Thursday, May 9, 2013


            All great singers need great songwriters to bring out their best, and SR's favorite vocalist, the late Karen Carpenter, was no exception.   Contrary to the well-worn hyperbole, not even Ms. Carpenter could produce a Top Ten hit by singing from the phone book.

            Karen's perfect contralto was the beneficiary of a wide range of moving and memorable tunes composed by some of the best pop composers of the era, including some who were very close to home – and one who was from another world altogether.

            Several of her most popular songs – including "Top of the World," "Yesterday Once More," and "Goodbye to Love" -- were written by her big brother and fellow Carpenter, Richard, together with his lyricist, John Bettis, who was a fellow member of Spectrum, the precursor group that the very youthful Carpenter siblings formed in 1967 (and which met a rapid demise in the hostile, rock-oriented environment of the Hollywood Boulevard club scene).  Paul Williams and Roger Nichols, who like the Carpenters "hung their hats" at Herb Alpert's A&M Records lot, collaborated on such Carpenters classics as "We've Only Just Begun" and "Rainy Days and Mondays."  And of course there was the illustrious Burt Bacharach, a close colleague of Herb Alpert, whose "Close to You" brought the duo to instant stardom, and who wrote the medley of tunes that formed an integral part of many of their tour concerts and of one of their most popular albums.

            But the writer of three of the most memorable and haunting songs ever recorded by the Carpenters, each of which provided a perfect vehicle for Karen's smoky and intimate vocal style, presented an image and a persona that could hardly stand in sharper contrast from a demure suburban ingénue from Downey, California.  The accompanying pictures may subtly suggest something of this cultural contrast.  But what the Carpenters had in common with the inimitable Leon Russell – the talent, drive, and sensibility to produce enduring great music – supersedes in importance the glaring differences in their styles and deportment.

                                Leon Russell and Karen Carpenter -- Tulsa Boy and Downey Girl

            Russell – who was originally Christened Claude Russell Bridges – co-wrote the haunting rock ballad "Superstar" with Bonnie Bramlett during his days with Joe Cocker's "Mad Dogs and Englishmen" troupe.  Although this classic has been recorded by a variety of other formidable artists, Karen's dark rendering of Richard's intricate arrangement of the song was by far the most popular, reaching either No.1 or No. 2 on the major charts and certified as a Gold Record.  "Superstar's" musical quality and complexity has even inspired doctoral dissertations and other scholarly analyses in musicology, and its status as an enduring classic is evidenced by its appearance in major motion pictures, such as Tommy Boy and Ghostrider, released decades after the song's heyday.

            Russell also wrote two of the Carpenters' most popular and prominent album cuts.  "A Song for You" was the title and "bookend" song of their 1972 album of the same name, which is generally regarded as the duo's most artistically successful album.  It contains lines which, when sung in Ms. Carpenter's husky lower register and pondered with the recollection of her premature death, are remarkably poignant:  "And when my life is over, remember when we were together.  We were alone, and I was singing this song for you."


            Leon Russell's final contribution to the Carpenters' catalogue is "This Masquerade," another darkish ballad which was recorded as part of the 1973 multi-platinum album, "Now and Then."  It is another bluesy, intimate, musically intricate piece that is a tribute both to Russell's creativity and the Carpenters' extraordinary ability to find the soul of a song and give it perfect pitch and voice in the recording studio.

            Although the Russell songs recorded by the Carpenters all fit well within the duo's musical oeuvre, Russell himself was an eccentric and multi-faceted character who might not have been entirely at home at the sedate Carpenter family digs in Downey.  To say the least.

            Interestingly, however, his beginnings were strikingly similar to Richard Carpenter's in one key respect:  Like Carpenter, he was a musical prodigy, who began playing the piano at 4 years of age and was playing for money in nightclubs in Tulsa, Oklahoma, well before he was old enough to order a drink. 

            Russell went from there to become a premier member (on piano) of the legendary informal group of session or studio musicians, now known as the Wrecking Crew.  Along with the likes of drummer Hal Blaine, guitarists Glen Campbell and Tommy Tedesco, and bassists Joe Osborn and Carol Kaye, he provided the backup music to such groups as varied as Aretha Franklin, the Beach Boys, the Byrds, the Ventures, and countless others.  In one session, recalled by Cher (who also enjoyed the backup support of the Wrecking Crew), Russell arrived at the studio still half-smashed from the prior night's carousing, and misbehaved accordingly.  When the insufferable Phil Spector (they were apparently recording one of Spector's "wall of sound" productions) confronted Russell and asked him if he understood the word respect, Russell jumped on top of his piano and demanded if Spector understood the meaning of a certain two-word expletive phrase that we need not quote.  According to Cher, the studio collapsed in hysterics.  So, among his many other distinctions, Russell deserves special credit for standing up to one of the music industry's most notorious jerks.

