“Superstar” — Carpenters

I’m not usually keen on those “beyond the grave” collaborations, where some recordings by a deceased artist are paired with some performers who are still with us to “introduce the song to a new generation”…or “get some additional life out the record company’s back catalogue”, depending on your level of cynicism…

These collaborations can sometimes feel a bit creepy, to my ears, so I don’t go out my way to listen to them as a rule.

For that reason, I didn’t have terribly high expectations when I noticed a video of the Carpenters with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra while mindlessly browsing through YouTube the other day.

However I’m a big Karen Carpenter fan, so I took a risk and clicked “play”.

I’m glad I did.

The track was the Carpenters’ song “Superstar” and this updated version appears, alongside updated versions of many of the Carpenter’s best-known hits, on an album which only came out just before Christmas last year.

It’s the culmination of a long-term project by Karen’s brother, Richard, to update the Carpenters’ classic songs by taking the original vocal tracks and sympathetically updating them. In essence, he’s re-producing the tracks as if Karen had laid down her vocals just last week.

And I have to say Richard Carpenter does a tremendous job.

Of course, he started with some of the best material imaginable, in the shape of Karen Carpenter’s voice.

But updating some of the Carpenters’ timeless classics with the help of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra brings an added richness to their songs, perfectly complementing one of the best voices ever to set foot inside a recording studio.

“Superstar” was originally written by Leon Russell and Bonnie Bramlett.

Leon Russell is a relatively well-known figure in music circles. In later years, he was instantly recognisable as the person with the white stetson and flowing white beard playing alongside some of the biggest names in rock and roll.

Back in the 1960s and 70s, though, Leon Russell played with, and for, just about any big name in the music industry you care to mention. He was also a successful songwriter, with hit songs like Joe Cocker’s “Delta Lady” to his name.

Bonnie Bramlett is less well-known these days, but she also played with some of the finest musicians in the 20th Century. She was one of Ike and Tina Turner’s backing singers and signed to the legendary Stax record label in the first wave of the “blue-eyed soul” movement.

In the late 1960s Leon Russell played piano in the band Bonnie Bramlett fronted, called Delaney and Bonnie, when he wrote “Superstar” with her.

For a song that would go on to be famous around the world in the hands of one of the most popular musical acts of the 1970s, “Superstar” didn’t have particularly auspicious beginnings.

It first saw the light of day as the B-side of a Delaney and Bonnie song called “Comin’ Home”, a very minor hit back in 1969. If you’re interested, you can check out that version here… https://youtu.be/qpZ7BOSmO64

Although Delaney and Bonnie didn’t go on to the international stardom their talents might have suggested, Duane Allman, George Harrison and Traffic’s Dave Mason all played with Delaney and Bonnie at some point. The appreciation of their talents by fellow musicians didn’t translate, for some reason, into chart-topping hits of their own, however.

On “Superstar”…as it would come to be known…the bluesy guitar you can hear is played by Eric Clapton and, of course, it’s Leon Russell on piano. Both artists were at the top of their game when they recorded this track.

However, we’re not finished with the list of future superstars who played a part in the transformation of “Superstar” from relatively unloved B-side of a slightly obscure band’s minor hit record into a song which is recognised around the world as one of the Carpenters’ classic tracks.

Next up was Rita Coolidge.

Early in her career, she was one of Delaney and Bonnie’s backing singers, where she obviously got to know the song. Her version of “Superstar” appeared on Joe Cocker’s live 1970 album “Mad Dogs And Englishman”. (Here if you’re keeping up with the various different versions of the song…https://youtu.be/sDN2bB6sR6Q )

The next artist to discover “Superstar” was Bette Midler who recorded a version for her debut album “The Divine Miss M”. Bette Midler’s version is here… https://youtu.be/8sxash7wa0c

And, of course Bette Midler had superstar connections of her own. That’s Barry Manilow you can hear on the piano, and he also co-produced “The Divine Miss M” album.

Notwithstanding the song’s considerable pedigree up to this point, it was when Richard Carpenter heard Bette Midler’s version of “Superstar” that he thought he might be able to do something interesting with it.

Bette Midler’s version is very pleasant, but “The Divine Miss M” was recorded when she was very much in her Sally Bowles phase as a performer, which gives the song has a completely different feel.

So I’m glad that by far the most famous version of “Superstar” is the one Richard Carpenter created for his sister Karen to sing. That version has since become the standard for this sensitive, and surprisingly haunting, song.

The song we know today as “Superstar” was originally called “Groupie (Superstar)” when it first appeared on that Delaney and Bonnie B-side.

As you might expect, the song was about a women who fell for a superstar passing through the town where she lived. They spent just one night together, which evidently meant a lot more to her than it did to him because she never saw him again.

Now her only connection with the man she loved is when she hears one of his songs on the radio.

Karen Carpenter’s voice perfectly conveys the sense of longing for the guy she only got to hold in her arms for one special night. Somehow she injects vastly more emotion into “Superstar”…

Long ago, and oh, so far away
I fell in love with you before the second show
Your guitar, it sounds so sweet and clear
But you’re not really here, it’s just the radio

Alfred Lord Tennyson said “Tis better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all.”

That’s not been my experience. And from the way she sung “Superstar”, I’m not sure that was Karen Carpenter’s experience either.

I could just be wildly projecting of course, but for me, even though Karen Carpenter’s voice displays all its usual immense technical quality, “Superstar” always feels to me like it’s got something a bit extra too.

There’s a vulnerability in the words Karen Carpenter sings which always says to me…these aren’t just words I’m singing to the best of my ability, this song hits home with me in a way few others do.

Whether that’s the case or not, the rich orchestration on this most recent version of “Superstar”, courtesy of the Royal Philharmonic, somehow emphasises that vulnerability and makes an already-emotional song into something really quite moving.

Loneliness is such a sad affair
And I can hardly wait to be with you again
What to say to make you come again?
Come back to me again and play your sad guitar

I know we’re talking about one of the most exceptional singing voices of the 20th Century here, but Karen Carpenter really sells this verse. Just the way she sings the word “loneliness” makes you feel this is a path she understands all too well.

Richard Carpenter does an immense job on the production for this updated version of “Superstar”. He makes it into something so much more than just the revival of some well-known tune by a long-departed artist.

It remains firmly the song that showcased Karen Carpenter’s unique vocal talents back in 1971.

At the same time, it’s an entirely different, more vulnerable, more emotional, more mellow, more melancholy, more richly-toned song that could easily have been recorded yesterday…not, as it is now, nearly 50 years ago.

If you love the Carpenters as much as I do, you could do a lot worse than spend a few minutes in the company of this version of “Superstar”.

It uses the original vocal track…which, let’s face it, would be impossible to improve on in any event…but updates the musical accompaniment with the help of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

And it’s just wonderful…from the harp that kicks the track off, to that most mournful of instruments, the oboe, for the rest of the intro, every element of the Carpenters’ version of “Superstar” with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra is sheer perfection from start to finish.

Here’s Karen Carpenter on vocals with Richard Carpenter’s updated version of a Carpenters’ classic…Leon Russell and Bonnie Bramlett’s song, “Superstar”…

If you’ve read this far, thank you for your time and attention. I know you could have spent your time doing something else, so I’m very grateful that you’ve spent it in the company of one of my favourite songs.

The video is below, but if you prefer to listen to your music on Spotify, you can find today’s track here…(for comparison, this is the Carpenters’ original version of “Superstar”)… https://open.spotify.com/track/6IENlNQrcfa7XNrxxcLove

Without words, it’s just a nice tune. Add words — now you’ve got a song. And songs can change your world. I write about some that changed mine.

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