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Karen Carpenter Sings ‘Superstar,’ As She Becomes One

Bonnie Bramlett and Leon Russell’s evocative 1969 composition had history even before the Carpenters recorded their version.

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Superstar Carpenters
Carpenters artwork: UMG

Bonnie Bramlett and Leon Russell’s evocative 1969 composition “Superstar” had a lot of history even before Richard and Karen Carpenter recorded their version in early 1971. But the sophisticated rendition by the Carpenters would become the definitive pop interpretation of the tune that took its bow as the highest new entry on the Billboard Hot 100 for the week of September 4, 1971.

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Delaney & Bonnie had recorded the first version of the song in late 1969, with Eric Clapton adding subtle guitar detail. It was released only as the B-side of their Atlantic single “Comin’ Home,” which peaked at No.84 in the US but reached No.16 in the UK, credited to Delaney & Bonnie and Friends featuring Eric Clapton. At that time, the song was called “Groupie (Superstar).”

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In 1970, when Joe Cocker embarked on his famous Mad Dogs & Englishmen tour, Leon Russell was his bandleader, and Rita Coolidge was given the vocal spotlight to interpret the song that by now was known as “Superstar.” All of that was before the Carpenters made it their own, with the help of Earle Dumler’s plaintive oboe, Joe Osborn on bass, and the prolific session drummer Hal Blaine.

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Richard Carpenter wasn’t aware of the Delaney & Bonnie or Mad Dogs versions. But he was attracted to the song when he heard Bette Midler, before she had ever made the charts, performing it on the Tonight Show on American television. She included it on her debut album The Divine Miss M, and then the duo’s recording became part of their third, self-titled album, released in May, 1971.

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The Carpenters were coming off a huge No.2 US hit from the album with “Rainy Days And Mondays,” and were soon onto another winner. “Superstar” entered the Hot 100 at a confident No.49, in a week that also included modest new entries for Joni Mitchell’s “Carey” and Graham Nash’s “Military Madness.” It took only six weeks to climb to No.2, where it stayed for two weeks, parked behind Rod Stewart’s “Maggie May”/“Reason To Believe.” It went Top 10 in Japan and Canada, and in the UK it became their third hit, and second Top 20, at No.18.

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Bonnie Bramlett’s revisiting of the song was on her 2002 album I’m Still The Same. In 1983, Luther Vandross’ epic version was part of a medley with the Aretha Franklin hit “Until You Come Back To Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do).” There was a reading by British vocalist Elkie Brooks, from her 1981 big seller Pearls, and an unlikely one by indie rock heroes Sonic Youth, from the 1994 tribute album If I Were A Carpenter.

Buy or stream “Superstar” on the Carpenters album.

 

7 Comments

7 Comments

  1. JustinianoSacco

    September 4, 2014 at 6:23 pm

    ninguna como Karen!!!…

  2. acosta

    September 4, 2014 at 7:55 pm

    Fabuleux en expression

  3. Tony L

    November 20, 2014 at 1:59 am

    You should include Chrissie Hynde’s version with Urge Overkill—recorded under the group name Superfan—on this playlist. It’s a very nice homage to the Carpenters’ hit.

  4. Robert

    October 12, 2016 at 2:56 pm

    Bette’s was the best and definitive version full of passion, longing and soul. It is easily a true work of art . The Carpenters version was a nice smooth pop cover but Bette makes you feel she lived it while Karen just sang it sounding very pretty.

  5. Mark Zemke

    February 5, 2022 at 2:58 am

    Having grown up as a “child of the ’70’s”, there are 3 female voices in my opinion (and admittedly sketchy memory!) that define the decade: Linda Ronstadt, Joni Mitchell and Karen Carpenter … the Carpenters’ version of “Superstar” is one that makes my “Top 10 Stranded-On-A- Desert-Island Songs” … she was greatly talented, quite beautiful, a gentle soul with a voice that takes me back to a time-and-place in my life, though it often makes me quite melancholy … I still feel a sense of great loss when I think of her …

  6. Fred Swims

    February 17, 2022 at 6:45 am

    As good as it is, the Carpenters Superstar is no match when compared to the live performance on tour with Leon Russell at the helm.

  7. nightsketcher

    February 23, 2022 at 4:29 am

    I’ve always found the chorus in this song a poppy and saccharine letdown after the sublime beauty and ominous undertones of the main verses – which I guess is lucky, or I’d be listening to the song too much. The emotional and aesthetic territory she’s reached when she sings “radio” just blows me away. Rilke has a good quote: “what is beauty but the beginning of terror?” (some translate it as. “what is beauty but the bearable edge of a knowing we could not endure?”). Then the jangly chorus comes and breaks the spell. Sonic Youth did an excellent job of knocking enough sweetness out of the chorus to retain some continuity of tone. I wish there were a similar version with Karen Carpenter’s voice.

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