            Interestingly, Russell's experience with the Wrecking Crew presents another indirect link with the Carpenters from a Degrees of Separation vantage.  Fellow Wrecking Crew members Joe Osborn and Hal Blaine provided invaluable bass and drum backup on most of the Carpenters hits – Karen generally yielded to Blaine on the drums in the studio because, good as she was on the Ludwigs in concert, she knew Blaine was the best.  And Osborn was actually the first to discover the superiority of Karen's voice during a rehearsal session in his garage studio when she was only 16, and her first professional recordings were done on Osborn's short-lived Magic Lamp label.

            Leon Russell went on from his Wrecking Crew days to become one of the most versatile artists in the music industry – composer, instrumentalist (on guitar as well as piano and keyboards), and vocalist.  His musical range ran the gamut from hard rock to R&B to country rock to the melodic pop compositions that were so well-suited to Karen Carpenter's intimate contralto.  Among his many and varied career highlights – and the iteration at the farthest remove from the romantic ballads like "Superstar" and "A Song for You" that led to his intersection with the Carpenters' sound – was his collaboration with Joe Cocker and the raucous tour group supporting Cocker's 1971 "Mad Dogs and Englishmen" album.  Russell's hard-rock credentials, not to mention his instrumental versatility, are well evidenced by the accompanying video of his lead guitar backup to Cocker's rowdy on-stage rendition of "She Came in Through the Bathroom Window."  A farther remove from the world of "We've Only Just Begun" would be difficult to imagine.

            And yet, the intersection of different strains and styles of musical greatness can often produce songs of remarkable and lasting beauty.  "Superstar," which crosses the barriers of pop, rock, and torch song, is a classic case in point.  Russell's composition (with the help of Bonnie Bramlett), Richard Carpenter's exquisite, horn-rich arrangement, and Karen Carpenter's deeply moving delivery combined to produce one of the great pop recordings of the 20th century.

            There is no evidence that Leon Russell ever crossed paths with Karen Carpenter, which is not surprising given their profoundly different circles and lifestyles.  But had they done so, there can be little doubt that there would have been an amicable, and probably amusing, meeting of the musical minds.  Karen and her brother showed their recognition of Russell's musical excellence in the most convincing manner possible – by turning to his works for some of their most important recordings.  And Russell unambiguously expressed his fondness for Ms. Carpenter's singing in a 2005 interview.  SeePBpulse (Palm Beach Pulse), Dec. 28, 2005.  When asked which recorded version of "Superstar" was his favorite – the interviewer apparently tried to steer him towards a version other than the Carpenters' – Russell simply and tersely responded, "I have always been a huge fan of Karen Carpenter."  He mentioned no other versions.  It was Russell's polite way of saying that the Carpenters' version was best, without offending the numerous artists who had also recorded the song.  A man with Leon Russell's musical compass could not say otherwise.

         Addendum:  A recent interview of Leon Russell by Mike Ragogna published in the Huffington Post amplifies Mr. Russell's admiration for Ms. Carpenter, the lady who sang his songs so well. When Ragogna mentioned the importance of Superstar for the Carpenters, Russell responded:

         "Well Karen Carpenter was just a singularly amazing singer. There was just not anybody like her. I produced a gospel duet called the O'Neal Twins; they were a couple of twin brothers who were soul singers and they sang gospel songs like The Everly Brothers. I asked them one day who their favorite singer was and they both said together, "Karen Carpenter." So that's kind of amazing for me."

      Just further testimony to the range and variety of the deep admiration of Karen Carpenter in all genres and levels of the musical profession.


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  2. Right on, G.C. There's a story about Karen's meeting with Kiss's Gene Simmons that shows that the Downey Girl was possessed of an open mind even when pressed up against the cartoonish extremity of 70s rock excess, and that Gene (presumably w/o his war paint) was charmed by her curious and eager mind (one that, tragically, needed more outside stimulation and nurture than was available to her).

    There's a version of "Superstar" out there that features KC's vocals with only bass and drums behind it. As great as the released version is, this one is more primal, and lays bare what arguably is the greatest vocal performance in rock (yes, rock...) history.