Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Karen Carpenter and the Art of Singing

As a working musician, I have performed in many dozens of weddings. Probably more like hundreds. This necessarily means I have had to listen to many dozens of wedding singers. Thus I have had many occasions, as part of the captive audiences of these prim ceremonies that are part Judeo-Christian tradition, part Valhalla, and all middle-American kitsch, to ponder the elements of the vocal arts. It is a simple fact that there are more people who think they can sing than there are people who can sing. No problem -- I think I can play trombone, so I understand the dilemma. The act of performing music confers a certain mental and emotional "high" on the performer, and it doesn't really need to enter into the equation whether the performer is very, or even any, good at it. I have played next to trombone "players" that have made me cry, and I mean that quite literally. About twenty years ago, I performed Holst's "The Planets" -- one of my favorite orchestral pieces -- playing the first trombone part in an orchestra whose roster included the worst trombonist (playing second) I have ever met. Bad players are everywhere; what made him special is he could play badly at 150 decibels.   You can't ignore a racket like that, anymore than an Iraqi soldier in a foxhole could ignore the booming bon mots of a loaded B-52.  I wept.  But he was happy.  And I have felt like weeping at many weddings -- not so much out of joy for the radiant bride, but unbridled grief for my irradiated ears.  No matter.  Deaf to my mute protests, on and inexorably, insufferably on would march the joyous cackling.  The worse the wedding singer, the more apparent the ecstasy she radiates.  Sort of a spin on the old Lady Clairol hair-coloring commercials, in which an exultant female exuberantly proclaimed, "If I have only one life to live, let me live it as a blonde!"  Except, the wedding singer blazes forth with the following practical manifesto:  "If only one person in this building can be happy, let it be me!"

Bah humbug.  The good news in all this misanthropy is it has taught me to love good singing.  So, as Paul enjoined us,  "Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things."  Which brings us to Karen Carpenter.

Over the Christmas holidays, my wife and I drove back and forth to her parents' house -- that's four days on the road, so we brought along a lot of music CDs with which to while away the time.  I brought along a "greatest hits" album of the Carpenters, knowing that my wife likes them.  (I have to temper my penchant for boring her to pieces with bombastic Shostakovich symphonies.)  It was such a pleasure to hear those old songs again, most of which were released when I was in high school.  But now, I was listening not with teenaged ears, but after years and years of musical training and professional experience.  There are many times I have gone back and listened to the music of my youth with more educated ears and, shall we say, more experienced tastes.  (Some might say jaded.)  And I can tell you this:  it can be quite disappointing.  A lot of music we once loved does not withstand the test of time.  (Once upon a time, I enjoyed playing Leroy Anderson tunes; all I can say about that now is the trumpet's infamous "horse whinny" at the end of "Sleigh Ride" lost its wittiness sometime around the 400th performance.)  A lot in the Carpenters' music can justly be dismissed as schlock -- the sappy arrangements, the late Sixties' stylistic elements, and to some degree the uninspiring tunes they made her sing.  One thing they couldn't hide under a bushel was Karen Carpenter's amazing, phenomenal talent.

I still remember the first time I heard her voice.  The Carpenters were on the radio, singing "Close to You," which was their first #1 hit.  It wasn't their last.  There was something about her voice  -- rich, warm, sparkling, intimate.  It made me (perhaps the most unromantic ninth grader in the world, at that time) want to sit alone with her and quietly hold her hand, and I didn't even know what she looked like.  American pop culture has produced many wonderful singers, but Karen Carpenter was special.  I consider her to have had a once-in-a-generation voice.  In my lifetime, I have been privileged to hear three such singers: Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole, and Karen Carpenter.  Judging by the singers I accidentally hear nowadays when I can't hit the mute button quickly enough, Ms. Carpenter may have retired the honor. As one commenter on YouTube (where I found the video attachments for this post) astutely observed, "WOW, what a music, what a singer, what a talent... BRAVO; R. I. P.  Compared to the Carpenters, today's music is equivalent to waterboarding."

