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."
"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:
- Vocal quality; what instrumental musicians refer to as "the sound".
- Skill, or vocal prowess.
- Style, or rather, how successfully a singer reflects the requirements of a particular style of singing.
- "Soul", borrowing from the lexicon of the black musicians of a generation ago; this is the emotional, evocative component of singing.
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?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:
You told you'd come back this way again, Baby!
Baby, Baby, Baby, Baby, oh Baby,
I love you, I really do.
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.