Karen Carpenter would have been 60

It's hard to imagine Karen Carpenter as a "senior citizen," but March 2 marked what would have been her 60th birthday. (She died February 4, 1983 of cardiac arrest due to her battle with anorexia. She was 32.)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. But we also remember Karen as she wanted to be remembered, as a good person. She once said about the Carpenters: "We want to be remembered for our contribution to music. That's the main thing in our lives: to present what comes from within us through our music. We want to be remembered as good musicians and nice people." 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 #1 in Japan. Meanwhile, a fantasy novel about Karen called "Leave Yesterday Behind" was published, while a new book about the Carpenters by Randy Schmidt, "Little Girl Blue," is due this summer. 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 about 1977. Their 1978 Christmas album became a modern classic and is a holiday airplay staple to this day. In 1981, they returned to the Top 40 one last time before Karen's untimely passing. Because Karen's voice was ubiquitous, many people took it for granted. But she received well-deserved accolades from many of her peers, some of which are worth noting here. John Lennon once told her "You've got a fabulous voice," while Paul McCartney reportedly called it "the best female voice in the world-melodic, tuneful, and distinctive." What made the voice so distinctive? A&M Records' top brass Herb Alpert, who signed the duo, believed that Karen was drawing from her "dark side" when she sang. "A common trait in all great performers, instrumentalists or singers," Alpert said, "is that great quality that tugs at your heart. It doesn't come from that bubbly, 'up' side of their personality. It always comes from their undercurrent of reality." Composer Henry Mancini said "Karen had a quality about her that was so vulnerable, so exposed that she just demanded attention." He believed this is because "whatever she sang came right from the heart." Her voice, he concluded, was "the manifestation of everything within her. Maybe if she had more self-esteem, it wouldn't have been the same voice." Journalist Paul Lester wrote: "Karen was the finest female singer of her generation, possessed of perfect pitch, able to soar between octaves in a single verse. (She had) that rare ability to share moments of incredible intimacy with the listener, to sound as though she was singing just for you." Pop music historian Paul Grein agreed: "If you made a checklist of the qualities of a great singer, Karen had them all: tremendous presence, a natural, conversational ease, and impeccable intonation and control. But a checklist couldn't begin to capture the emotion that 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." Happy Birthday, KC. We miss you. Jon Konjoyan is a music promoter and journalist.

********** Published: March 5, 2010 - Volume 8 - Issue 46

FeaturesEric Pierce