My wife Debbie was a music student at Cal State-Long Beach back in the early Seventies; Karen and  her brother Richard Carpenter had also attended that school, just a few years ahead of Debbie.  Debbie tells me (I haven't verified this) that Karen never got her music degree; she and her brother were too busy gigging, it seems, to bother with attending classes.  All I know is that at some point, she and her brother signed with Herb Alpert's A&M Records.  Alpert, the "King Midas" of pop music from about 1965 to 1980, earned his fame as a trumpet player -- his "Tijiana Brass" albums in the mid-Sixties had minted him millions -- so he knew a little something about pop music.  Alpert himself had made a #1 hit record in 1968, singing (not playing) Burt Bacharach's tune, "This Guy's In Love With You."  I can imagine the phone conversation Alpert must have had with the mightily prolific Bacharach upon signing the Carpenters:
"Hey, Burt, this is Herb..."

"Hey, Herb. How's it hanging?"

"Listen, Burt -- I just signed this chick and her brother with A&M.  You've got to hear this girl sing.  She has a voice that was designed by God Himself to be put on hit records."

"No kidding!"

"Yeah, no kidding, I'm serious.  You have got to hear her!  Do you have a tune she might use?  Maybe something Dionne Warwick hasn't already sung?"

"Hmmm.  A chick vocalist, huh?  How is her intonation?  Good ear?  Good rhythm?"

"Pitch?  Good Lord, man, she can hear the grass grow!  And  rhythm?  Why, you should hear her play a drum set!  No technical problems, none at all.  She's a pro."

"Wow!  A chick drummer!  No foolin'?  Well, I've got a little number called, "Close to You"...  I always thought it would be a hit, but that hasn't happened yet.  Dionne put it on one of her earlier albums, but it never went anywhere.  I'll bring it with me, if you want me to come down."

"Yeah, you should.... Bring it, and get ready, you've never heard anything like this..."

And here's how it turned out, complete with a trumpet solo in the Alpert style (a musician friend and wit describes Alpert as "the inventor of the short note")...

Alpert made his second fortune with the Carpenters.  (He made his third fortune in the Disco era with fluegelhornist Chuck Mangione.  True to form, he made yet another bundle of bucks when he sold A&M records -- in jest, it is said that the two biggest robberies of the 20th century occurred when Herb Alpert bought A&M Records, and again when he sold it.)

How to describe Karen's singing?  Analytical thinking is a blessing and a curse, as the act of analyzing something requires taking it out of context.  I have read that people listen to music with the right side of their brain -- the intuitive side -- until they become trained in music, and then forever afterwards listen with their analytical left brains.  So with that disclaimer, let the analysis proceed...

I sense that there are four basic aspects, or dimensions, to singing:
  1. Vocal quality; what instrumental musicians refer to as "the sound".
  2. Skill, or vocal prowess.
  3. Style, or rather, how successfully a singer reflects the requirements of a particular style of singing.
  4. "Soul", borrowing from the lexicon of the black musicians of a generation ago; this is the emotional, evocative component of singing.
Maybe there are more, but that's as many as I can think of.  To picture each dimension, try to think of a singer who epitomizes only that dimension, or whose one best dimension simply outstrips any vestige of the other elements.  For pure vocal quality, I think of Tennessee Ernie Ford, -- a singer of pop, country and gospel music popular in the Fifties and Sixties, and the avuncular host of his own television show.  Young people today have no idea who he is.  Tenessee Ernie had a magnificently huge bass-baritone voice -- gorgeous, but ponderous, so he relied much on its natural beauty to get his songs across.  Click on the link below and give Tennessee Ernie a minute or two to show you what I'm talking about:

The dimension of skill, I think, is exemplified by the great jazz singer, Mel Torme, who succeeded wildly, in spite of a having a rather ordinary vocal quality, by employing his virtuosity at jazz harmony to the hilt, with intellectual precision.  Let Mel show you how it's done:

The dimension of style defines the context by which the other dimensions are judged.  An operatic voice quality, for example, is perfect for the style of, well, opera -- but may not be appreciated in the confines of jazz or rock.  Skill may not matter so much in the rock or blues styles, but matters a lot in jazz and Classical music.  The archetype for style in the world of "big band" jazz was Mr. Frank Sinatra, one of the few singers from my parents' day still popular with the younger folks.  As you can hear from the attached clip, Frankie doesn't try to compete with Mel Torme in terms of vocal gymnastics, but delivers the musical message with his brash and indelible persona.  Sinatra defines the style.

