I will never forget the first time I heard that voice.
I was in the eighth grade, that awkward time when everything and nothing matters, sitting in an English class. From the open partition that led into the social studies classroom wafted the most beautiful voice I had ever heard. It was a female voice, of course. And she was, it seemed, singing just for me.
"Just like me," she sang. "They long to be close to you..."
That was my first exposure to Karen Carpenter.
I went nuts. Had to have everything she had ever put out. Went to Cat's that very weekend and bought their singles collection. I admit it. I was in love.
The Carpenters were maligned by "hip rock critics" back in the early 70s as the poster children of cheese. Even Richard Nixon liked their music, for God's sake.
But middle America embraced them. And those who didn't let politics dictate musical taste knew that voice was one in a million.
I'm told she could turn it on in the middle of the night just after waking up. It didn't matter. She could sing anytime and anywhere.
Her brother Richard, who played piano and sang harmony, was the producer of the Carpenters' trademark sound. His arrangements played to her strengths. He knew the whole darn thing would work if he went for the intimate sound.
Go back and listen to the best of their catalog and you'll see. She sounds best on the yearning ballads, most notably "Superstar" and "A Song For You." Amid all the "We've Only Just Begun" naivete was a brooding sadness than ran through much of the Carpenters' work.
Which makes sense if you know the story. Karen Carpenter was anorexic. An early Billboard review called her "Richard Carpenter's chubby sister." She never recovered. Starved herself on a regular basis. By the late 70s, she was forced to seek treatment. The Carpenters took a hiatus from touring and recording.
Richard had his problems, too. He became addicted to sleeping pills and spent some time in a rehab clinic. The pressures of life on the road were too much.
They came back in 1981 with "Made in America," a happy "we're better than ever" return to the sound that made them stars. The plan was to get back to doing what they do best and to eventually start touring again.
It wasn't to be.
The years of abuse had weakened Karen Carpenter's heart. She died, of heart failure, on Feb. 4, 1983. That voice, that beautiful voice, was silenced forever.
Richard is doing fine these days from what I understand. He went on a solo tour a few years ago and continues to oversee the Carpenters musical catalog, including CD releases and such. In his spare time, he collects classic cars. He says he thinks about Karen every day.
I think about her, too, sometimes. Especially late at night, when I can't sleep, and one of her songs comes on the iPod during random shuffle.
"Are we really happy with this lonely game we play? Looking for the right words to say..."
That voice will live forever. Future generations will discover it. They'll be blown over by her talent, amazed that she sounds so accessible, and download all of her music onto iPods or whatever the technology offers.
There she'll be, singing somewhere in the lonely night, just for you.