

            (I do sympathize with artists who find it stultifying to not do so, though.)

            • Heather Hastie
              Posted November 14, 2017 at 3:40 pm | Permalink

              Same here. I just want them to play it the “proper” way!

    • Liz
      Posted November 13, 2017 at 10:20 am | Permalink

      Disturbed is a metal band apparently and that’s not really my kind of music. They did a cover of “The Sound of Silence” in 2015 and I absolutely love it. I’m not sure that I would say I like it more than Simon & Garfunkel’s original. They are just different. I know what you mean, though, about liking the one heard first more.

      • Mark Joseph
        Posted November 13, 2017 at 8:59 pm | Permalink

        Both versions are great. I’m glad I don’t have to choose!

    • Matt
      Posted November 13, 2017 at 10:40 am | Permalink

      Saul Sorrell-Till I think your theory has merit, at least from my experience. Of course, there are exceptions. For instance, George Benson’s Star of a Story was a cover but was the first I’d heard. Decades later I heard the original by Heatwave. Didn’t like it at first but after a few listens I like it better.

      Another example: Jobim’s Wave. First heard it by Sinatra and loved it. But Oscar Peteron’s blows them all away IMO.

      • Diane G.
        Posted November 14, 2017 at 1:38 am | Permalink

        I liked The Beatles’s “With a Little Help from My Friends;” then I really liked Joe Cocker’s version! 😀

    • Posted November 14, 2017 at 5:03 am | Permalink

      I’m inclined to agree with you, from my own experience. One exception is Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow, one of my all-time favourites, first heard by the Shirelles. Later on I got Carole King’s Tapestry album, and decided I liked her version just as much, but in a different way.

      It surprised me to learn that the lyrics were written by Gerry Goffin, not Carole King as I had originally assumed.

      BTW, I almost agree with Jerry about “…I decided that Karen had the best voice of any woman pop singer of our time (Barbra Streisand was second)”. I have them top equal, and my preference shifts depending on my mood.

      Listening to Superstar brings tears to my eyes, not only from the lyrics and interpretation, but also from being reminded of the tragic loss of such a wonderful (and beautiful) singer.

  8. rvoss
    Posted November 13, 2017 at 9:08 am | Permalink

    Thank you for starting my morning with the credit to Leon Russell. He has been a big musical influence in my life. Glad he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

  9. Vaal
    Posted November 13, 2017 at 10:58 am | Permalink

    Agree about your assessment of Karen Carpenter!

    The Carpenters were the ambience of my youth, as my mother used to play their records. When I’d hear Carpenters on the radio afterwards I thought it was only nostalgia that helped me enjoy the music so much. But after buying a Best Of collection in the 90’s I re-discovered them and have been in a Carpenter’s phase ever since.

    Richard’s writing and arrangements were beautiful and Karen’s voice never fails to amaze me: the aural equivalent of rich, smooth caramel, often singing in a register many female singers rarely used, but able to hit any note perfectly. In fact the sheer perfection of her voice quality, diction, phrasing, intonation etc always blow my mind.

    Anyone feeling in a Carpenter’s phase, may I suggest you do a quick search for these:

    Without A Song – A Capella version (or “Full Version”).

    Gorgeous vocal arrangement.

    Close To You – FULL ACAPELLA

    This is Karen’s vocal track only, isolated. A truly intimate view of her beautiful voice. (There are acapella versions of other Carpenter songs as well on youtube).

    All I Can Do

    From their first album, 1969. A great melding of their Jazz routes – 5/4 time signature, I believe – jazzy, catchy, melodic. It’s short but I can play that song on a loop! If you type that title into youtube you’ll see a video performance with Karen on drums.

    (I’d post the direct links but I know I’d do it wrong and end up embedding).

    • Vaal
      Posted November 13, 2017 at 11:00 am | Permalink

      LOL. “Jazz roots…”

      • Tom Besson
        Posted November 13, 2017 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

        I’m reminded of June Cleaver’s remark in ‘Airplane’ that she, “Speaks jive”.

        • Vaal
          Posted November 13, 2017 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

          Just a few weeks ago I’d revisited that scene in airplane. So classic. And apparently the two actors really just made the whole “jive” talk up as there really wasn’t any such cohesive dialect.

  10. JSMoore
    Posted November 13, 2017 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

    I used to hear The Carpenters all the time on the radio growing up. And The Captain and Tenille.

    As for the best female vocalist in pop music, you may be correct if you don’t consider Linda Ronstadt pop. 🙂

    • Mark Joseph
      Posted November 13, 2017 at 9:02 pm | Permalink

      Much as I love Linda Ronstadt, I agree 100% with Jerry’s assessment of hers as the best women’s pop voice, full stop. There’s not even anyone in second place.

  11. Jeannie Hess
    Posted November 13, 2017 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

    I like Karen Carpenter because she simply sings with no acrobatics, no belting, no warbling. How lovely. This is why I like Tony Bennett too.

    • Vaal
      Posted November 13, 2017 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

      Soooooo true! That is also one of the reasons I appreciate her singing. The tendency of “over-singing” – especially in R&B and R&B influenced pop – reached it’s Zenith in the 90’s and it made much of that music unbearable for me (and I’m a huge R&B, Funk fan). Then there was American Idol whose influence is hard to gauge on singing; on one hand it promoted over-singing insofar as every singer was expected by the audience to reach some histrionic vocal point in a song, to garnish applause. On the other hand, the judges, like Randy, Simon and others often made it a point to call out “over-singing” for criticism.

      Either way, we seem to have come out the other end of that phase, surviving the era of the Mariah Careys and the Christina Auguileras and I find there is a lot less warbling and overuse of melisma.

      (One of the few singers who IMO pull it off is Stevie Wonder, but that is because he has such a deep talent and understanding of melody and composition, that his lines have musical contribution. Unfortunately he was copied by so many following him who thought that just warbling through different notes, no matter how banal and unmotivated, produced the same results).

  12. Richard Cozart
    Posted November 13, 2017 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

    The Carpenters were always underrated, but they did get some cred from Quincy Jones. For a great cover better than the original, take a listen to Hall & Oates do “Me and Mrs . Jones.”

  13. Posted November 13, 2017 at 6:41 pm | Permalink

    I’m a yuge Carpenters fan. Always have been, always will be.

  14. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted November 14, 2017 at 9:49 am | Permalink

    My 70’s meter broke again.

    Nice song.

    Kept thinking of the song Shooting Star … Bad Company I think?


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