And finally, the dimension of soul is illustrated with a clip of Janis Joplin's intense and deeply personal blues singing.  Soul, she had in absurd abundance, and little else; as my buddy Ray puts it, "Every time she sang, she took a blow torch to her vocal chords."  Her voice quality was that of a blown speaker; there was very little craft or apparent skill; the style, if it existed, was her own.  What sold Janis Joplin records (in great abundance) was that,  in every phrase she sang, she put everything she had on the line.  It isn't always pleasant; sometimes it's painful -- but it's always Janis.  Click on the video to take another little piece of her heart:

So how does all that help us to describe Karen Carpenter?  All four dimensions -- floored; all eight cylinders screaming.  In short, she was perfection -- or about as close as we can get to perfection in music.  Like Bing Crosby, like Nat King Cole, she was the complete package.  Her vocal quality was nothing short of sublime; she owned a deep, silkily textured contralto voice -- about as close to basso profundo as a female voice is likely to get -- yet she never allowed her voice to become thunderous or plodding.  Her skill was at the expert level; it's hard to tell just how good she was, because the pop music of the late Sixties and early Seventies was not exactly what one might call 'demanding'.  She was certainly much better than she needed to be.  On the dozen tunes featured on the Carpenter's Greatest Hits album, for example, I could detect only one passage in which her intonation was anything less than flawless, even though many of the melodies feature wide, even awkward, leaps in pitch.  In "Close to You," for example, the phrase "Just like me/They long to be/Close to you," contains a minor third interval followed by an leap, in the same direction, of a perfect fifth, which is then reiterated except with an accented suspension of the sixth resolving to the fifth -- treacherous ground for a mere pop singer.  No matter: Karen  was no mere pop singer.  She tripped lightly across the phrase like everything else she sang -- playfully, gracefully, and in tune.

The style of pop music from that era is forgettable, but Karen Carpenter elevated it, like everything else her musicality touched.  It's a shame we never got to hear what she could do with better material.  It has become something of a pilgrimage for successful singers nowadays -- even the hard-core rockers -- to make recordings of the old jazz standards and torch songs from the Forties and Fifties, usually with a big band kicking in the background; this vast and growing list includes such musical luminaries as Linda Ronstadt, Toni Tennille, Bette Midler, Sting, Rod Stewart, even Willie Nelson.  There's a reason for this:  the music of my parents' generation was far better than ours, and (it goes without saying) immeasurably better than the current generation's.  Song writers such as George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Harold Arlen, Hoagy Carmichael, Johnny Mercer, Harry Warren, Jerome Kern -- all possessed a skill at writing melodies that was only briefly challenged by the Beatles and no one else since, plus a sense of  lyrical wittiness that was last spotted years ago in a black and white photo on a milk carton.  By contrast, almost any Burt Bacharach tune (probably the best from that era) can be characterized as a series of short, catchy phrases best sung with a crisp, staccato delivery -- the style of the times.  Same with other Carpenters' hits such as Geld & Udell's "Hurting Each Other," and Carol King's "It's Going to Take Some Time." It's not bad stuff, but it is simply inadequate to the task of conveying any range of emotions beyond amused boredom -- emotions which inhabit songs such as, say, Hoagy Carmichael's classic, "Stardust", or Harold Arlen's "Laura."  It's like comparing "Doonesbury" to Van Gogh.

You can catch a glimpse of how Karen Carpenter may have fared with more substantive melodic content in only a couple of Carpenter's tunes.  Leon Russell's "Superstar" affords such a glimpse.  "Superstar" appears to be a song about the unrequited love of a naive young woman for a touring guitar-playing rock star.  Opening with a plaintive melodic introduction by a solo oboe (are oboes ever not plaintive?) and French horns, Karen schools the rest of the singing world by showing how to out-plaintive an oboe.  But then, after a heart-melting stanza, the song regresses to the last refuge of corny rock cliches -- namely, a chorus of syncopated encomiums to "Baby".  Such immortal lyrics as these plumb the very depths of shallow mediocrity:
Don't you remember you told me you loved me, Baby?
You told you'd come back this way again, Baby!
Baby, Baby, Baby, Baby, oh Baby,
I love you, I really do.
Oh great:  septuplets.  It loses me somewhere around the fourth "Baby".  Makes me think of diaper pails.  Anyhow, don't take my word for it, listen for yourself:

Another tune that hints at Karen's even greater potential was "For All We Know" (Carlin/Griffin/Wilson).  It has a real melody, for one thing, requiring actual phrasing -- no problem for Ms. Carpenter.  I think this tune could have even been arranged for big band, with few changes (I think the tune needs an additional melodic theme or bridge of some sort, but what's already there is fine.)...

