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.
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).”
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.
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.
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.
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.