I still remember the vinyl records, slow motion like melody on the old music player left by my grandfather. The soft harp starts, on the background of the string, is an intro with an oboe, softly entering to the tune of the first few notes of the verse and then changing into a sad intro. Then everything stops, so that the cor bass is connected by the bass plucked out of the rhythm of the hi-hat of the drum kit, creating a hazy space.
Karen Carpenter's voice is so sad that it touches the hearts of listeners...
“Long ago, and, oh, so far away…”
Once upon a time, there was a little girl Karen born into a happy and loving family. She had an older brother Richard who was 3 years older than her.
Richard Carpenter showed early musical talent from a young age, when he mastered the piano that was bought by his parents. Karen's childhood was only interested in ballet and tap dancing. It was not until the age of 14 when she was in high school that Karen asked to go to a music extracurricular class to avoid gymnastics, then she discovered her love of music.
Karen Carpenter decided to choose the drum set because she did not like the knitting bells that her music teacher was going to teach her. The Carpenters' family were of course as supportive of their daughter's new musical passion as they were with their son Richard before. The house was gradually cleared for the Ludwig drum set that Ringo Starr and Joe Morello - two drummers in two genres of Rock and Jazz that she loved.
People probably didn't expect Karen to quickly and quietly master not only complex drumming sentences but also difficult beats like 5/4. Coincidentally, the time of drum practice was also when Karen's singing ability was discovered. Once when her teacher asked her to try singing down an octave, both he and she recognized Karen's gifted, warm, and very emotional voice.
The whole Carpenters family saw that and they encouraged the two brothers to develop music together and after a while, we had the Carpenters duo.
Everything seemed to go to Richard with the role of composing, mixing, producing, and including playing the piano, and he only let his sister Karen to concentrate on singing and drumming, even when recording and on the stage.
While the world was immersed in the Psychedelic Rock music of the early 70s, it was not surprising that the Carpenters' sweet and gentle Jazz-based Pop music was drowned in the loud and powerful music of the electric guitar. Fortunately, the brothers' debut album, Offering/Ticket To Ride, was unsuccessful, but the label did not give up the two talents.
Following the advice of a record label to focus on producing hit songs, the Carpenters brothers later found success with their first hit single, "They Long To Be (Close To You)". And they followed many other songs A gentle song with a Pop Rock vibe that went into the hearts of music listeners between songs that still had the color of Jazz that the two brothers persistently pursued.
And in the studio, Karen increasingly revealed her musical gift that turned out to be no less than her brother, especially in coloring the Carpenters' music with her superb drumming ability. On "Yesterday Once More", because Richard didn't like the first part of the song, he wanted to re-record it, including the drums. Everyone was concerned because Karen would have to hit without a click track. But when putting the two halves together, no one noticed the cut because Karen's tempo didn't deviate an inch. Karen Carpenter was perhaps the pioneer female drummer of modern music, a profession that in the 60s or 70s (and perhaps even now) was often assumed to be male.
In the song "All I Can Do", Karen beat a perfect 5/4 rhythm with all the techniques of keeping the beat, putting the drums, and coordinating hands and feet as skillfully as a real Jazz drummer. And the important thing was that she played and sang both the main part and the supporting part as good and perfect as possible between the tempo of the limbs and the pitch of the voice.
Without mentioning that, she could do it even when performing live on stage. The song "Ticket To Ride" that Carpenters covered by The Beatles, performed by the two brothers in Australia in 1972, not only retained the warm and emotional voice as recorded, but it was even better. It had has the rhythmic guidance to slow down a bit at some points to bring the song's emotions back to the same tune. It felt like that Karen's drums was as sweet as her singing.
And the gorgeous image on the stage was not just a girl with a delicate face, but it was a real happy smile. That smile and Karen's singing have captivated generations of music listeners.
I suddenly realized that it was Karen's best time when she could do what she liked. She could beat the drums and sing with her loved ones. As it turned out that Karen's life was like the melody and soul of the song "Superstar": it was two opposite sides of reality like the bleak timbre of the verse and the brighter timbre of the chorus.
In the early days when the Carpenters brothers had just achieved success, what happened in the tours or and performances of Karen immersed in the music were the happiest period of her life like the chorus in the song "Superstar" like that.
“Don't you remember, you told me you loved me baby?
You said you'd be coming back this way again baby
Baby, baby, baby, baby, oh baby
I love you, I really do”
Although the chorus changed in major key and cheerful rhythm hidden was the lyrics and deep sadness in Karen's voice.