In addition to her vocal talents, Karen was quite a good drummer, earning kudos even from the irascible Buddy Rich, who wasn't famous for passing them out.  Her brother Richard was an excellent keyboardist and won several awards for his arrangements -- he did all the arrangements for the Carpenters.  I find the arrangements quite skillful, but ultimately too saccharine for my personal tastes -- Victor Herbert on insulin.  Sometimes, less is more. (Decolletage, for example, invites admiring glances, whereas toplessness can scare them away.)  But top-notch drumming and arranging can be bought for a couple hundred dollars an hour.  What the Carpenters had that set them apart was Karen's rare precious gem of a voice.  It would have been great to hear her in front of the Nelson Riddle Orchestra, singing a few of his arrangements.

Karen Carpenter died in 1983 at the age of 32, from a heart attack arising from anorexia nervosa.  She was taken from us way too soon.  She had only just begun.


Jan 31, 2010 Note:  After some feedback, I've decided that I have probably been a bit unfair to Richard Carpenter, so I would like to backtrack maybe a little and clarify maybe a little, too.  I dismissed much of their output as "sappy arrangements" when I should have written "sappy tunes" -- a choice of words which does not place the responsibility for the perceived sappiness solely on Richard's arranging chops.  Later, I hit him perhaps with what musicians call "pianissimo praise" when I said, "I find the arrangements quite skillful, but ultimately too saccharine for my personal tastes -- Victor Herbert on insulin."  I stand by my opinion of pop music from that era (and it is an opinion), but I should add that the Carpenter arrangements fit right in.  Is that praise or derision?  Sorry, I'm just not fond of that style.  (To be fair, pop music hasn't improved since then, so that's another way to look at it.)  That Richard Carpenter did it skillfully is a given.  But, to me, it seems okay to wish that Karen Carpenter had done something a little grander with one of the very best arrangers from an earlier era, such as Nelson Riddle or Billy May -- and I think all of that would have happened had she lived longer.  The very best voices deserve to be heard in the very best of settings.

It takes chops to be a skillful arranger.  Being a critic (and that is the role in which I cast myself when writing this post) takes no chops at all.  But it does require a degree or two of honesty.  I have to call it as I hear it, and hope I can do so without ruffling too many feathers.

Also:  check out the comments section, where I am set straight on the history of A&M Records.


Lee said...

That's easy for you to say!

Anonymous said...

What a pleasure to read your very well written posting about dear Karen Carpenter! She was (during her lifetime), and remains my favorite singer of all time (I recently turned 50) for all the reasons you gave, and more! Reading the opinions of a musician confirmed the truths my untrained ears told me all along. I would like to think that, somehow, she can hear our thoughts now; that she might know just how appreciated she was.

marlinmike said...

Lee - thanks for this post. I had my boys read it and listen to the videos as part of their homeschool music lessons. They enjoyed it.

Nice work.


Glen said...


Great post! It takes me back to the good old days.

The music theory is a little over my head, but I think I get where you're coming from. Where would you rate Bob Dylan on the 4 dimensional scale you have proposed? Consider his soon to be classic Must Be Santa.

Lee said...

Glen, Bob Dylan's success has less to do with his musicality, more to do with this place we call America. Any place where Bob Dylan could make millions of dollars singing must be the land of opportunity. I have cats that sing better than he does.

Frederic Kahler said...

Charming - your view of Karen Carpenter! May you never deal with a bad horn player again. - Frederic Kahler

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Lee, what an exquizzit post! Our Karen was a rare jem, wasn't she? Yes, she was gone too soon.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Lee said...

Frederic, thanks for your kind words. I don't play very much these days, so now I'm the one more likely to inflict aural pain.

Steve Sidoruk said...

Your history of A&M Records is shaky at best. Herb Alpert did NOT buy A&M Records - he and partner Jerry Moss co-founded it. The label was originally called Carnival Records, until they found out there was prior usage of the name and they changed it to A&M.

