‘California Dreamin” has been covered by many singers, but it’s hard to find a version that matches Karen Carpenter‘s vocal. Released after her death, the recording begins as a slow number, before the drums kick in, and the song notches up a gear into funkier territories.
It may actually be Karen playing the drums herself, and it’s almost certainly her brother Richard who is playing the keyboards to the sound of a vibrating string and horn section. The recording is a snapshot of an idea aching to be fleshed out, which begs the question as to why The Carpenters didn’t release a more complete version on one of their albums, especially since it contains one of Karen’s more infectious vocal performances. No less a luminary than Paul McCartney felt she had “the best female voice in the world: melodic, tuneful and distinctive”.
But McCartney wasn’t the only Beatle who admired Carpenter’s vocal prowess, and if the legend is to be believed, John Lennon approached her in a restaurant to say, “I want to tell you love, that you’ve got a fabulous voice”. Her drumming was also widely admired by many, and in 1975, Carpenter was voted the best rock drummer in a poll of Playboy readers, beating Led Zeppelin powerhouse John Bonham to the punch. I’m sure they would have enjoyed this drum-heavy rendition of ‘California Dreamin”, particularly the instrumental section.
Instead, the vignette featured on As Time Goes By is a collation of outtakes, unfinished recordings and other oddities. Released in Japan in 2001, the album could not be released in Karen’s native America until 2003, largely due to a number of copyright discrepancies. The performances were exemplary, not least because they were so refreshingly pure and exciting, free from the mixes that stifled some of the later recordings issued by The Carpenters.
“She just had a timeless voice… Karen was a natural. She didn’t have to practice… she just sang instantly, impeccably whether it was live or on record,” Richard recalled. “She was my sister, she was my professional partner, and she was my best friend”.
Which begs the question of why some of the singles released in the 1970s focused on the instrumental flourishes, studio effects and harmony singers over the artist in question. The Carpenter’s incendiary rendition of ‘Superstar’ is particularly guilty of lacing too much on the backdrop, and Karen sounds like she’s drowning amidst the horns, guitars and pianos blaring away in the background.
‘California Dreamin” is different. There’s nary an instrument at the beginning to support her, and the emphasis is entirely on the voice, angelic sounding, albeit a bit fragile. Then the drums enter, and the keyboards race in, offering the vocalist an opportunity to take a quick breather, before returning for the startling coda.
Paul McCartney must have enjoyed the track because the bass player seems to be modelling their work on the choppy performances The Beatle put to tape on Rubber Soul. It’s a very groovy-sounding tune, but the strings are coated accordingly, decorating the backdrop with a series of strident strokes and detail. Perhaps McCartney informed Richard Carpenter not to follow Phil Spector’s example on ‘The Long and Winding Road’, and to let the vocals breathe across the strings.
After Karen’s rendition, Bobby Womack’s version of ‘California Dreamin” is the definitive interpretation, considering that it lacks the propulsive harmony vocals heard on the sickly rendition favoured by The Mamas & the Papas. The Beach Boys guitar-heavy version is also worthy of your attention, which offers a slower, more thoughtful arrangement, complete with the infectious harmonies that had become a trademark of the band in question.
But none match Karen Carpenter’s vocal performance, singular, sincere and unaffected as it is. Her death left an imprint on the world, not least on her brother. “This is a sad day, but at the same time a very special and beautiful day to my family and me,” the keyboardist recalled at the Hollywood Walk of Fame, in 1983. “My only regret is that Karen is not physically here to share it with us, but I know that she is very much alive in our minds, and in our hearts.”