Driving and singing: Carpenters, “A Song For You”

Every Friday for a while I’ll be sharing songs I love to sing and telling stories about their place in my life. Here I tell a story about the first celebrity death that hit me hard. I wrote this before the recent deaths of David Bowie and Alan Rickman, deaths that did not hit me particularly hard but did deeply affect many of my friends, and maybe you. It’s just part of being human to mourn the loss of people we didn’t really know, but whose work made us feel like we did. I wish somebody had explained that to me when I was a kid.

It could well be my first memory. Workday mornings, Dad’s alarm blaring, I’d get down out of bed and pad quietly into his room. If I lay still on the corner of his bed, he’d let me stay. While he got dressed in the dim light of his side-table lamp, his clock radio played softly on the Hit Parade station. I must have been three, because that’s how old I was when the Carpenters’ “Close to You” went to number one. Hit Parade played it every morning and I so looked forward to it. When it played, I’d close my eyes to see colors that flowed and shifted as Karen Carpenter sang. Such joy!

Growing up in the 1970s as I did, it was easy to be a Carpenters fan because their music saturated radio: “We’ve Only Just Begun,” “Top of the World,” “It’s Going to Take Some Time,” “Rainy Days and Mondays.” I especially loved “Only Yesterday.” I used to glide back and forth on our back-yard swing and sing it over and over again. I was in love with Karen Carpenter’s voice!

Those early records remained such radio staples that it was easy not to notice that the duo had few hits in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Their early success brought enormous pressure, and they struggled to handle it. Richard wound up addicted to Quaaludes, a sedative. Karen dieted compulsively, to the point of damaging her health. Her case thrust anorexia nervosa into the public consciousness. Not only did they take time off to rest and recover, but the few songs they did release in those years just didn’t connect with as many people. Few became radio hits.

Meanwhile, I was just a teen who loved to hear and sing the songs from my favorite band. I had no idea the challenges Karen and Richard faced; all I knew of them as people came from their smiling personas on their frequent TV specials. And then, while idly watching TV one February evening in 1983, I caught this news brief on ABC:

I was shocked so deeply, so sharply, that I felt like I had suddenly been set on fire. The report went by so fast that part of me wasn’t even sure I had really heard it. There was no Internet to check for confirmation, and we didn’t have cable so I couldn’t switch to the fledgling CNN for more information.

I was deeply confused by the depth of my reaction. So much pain, so much grief, over a woman I didn’t actually know! I told my mom, my dad; they said they were sorry, but they were clearly surprised by how hard I was taking the news and didn’t know how to comfort me. I felt alone with my grief, which I couldn’t shake. Nobody knew how important Karen’s voice was to me. I scarcely knew until Karen died.

I had just one Carpenters album, a gift from my parents several years before. I ached to buy more so I could hear more of their songs. I saved my meager allowance and I did chores for neighbors for money for weeks and weeks until I had saved enough to buy another. Money in pocket, I rode the city bus to the mall, walked into Musicland, and picked an album out almost at random: A Song For You, from 1973.


I came right back home and put the platter on my record player. The title track opened the album, and shortly Karen sang these words:

I love you in a place where there’s no space or time
I love you for in my life you are a friend of mine
And when my life is over
Remember when we were together
We were alone and I was singing this song for you

I could scarcely believe what I heard, and my head spun. I knew it wasn’t possible for Karen’s words to be a direct message for me, yet how could I not let them penetrate and help me grieve? At last, I cried openly. I began to move on.

I would buy the rest of the Carpenters’ catalog over the next couple years. Their music remains a beloved part of the soundtrack of my life. And I’ll always be grateful that fate, or perhaps random chance, delivered “A Song For You” to me first.

Click Play to listen to “A Song For You.”


