Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Karen Carpenter

As a 10-year-old, I had two favorite acts: The Partridge Family and The Carpenters. I loved the easy, breezy sing-along melodies of David Cassidy—not to mention my first dreamy celebrity crush—but even as a kid, there was something about Karen Carpenter's aching, soulful, pitch-perfect voice that I related to, which forever changed the way I heard music—and female vocalists, in particular. The first album I owned: "A Song for You." Without Karen, I'm certain there would be no Celine Dion in my life.

Karen Carpenter would have been 60 on March 2. She died at 32 on Feb. 4, 1983—a day I clearly recall. I was in my dorm room as a college junior, listening to the radio, as the announcement was made that she had succumbed to her long battle with anorexia. I was stunned and upset: I opened my dorm door, to let the outside in, and shared the news with anyone that passed by.

It would be years before Carpenter gained any semblance of "cool." At that point, The Carpenters were the ultimate "soft rock" has-beens... Nobody my age gave it much of a second thought.

I never stopped listening to The Carpenters and in fact, my personal iTunes playlist, the 63-song "Carpenters Complete," has played through many a late night of writing.

I received an essay this morning from music writer and Carpenters' aficionado Jon Konjoyan. I share some of his words: Today we remember Karen for her remarkable gift to the music world, and for her influence on so many contemporary artists, from Madonna and Chrissie Hynde to Sonic Youth and Gwen Stefani. Interest in the Carpenters continues to grow. Last year marked the 40th anniversary of the duo’s signing to A&M, and a commemorative CD release, “40/40,” hit No. 1 in Japan.

If you grew up in the '70's, Carpenters music was part of the soundtrack of your life. For the 1973 liner notes of “The Singles” hits collection, Digby Diehl wrote: "Although the Carpenters have been recording for only four years, it is already difficult to remember a sunny afternoon at the beach without them.” It was true. In that pre-YouTube, MySpace and iTunes era, when radio was virtually the only place to hear new music, their hits played non-stop from 1970 through 1977. In 1981, they returned to the Top 40 one last time.

Because Karen's voice was ubiquitous, many took it for granted. But she received well-deserved accolades from peers. Paul McCartney called it "the best female voice in the world: melodic, tuneful and distinctive." A&M Records' top brass Herb Alpert, who signed the duo, believed Karen sang from her "dark side": "It doesn't come from that bubbly, 'up' side of their personality. It comes from their undercurrent of reality."

Pop music historian Paul Grein said: "If you made a checklist of the qualities of a great singer, Karen had them all: tremendous presence, natural, conversational ease, and impeccable intonation and control. But a checklist couldn't begin to capture the emotion she put into everything she sang. Karen had a remarkable facility for peeling away the outer layers of a song and getting to its core. And once she located a song's essential truth, she would relate it as if she were singing just to you."