“Don’t you remember you told me you loved me, baby?”
You might not recognize the Carpenters’ “Superstar” the moment it starts playing, but once Karen Carpenter’s voice starts belting the chorus, you know exactly what you’re listening to and want to sing along.
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While the Carpenters’ version of “Superstar” is the most popular, they were not the first or last to try and make the song their own. This begs the question: Does being the most popular make it the best?
Let’s listen and see…
Delaney & Bonnie
Delaney and Bonnie were the original performers of “Groupie (Superstar)” (the name of the song when they first recorded it). Written in 1969 by Bonnie Bramlett and Leon Russell — a famous session musician — Delaney and Bonnie’s version of the song is a little more bluesy than the Carpenters’ and a heck of a lot more soulful. This isn’t surprising, since they’re now considered one of the greatest blue-eyed soul bands of the ’70s. They were also able to snag some amazing musicians to play with them. Eric Clapton, for example, played guitar on “Groupie (Superstar).” Despite the merits of “Groupie (Superstar),” Delaney and Bonnie never found huge success, though they have always been highly regarded by other musicians, like Duane Allman, Gregg Allman and George Harrison.
Regardless of how you feel for the Carpenters’ version, you gotta admit, Bonnie Bramlett’s voice handles the soul (and the pain) of the song well. (Fun fact: Bonnie was briefly in Fleetwood Mac in the 1990s, replacing Stevie Nicks.)
Before The Carpenters took a crack at “Superstar,” a little-known Bette Midler reworked the song. Performing it on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, Midler’s take on the song was quite different from the original. A bit more barebones, most of the song is just a piano and her voice with a faint string arrangement in the background.
For better or worse, Midler definitely created a unique version of the song. After the Carpenters covered it, many made jokes about there being a rivalry between Karen and Bette because of it.
It was actually the Bette Midler version of the song that inspired Richard Carpenter to cover “Superstar.” Apparently Karen, who had heard Delaney and Bonnie’s version, wasn’t too keen on the song at first. By the time the Carpenters had finished recording it, Karen had come around.
What’s interesting is that the band, either intentional or accidental, made some small word changes to the song, which opened it up to a wider crowd. “And I can hardly wait / to sleep with you again” became “and I can hardly wait / to be with you again,” making the song just innocent enough for record companies to really get behind it. Richard Carpenter’s arrangement of the song was also lauded by many, the combination of the oboe, driven bass and rising strings and horns lifting the vocals more than any of the previous versions. They would include the song on their 1971 album Carpenters. It would end up rising to number two on the Billboard 100 singles chart and number one on the Easy Listening chart.
The song would go on to be covered by more bands than I can count, mostly thanks to the Carpenters. One of those bands was alt rock, post-punk band Sonic Youth, who covered the song for a Carpenters tribute album in 1994. The song would go on to be used in the soundtrack for the 2007 film Juno.
Sonic Youth’s version is low-key, replacing the oboe with an acoustic guitar at the beginning, and the exaggerated vocals with Thurston Moore’s dream-like voice. There’s also the occasional electronic sound in the background, which I can only describe as a robot farting lasers (which isn’t necessarily bad, it goes with their version well, I just can’t think of another way to describe it).
Needless to say, Richard Carpenter doesn’t like it.
Talking about Sonic Youth’s cover in an interview with NPR, Carpenter said, “At least when it comes to something like this, I will say I don’t care for it but I don’t understand it. So, I’m not going to say it’s good or it’s bad. I’m just going to say I don’t care for it.”
Vandross, who won eight GRAMMY Awards, created a version of “Superstar” that was all his own. It’d be easy to make the case that this might be the best version. A mainstay of his live performances in the 1980s, Vandross would slow the song down, transforming the song into its most soulful iteration. It’d end up taking the number five spot on the Billboard R&B charts.
There’s no doubt that “Superstar” is an amazing song. It’s emotional subject matter contained within fairly simple lyrics makes it universal, allowing a lot of bands to cover it with ease.
But which version is the best?
Well, heck, I don’t know. Personally, I like them all. Ultimately, only one version makes me want to scream the lyrics as I drive down the street in my car, not caring whether anyone sees me (and judges me) or not, and that’s the Carpenters version. Take that any way you want…