13 responses to “Driving and singing: Carpenters, “A Song For You””

  1. Sam Avatar

    Hey Jim, excellent and touching post. Although I was a bit younger, I remember my parents watching the news of Karen Carpenter’s death. They were huge fans, and I must admit, I loved them too. Heck, all the Asian people I know love The Carpenters! I loved David Bowie too. So sad all these legends are gone and not many left on this planet.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      What cracks me up is how many Carpenters concert videos there are out there with subtitles in various Asian languages! Here’s hoping a new generation of legends is minted soon.

  2. hmunro Avatar

    Thank you for this lovely post, Jim, and for the trip down my own musical memory lane. I loved The Carpenters too — their music was a frequent soundtrack to my family’s Sunday meals, and I thought Karen had the sweetest voice I’d maybe ever heard. The news of her sudden and tragically needless death shocked me, too. But it also may have helped save my life. I was a ballet dancer back then, you see, and I was literally starving myself to try to attain the ideal of the long-limbed, sylph-like Balanchine ballerina. I’d already suffered jaundice and malnutrition, but it seemed a worthwhile price to pay for my “art.” It wasn’t until Karen’s death that I considered the potential long-term consequences. I quit ballet shortly thereafter and have been trying to make peace with my stocky, muscular little body ever since. I’m heartbroken that Karen didn’t get that same second chance.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      It’s so hard when your body type doesn’t line up with your dreams. When I was younger, I wished I were more athletic and had a body to match, but alas, I was a scrawny geek. In my 20s I hit the gym trying to correct it and I became a strong scrawny geek. I mean, I looked no different, I was just strong. It was so frustrating!

      A hard lesson we all have to learn is that we can’t be anything we want to be. Our bodies and our minds are suited for some things and not for others. I wish we would teach our children that it is okay to be exactly how you’re made, and to play to their natural strengths.

      I’m so glad Karen’s death had real value in your life.

  3. Keith Avatar

    I enjoyed your post, Jim. A Song For You was one of the first albums I bought, and has been a favorite for many years. Like you, I was hit hard by Karen’s death. I was home one afternoon and my mother walked in from shopping and said, “I just heard on the radio that Karen Carpenter died.” Couldn’t believe it, and was saddened that her voice was silenced. A real loss to music.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Thanks Keith. In those days I was the only Carpenters fan I knew, so I bore this pretty much alone. It’s only years later that I found others who really mourned her death too.

  4. Christopher Smith Avatar
    Christopher Smith

    Thanks for sharing your memories Jim, I was just over 171/2 when this Album came out the one song I mostly remember is “Top of the World” as it was a Top Ten hit over here in the UK it peaked at number 5. I used to watch a TV show called “Top of the Pops” every week on the BBC and this would have been on there. anyway I have a Spotify account and you prompted me to listen to the whole Album and such a beautiful Album its is to.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Christoper, I remember hearing Top of the World on the radio. It wasn’t released as an A side until a year or two after this album came out as at least one country artist covered it and had a hit with it, which led Richard Carpenter to add some extra steel guitar to it and release it too. Richard has said in interviews that he considers A Song For You the ultimate Carpenters album.

  5. J P Cavanaugh Avatar

    Thanks for this very enjoyable piece. Being a bit older, I lacked interest in the Carpenters when they hit the big time, and have never really gotten to where you are with them. I will agree that Karen had a lovely voice and it was sad that her time came to an end so soon.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      It’s interesting how having juuuuust a few years on me puts you in the camp that did not resonate with the Carpenters!

      1. J P Cavanaugh Avatar

        Yes, it was the onset of adolescence when, at first, I craved music that was more masculine and assertive. Then, I made another change and sought music that was more obscure and less popular. As folks say today, it wasn’t the Carpenters, it was me. Perhaps I could stand to give them another listen.

  6. The Trailhead Avatar

    I just now saw your comment on my post about Rickman and Bowie, and I had to run over here to see who it was you wrote about! And a fine choice, I have to say. A life cut off too early.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Thanks for running over! No doubt we lost Karen far too soon.

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