The following article and follow-up
appeared Dec. 23, 2005, in the Chicago Tribune
voice: The stuff of dreams
Tribune arts critic
Published December 23, 2005
frigid night, I sat alone on the snowy street outside my house listening to
Karen Carpenter sing "I'll be Home For Christmas" on my car radio.
I love that voice.
It hit notes with such surety. Its evocative lower register had a richness that
no female pop singer ever has matched. But most important of all, it was such a
Carpenter sang without attitude -- but also without excessive sentiment. In
other words, her voice was at once incredibly beautiful and strikingly neutral.
And that's exactly what "I'll be Home for Christmas," my favorite song from this
time of year, requires. First recorded in 1943 by Bing Crosby with the John
Scott Trotter Orchestra, the lyrics first were intended as a kind of war-time
fantasy, as if dreamed by a soldier stuck overseas and dreaming of home and
hearth. The ultimate line of the song, after all, is a sad one: "If only in my
As with her other Christmas recordings, Carpenter's version was infinitely more
Listen to her sing this Christmas ballad and you can hear a weary business
traveler shoving past delays at O'Hare. You can sense a mother rushing back to
her kids who count on her. And you can detect a lover desperate for a warm bed
with someone in it.
All at once.
And although it's been nearly 23 years since Carpenter's death (at the age of
32), the recording will forever come with a certain sadness. Sometimes, it can
feel like she's singing about a home where someone is missing for good.
Frankly, the impact of the song all depends on one's mood of the moment -- and
at what point the listener is in their life. That was Carpenter's brilliance --
that coupling of certitude and pliability, that unique combination of eroticism
and maternal comfort.
This is a song that revolves around a promise. And Carpenter's voice had the
unmistakable sound of one who always kept her promises.
When I was single and lonely, this singer and this Christmas song evoked the
home I wanted and the person I wanted in it with me. Now she -- and it -- make
me think about the nature of my home and its place in my priorities. The world
of the song is both a confirmation of what we have, and yet, given the frantic
way life goes at this time of year, also an elusive dream.
Copyright © 2006,
carrying a torch for Karen Carpenter
Published January 6, 2006
Twenty-two years after her
death, Karen Carpenter is sorely missed.
On Dec. 23, Tempo published my short appreciation of the late, great singer,
whose version of "I'll Be Home for Christmas" is my favorite seasonal recording.
Bar none. The response from readers was immediate, great in size and strikingly
Many readers noted the astonishing richness and honesty of Carpenter's voice,
praising its purity, beauty and complexity. Some implied a certain embarrassment
in being a Karen Carpenter fan, a state of being that many said they must keep
A few suggested there were other voices worthy of compare. But most argued
Carpenter has always been able to wriggle below my defenses. Clearly, I'm not
ST. CHARLES -- How I enjoyed your article on Karen Carpenter. I agree with you
100 percent. What a beautiful and unique gift she had, and such a tragedy to
I'm so tired of the "pop-divas" with their machine-gun vibratos reaching into
the upper scales. While they may be considered technically accomplished, they
are indistinguishable from one another.
When Karen Carpenter is singing, my head turns and I say "aaaahhhh," only one of
-- Sheridan Florence
AMES, Iowa -- "Strikingly neutral" is a good way to express the quality of
Karen's voice. For me, she nailed the note without artifice and tremulous, never
sneaking up from behind or the side of a tune to strike something different the
way so many others try. Who needs "different" when being true to the music as
written is all that's required? But of course that's the problem. Few are able
to "just sing."
Thanks for the well-expressed tribute. It's so good (and often rare) that
someone agrees with me.
-- Phyllis Harris
NAPERVILLE--For years I have argued that the best female vocalist that I had
heard in my lifetime was Karen Carpenter. Had her life not been cut short, I'm
certain that more people would feel this way. Her presentation was pure and
She never seemed to strain to reach a note. She didn't flaunt her talents with
departures from an original composition the way that many contemporary artists
do. You can keep your Barbras, your Mariahs, and your Celines. In my book, they
all pale in comparison to Karen Carpenter.
LEMONT -- I don't normally read your section of the newspaper, but the Carpenter
name in the headline caught my attention. I share your appreciation for the
unusual quality of Karen's voice and the way she delivered the lyrics. I was
such a fan that when I hear her voice, I get angry with her for taking it away
from me so soon.
-- John Pianowski
SYCAMORE -- Last night as I turned into my development after driving from
O'Hare, I was listening to Karen Carpenter sing "I'll Be Home for Christmas," so
it was very enjoyable to read your column of an appreciation for her. I am a
longtime listener of all Carpenters albums and agree that there has not been
another voice such as hers. Thanks for the very nice article, remembrance and
As I'm sure you know, she also played drums (occasionally) for their band and
she had great taste in automobiles, once owning a beautiful rust and beige 1956
-- Wed Lundsberg
CHICAGO -- Thank you for an unexpected gift for Christmas: a touching tribute to
one of the most gifted female singers of all time, Karen Carpenter. There are
not many writers out there who would delve into the obscure subject of the
purity and near perfection of Karen's technique. Karen's voice had no pretense.
She knew where to go with a song and simply delivered. The minute you hear that
rich alto, you know it's Karen.
Call it what they will, but many of us have a love affair with a voice that is
so intimate, it almost seems as if she's right there in the room with you. Her
untimely death leaves me to wonder what other great material would have emerged
from this amazing talent. Richard Carpenter once said: "If I knew we were going
to lose her so young, I would've not had her sing stuff like `Beechwood-
Thank you again for reminding us of that inimitable voice, the "girl next door"
we all loved and still love: Karen Carpenter.
-- Matthew Cortez
ARLINGTON HEIGHTS -- I just read your article on Karen Carpenter and the song,
"I'll Be Home for Christmas." I immediately got a sense of deja vu -- in the
sense that you took the words right out of my mouth -- words that I have been
saying since they started playing holiday songs this year. The song itself is
beautiful -- but what makes it so special is the rendition by Carpenter. I've
heard it sung by countless singers in all genre's of music -- but no one brings
the unique touch that she does -- with her crisp, clear (you hear every note) --
and in her own way, soulful singing. Her voice was an amazing instrument -- and
never more perfect than in singing this song. It is such a shame that we were
robbed of such a talent.
-- Linda Rudolf
Copyright © 2006,
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