Before it was titled “adult contemporary,” the format catering to an older crowd searching their AM radio dial for softer sounds among the psychedelic pop and rock of the late Sixties was known as “easy listening.” Alongside singers such as Jack Jones and Petula Clark, country-pop crossover artists including Glen Campbell and Johnny Cash were enjoying success on easy listening stations. But in 1970, a new duo burst onto the scene – the brother-sister act the Carpenters. Richard Carpenter wrote, arranged, produced and played keyboards, while Karen Carpenter took her place behind a drum kit, a novelty for the time. Her voice, however, was no novelty.
Karen Carpenter was born in
Blessed with one of the purest, most naturally expressive instruments ever committed to record, Karen’s contralto vocals were distinguished by an unusually low timbre, giving nearly everything she sang a warm, enveloping quality. Her range also allowed her to tackle a wide array of material, including country music. Although the Carpenters only had a single entry on the country charts with their 1978 Top Ten hit “Sweet, Sweet Smile,” written by “Angel of the Morning” singer Juice Newton with Otha Young, their Number One 1973 pop hit “Top of the World,” awash in steel guitar, should have been a crossover smash, coming as it did just ahead of other (albeit controversial) genre-hopping songs by Olivia Newton-John and John Denver.
The singer’s takes on such country tunes as Hank Williams’ “Jambalaya (on the Bayou),” the Skeeter Davis hit “The End of the World” and the Eagles’ “Desperado” were hints of what could have been a second act for Karen. But Carpenter’s influence on singers of all genres, including country music, has certainly increased in the time since her passing. Last December, singer-songwriter Brandy Clark covered the Carpenters’ holiday classic “Merry Christmas, Darling,” and in 1984, duo Mickey Gilley and Charly McClain cut their version of the 1981 Carpenters hit “Touch Me When We’re Dancing.” In 1986, it would top the country chart in a version by
Singer Lynn Anderson, who had a Number One country hit and Top Five pop entry with “Rose Garden” in 1970, reached Number Two on the country chart with “Top of the World,” a move which led the duo to release their version, originally featured on the 1972 LP A Song for You as a single. It quickly topped the pop survey, seven months after they had taken the song to another prestigious location. In May 1973, with President Richard Nixon in his last, beleaguered year in the White House, the duo performed at an event honoring the state visit of West German Chancellor Willy Brandt.
In the above clip, following an introduction of “Top of the World” by Richard, the band kicks in with Karen letting out a playful off-camera “yee-haw” from behind the drum kit, an expression she repeats at the end of the song. The rest of the tune, however, is serious business and a perfect example of the pristinely gorgeous voice with which she delivered nearly every performance in her all-too-brief lifetime.