It is said that she sang best in the lows and mezzo-soprano because her voice was thick and had great vibrations. She could hold breath very well and have a soul that not many divas could ever recreate. That soul lied from the bottom of the heart and the joy that funny songs like "Top Of The World" when listening to Karen’s singing still had a compassion. The gloomy sound space in the verse of "Superstar" best showed what was behind Karen's stage.
Since childhood, the family's attention, especially the mother's, has been dedicated to his brother Richard. It is hoped that Richard's natural talent would be nurtured and that others in the family like Karen were taught to do their best to support their brother.
Richard's talent was later put to full use in his skillful choreography, making many of the band's covers of the band's best hits and beyond the original. Those who covered Carpenters' "Superstar" could not avoid playing the intro with the tormented oboe that Richard devised.
However, Richard's technical and complex mixing lacked a personality that impressed listeners. It's true that few Carpenters songs have made as much of a musical impact as "Superstar," and then what people remembered about Carpenters turned out to be Karen's stunning vocals.
The cute image of a slim girl has not been lost even though Karen always had to stoop to beat the drums when performing. On the contrary, the allure of charisma, smile, soulful drumming, and above all, the most inspiring and perhaps most recognizable voice in the history of modern music seemed to linger forever fan.
On the first album, the Carpenters brothers also took turns to lead vocals. Gradually, the favor of the audience pushed Karen to the main vocal position. No one cared about Richard, who had become a supporting role.
Only the mother still wanted the whole world to recognize her son's talent. She wanted people to put a mirror on the stage to clearly reflect Richard's fingers. Karen was also still supportive of Richard in interviews, calling herself a drummer who could sing and as a "lead sister" instead of a "leader" because she wanted the world to know Richard's great work brought to Carpenters.
But no one cared, they came to see Karen perform and hear her sing. Using the pretext to please the audience, Richard and the management forced Karen to quit playing drums to just sing with the mic to make her more visible, without caring that Karen turned out to have a stage fright. Sitting behind the drums for a long time turned out to make her feel more confident and adventurous, and with her superior level, Karen seemed to be walking around with the drums while singing. Now, when forced to stand up and sing, the happiness has disappeared. It was replaced by a depression because of the lack of personality and vitality of the girl, who could have gone down in Rock & Roll music history with his ability to play drums and sing.
The others seemed to have found more ways to engage the audience, as Carpenters' music slowed down and became sadder and sadder, along with the image of a girl with distant sad eyes singing at the piano. I wondered if anyone really cared about the reason behind those distant eyes.
Richard's control escalated as Karen never knew the recording or performance schedule in advance. Everything was arranged by Richard. And Karen still accepted and followed everything as she was taught by her mother from a young age: to support the success of her brother.
The climax was when Karen recorded a solo album with the cooperation of producer Phil Ramone with the desire to experiment with new music of her own. After the record was completed, both Richard and some label leaders opposed the release of this record, citing the poor quality of the music despite the small dream and the amount of money Karen had spent to get it a musical product of her own direction.
Richard Carpenter probably didn't want to lose control in his heart, fearing that his sister would become ever more popular. So was the mother. Karen agreed not to release that solo album buut she cried a lot. And she still came back to Richard to continue recording and supporting the musical career of the Carpenters family.
Today I sat listening to Karen Carpenter's solo disc of the same name. Still Karen's unmistakable sweet voice. Even though she has slightly changed the music from the Carpenters music under Richard's guidance, this Karen Carpenter record still sounded good and lovely.
It was not until 1996 that this album was released, which was 13 years after Karen left the world. Before her death, Karen also called Phil Ramone to confess that she was still very satisfied with this album and she hoped that she was able to release it one day.
Karen died at the age of 32 because her body was too weak against anorexia. It was unclear if it was the result of losing control in life.
Until now, music lovers and critics had to say that Carpenters' music have had limitless appeal. Despite the cheesy "clean" image and somewhat safe production sound, Karen's voice still has had the charm to touch the hearts of listeners and made critics always have to put Carpenters into the branch of pop rock, not just pop.
People say it was too early for Karen to die at the age of 32 but I think that she mostly died for a long time before that from the day they robbed her drums away and pushed her to be on the stage. Karen was not allowed to play drums in recording and performing, not to participate in the artistic creation of the Carpenters' music, nor to release her passionate solo album.
Seeing Karen's performances from the time she was roaming with drums on stage, I found Karen's wide and happy smile to be the best image.
And the temple of the most talented Rock & Roll drummers has been forever missing the name of a great woman.