EML’s Favorite Songs – CARPENTERS: “Superstar”

Superstar-Carpenters

From the moment I first heard “(They Long to Be) Close to You” in the early summer of 1970 until the mid-1970s, the Carpenters were one of my favorite acts. Their music was beautiful, with the kind of lush orchestration I’ve always loved, and Karen Carpenter had the voice of an angel. I loved them so much I actually wrote a paper about them for my 11th grade English class – perhaps an early presage to my much later calling as a music blogger? They had a successful run of huge hits from 1970-1975, and one of my favorites is the bittersweet “Superstar“.

The song was written by Bonnie Bramlett and Leon Russell, and originally titled “Groupie Song”. But when it was recorded by Delaney & Bonnie and released as a B-side on their single “Comin’ Home” in December 1969, it was re-titled “Groupie (Superstar)”. The song tells the story of a female groupie’s one-night stand with a rock star, whom she hopes will return to her. It was covered by a number of artists, including Joe Cocker (on his Mad Dogs & Englishmen Live Tour album, with vocals sung by Rita Coolidge), Bette Midler (on her debut album The Divine Miss M), Cher, and Australian rock group McPhee, among others. But it was the Carpenters version that stands head and shoulders above the rest, and became one of their biggest hits, peaking at #2 (Rod Stewart’s “Maggie May” had a 5-week run at #1 in the fall of 1971, preventing “Superstar” from reaching the top).

The story goes that Richard Carpenter first became aware of “Superstar” after hearing it sung by a relatively unknown Bette Midler on The Tonight Show in 1971. He loved the song and thought it would be perfect for Karen, and wrote a new arrangement to fit their style. Shockingly, when he played it for her, she wasn’t thrilled with the song. She later recalled “For some reason that tune didn’t hit me in the beginning. It’s the only one. Richard looked at me like I had three heads. He said: ‘Are you out of your mind!‘” But after they recorded the song, she grew to love it too.

“Superstar” was produced by Richard Carpenter with Jack Daugherty, and recorded with members of The Wrecking Crew, the famed collective of Los Angeles area session musicians. As the song’s storyline was originally more risqué than what was typical for the Carpenters, Richard changed a lyric in the second verse “And I can hardly wait to sleep with you again” to the somewhat less suggestive “And I can hardly wait to be with you again.”

The song is breathtakingly beautiful, with rich orchestral instrumentation highlighted by a soaring horn section, gorgeous oboe played by Earle Dumler, a somber, understated bassline by Joe Osborn, drums by the legendary Hal Blaine (even though Karen was herself an accomplished drummer), and a lovely keyboards by Richard Carpenter. Karen’s distinctive contralto vocals never sounded better or more resonant, beautifully conveying the fervent longing for someone you love to return and ease your loneliness. “Superstar” is one of my favorite songs of the 1970s, and for all time.

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

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

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

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

I still remember the exact moment in February 1983 when I heard that Karen Carpenter had died from heart failure at the age of only 32, as a result from years of suffering with the eating disorder anorexia nervosa. I was in my car on the way to a meeting, and nearly burst into tears. Like so many other great artists and musicians who passed away far too soon, Karen’s death was a tremendous loss to the music world.

One thought on “EML’s Favorite Songs – CARPENTERS: “Superstar”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.