Second point - Burt Bacharach gave "Close To You" to Herb for him to record, which he did, but didn't release it at the time. Herb then gave the tune to The Carpenters. Many years later, Herb did release his version on his "Lost Treasures" CD.

Third point - out of all the A&M megahit artists, Sergio Mendes, Cat Stevens, Peter Frampton, The Police, to name just a few, signed to A&M, Chuck Mangione certainly did NOT earn Herb his "third fortune."

Steve Sidoruk
A&M Corner - www.AMCorner.com
A&M Fan Network

Lee said...

I was aware that Alpert co-founded A&M (he is the "A" in A&M, after all). I said, "...in jest, it is said that the two biggest robberies of the 20th century occurred when Herb Alpert bought A&M Records, and again when he sold it." The two most important words in this statement are the first two.

I was unaware, and am pleased to learn, that Herb was given "Close to You" to record. But I believe I am correct that Dionne Warwick actually had recorded it a few years earlier.

Your point about Mangione is well taken. Alpert had quite a stable, didn't he?

James J said...

Lee, thank you for a very thoughtful, inspired piece. You have written a terrific tribute to my all-time favorite singer. And it's rewarding to see that your musical training serves as the foundation for your appreciation of Karen Carpenter's voice. I learned to sing by singing along (or at least attempting to sing along) with Karen on the radio. I am neither a musician nor a music student. I am probably one of those singers you've encountered who thinks he sings better than he does!

But I digress. I love the entire Carpenters' output (and own it), but your points regarding the overall genre are well taken. I certainly agree with your examples of Karen's flawless singing. But let me add what I find to be just 3 more of Karen's best performances: "Solitaire," "You're the One," and "Ave Maria." These are just additional examples of Karen's readings that tend to produce "chills" in the listener. Finally, you lamented the fact that Karen, with her early passing, never had the chance to record any of the standards.
One song does come close, however: "I Can Dream, Can't I," from the "Horizon" album, was an album cut that delivers on the big-band vibe. If you haven't heard it already, I'm sure you would enjoy it.

Thanks again.

Lee said...

James: everybody thinks he or she sings better than he or she does. Myself included.

Thanks for your comments, and I will check out your suggestions. I would love to hear Karen break out into a more sophisticated style.

Wally said...

Terrific essay. For a taste of Karen gracing a few standards, check out the Karen/Ella Fitzgerald duet medley on "As Time Goes By" (likely also on YouTube, as it was a segment from the Carpenters' 1980 TV special "Music, Music, Music"). She does indeed sound right at home on "My Funny Valentine", "Someone to Watch Over Me" and "Don't Get Around Much Anymore". Hearing her next to Ella underscores many of the points made about the character of her voice in this post. Very sad that during her lifetime, Karen's talent was overshadowed by a childish image manufactured by the A&M marketing people. You have to hope that had she lived, she'd have cast that albatross aside and gained the respect she deserved.

WebmasterPerson said...

as a musician (French horn!) I really appreciated this post. I agree with all your points.

I agree about Richard; listen to the Close to You and early albums: her voice is more up front, with no effects added- imagine adding effects!!

With that said, as someone who appreciated good music, the Carpenters, were and will remain, my favorites from that era.

On the Horizon album, Billy May did due an arrangement for them-check it out.

Karen was one of a kind, never to be replaced or usurped by anyone in her generation.

Anonymous said...

Just read your blog post about Karen Carpenter. Very well done. I was listening to one of her Christmas songs on the radio today, and realized perhaps for the first time how truly extraordinary she was. So I Googled her and found your blog post. Today's singers, some of whom probably have talent, are dreck compared to her. And while you don't like 70s pop, it has a clean, sweet quality that the hip-hop influenced crap of today totally lacks. As a diamond is to garbage, Karen Carpenter is to today's pop singers.

Anonymous said...

Great essay on a wonderful talent, who we have been discussing across the dining table this evening. Your blog also goes to show that it is possible to disagree with people on many issues (I am a life long liberal) while agreeing with them violently on just as many.

jazzy said...

You should really here her 19 year old vocals on "Someday" and "Eve"
and many of the others that were not popular hits.

Second Chance said...

Really appreciate the educated analysis ... Not a musician myself but knew that voice was beyond good and your article help to explain why. And isn't it interesting how quality will withstand the test of time? I also revisited listening to her and had a new appreciation for her.

Anonymous said...

"Eve" is just amazing!!