A Song for You: Soulculture pays tribute to the Carpenters…

It’s a well known fact amongst anyone who knows my musical inclinations, that I hold the Carpenters in very high regard. Yesterday I performed one of their most covered hits ‘Superstar’ at an open mic night in Shoreditch, East London. It was a toss up between Karen and Ella Fitzgerald but after seeing a documentary on the Carpenters on Monday I took it as a sign. Sadly, their musical legacy has been somewhat eclipsed by the untimely and tragic death of singer Karen in 1983 from complications caused by anorexia nervosa. Yet there is much more to the Carpenters than Karen’s sad demise and for those yet unschooled in their catalogue of work please allow us to make a brief(-ish) introduction.


The Carpenters emerged in an era when rock was King – the 1970s. For a long time their music was dismissed as being safe, middle-America and a little cheesy. No such associations now and as is the way, subsequent to Karen’s death the group have been seen in a new, revered light. Artists who name check the Carpenters as inspiration include India Arie and leftfield, ingenious singer/producer Tonex, to mention only a few. Karen seems to be a favourite amongst certain ‘urban’ producers too. And rightfully so. Once the Carpenter siblings got their hands on a song you best be leaving it alone because it’s unlikely you’ll be able to equal it, let alone better it. In my mind only three other artists can interpret a song in an untouchable way: Nina Simone, Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald.

Richard and Karen Carpenter actually started their musical careers in the sixties as part of a jazz trio with Karen on drums (girl drummer, yay!). As the siblings gravitated towards doing their own thing, Karen took centre stage as their vocalist whilst brother Richard worked behind the scenes as pianist, arranger, producer, composer, backing vocalist and a general renaissance man. They never strayed too far from their jazz roots as bossa nova tracks like ‘Masquerade’ and the saxophone solo on ‘A Song for You’ demonstrate. Karen it seems was surprisingly modest about her vocal gift and it is said she saw herself more as a drummer who sang as oppose to a singer in her own right, who could also drum. However I defy anyone to listen to Ms Carpenter and not experience some kind of stirring of the soul. Karen had one of the most distinctively lovely voices of any known female vocalist, so pure in its beauty. It had a quality to it that was both melancholy and optimistic – I call it a resignation to life. Although it wasn’t the kind of voice many would readily perceive as soulful, Karen’s alto could elicit the most visceral of emotions in a melody, especially sad love songs. Karen didn’t have a multiple-octave range and she once said (I paraphrase) even if she shouted, her voice wouldn’t be able to project as much as some people. It didn’t matter because she used what she did have to such great effect. Her approach was mellow and she never over-sang a song. The control she had over her voice made it look and sound so effortless. I would cite the likes of India Arie, Lauryn Hill, Eva Cassidy and Amel Larrieux as recent artists who have retained that kind of vocal discipline and subtlety.

Richard Carpenter doesn’t always get enough credit for being one heck of an arranger. Listening to the Carpenters I appreciate how important it is to have a producer/arranger who knows how to make the most of an artist’s voice and respect it for the instrument it is. Check out the links below to some of their songs and it is a masterclass in such. Their harmonies are so deliciously rich that if you were to sing them, they would stay in your mouth for as long as possible because your tongue refused to let them go. Richard made very good use of Karen’s forte for singing in a lower register thus the chord choices were not always the obvious ones. Bro and sis complemented each others sound perfectly too and some of my favourite Carpenter songs are the ones with Richard singing background vocals. In short the Carpenters are well worth a listen. Eternal kudos to the wholesome duo.

Enough pre-amble from me. Let the music speak for itself…

My first selection is ‘A Song for You’ – made famous by Donny Hathaway. Now I have nothing but respect and love for Mr Hathaway’s artistry and he had one of the most beautiful male vocals to grace a mic, but the Carpenter’s rendition remains the original and the best for me. Even though I heard Donny’s rendition first it didn’t really stay with me. However when I listened to the Carpenter’s version, it was like hearing the song for the first time. Richard’s almost tentative piano intro, the trademark harmonies and Karen’s simple, understated vocals are just perfect for the song. The message itself is so transcedent and powerful that anything more would be overkill.

‘We’ve only just begun’ is one of the Carpenter’s more well-known tracks and I believe is the song that best showcases why Karen’s voice is so special. More great BGVs and harmonies provided by big bro too.

The next two tracks are just personal favourites of mine. ‘Rainy Days and Mondays’ mainly because of its arrangement. The harmonica solos in this are the most poignant if ever there were. (There is also a worthy cover version by Eric and Lisa Benet when they used to be in the sibling group ‘Benet’. Should also be on Youtube somewhere).

‘For all we know’ . The beat has something endearingly corny about it but I can’t get enough. Richard is working his magic, it has such a pretty melody and it’s another flawless performance by Karen so, why not?

by Tola Ositelu.

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