That’s A Cover? explores cover songs that you may have thought were originals.
The term “groupie” was just starting to get a toehold in the American vernacular in the late ’60s. Groupies were written about in lengthy articles in Rolling Stone and Time magazines. They were the subject of a 1969 book (Groupie) and a 1970 documentary (Groupies). They were, in the words of Hall of Fame groupie Pamela Des Barres, the Mary Magdalenes to any and all Jesuses in the rock bands that came through town. And Rita Coolidge thought they would make an ideal subject for a song.
Coolidge was on her first tour, as backing vocalist for Delaney and Bonnie & Friends. One of the Friends was Eric Clapton, lying low after the implosion of Blind Faith, and Coolidge watched the devoted girls who came to show after show to watch and (hopefully) interact with ol’ Slowhand. She came up with the plot for a song, christened it “Groupie Song,” and brought the idea to Leon Russell, who was the guitarist/keyboardist for D&B&F.
Russell brought the raw material to Bonnie Bramlett, and together they began shaping it into a song. Bramlett later said:
Although Rita did not write on the song, without her help, it would not have gotten done. She sat and sang harmony so I could build parts. I can’t tell you what the other writers were thinking of, but as far as I was concerned, it was the lament of a groupie. Hence its co-title, “Groupie Song.” Now, it’s about whomever the listener wants it to be about. The point is, he’s not there and he probably will never come back for her. But because she’s still singing it, she still has hope.
They brought it to the studio, and Bonnie recorded her vocal in one take. “It was a stone-cold smash record then and still is to this day,” said Bobby Whitlock, one of the “and Friends” who went on to be in Derek and the Dominoes. “That was the best studio performance Bonnie ever did in her life. Singing ‘Superstar’ like it was hers, because it was.”
After all that, though, the song only dribbled out as a B-side to the 1970 single “Comin’ Home.” Many place the blame for this at Delaney Bramlett’s feet – drugs, booze, and an oversized ego. “I’m sure that her career would have been different had she been the one with the hit,” Whitlock said. “But that, too, was never to be, because Delaney was jealous of even his own wife.” And when Bonnie asked Coolidge why she hadn’t pressed for co-authorship of the song, she replied, “Because I knew if I did, then Delaney would beat the shit out of you and it wasn’t worth it.”
Joe Cocker was in a spot; he had just learned he was going on tour on March 20, 1970, and here it was March 12. Leon Russell had coproduced and arranged the Joe Cocker! album, and Cocker reached out to him for help. D&B&F had just finished a tour, and since the band wasn’t on retainer, they were free to hop on board the Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour. Soon to become a legendary traveling bacchanal, the 20+ members hit 48 cities, playing and partying past exhaustion. But they made sure to save a spot for Coolidge (backed by Russell’s tickled ivories) to sing “Groupie,” which was gradually losing its name to the subtitle that started out a parenthetical aside. Rolling Stone called the version of “Superstar” that appeared on the Mad Dogs & Englishmen album “sad filler” before grudgingly adding that “maybe it’s all just a matter of taste.”
Other artists started to notice “Superstar.” One was Cher, who recorded it during her sessions for 3614 Jackson Highway. That’s the address of Muscle Shoals Studios, and with the rhythm section that backed Aretha and Wicked Wilson Pickett behind her, Cher made one of her strongest albums ever – one that, unfortunately, bombed with the listening public, only getting up to #160 on the Billboard charts. A follow-up album was scrapped, leaving five leftover songs to dribble out as singles. Her take on “Superstar” was released as a promo single in November of that year, but it never got the official release it deserved.
Another was Bette Midler, whose nightclub act was starting to get her notice. A year before her debut album, The Divine Miss M, featured “Superstar,” she performed it on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. This isn’t that performance – it’s from Burt Bacharach: Opus #3, a TV special released in 1973 – but it shows how young Bette could kill it.
One of the people who saw the Tonight Show performance was Richard Carpenter. He and his sister Karen were in the process of recording their third album, and after a late night of recording, Richard joined millions of Americans in watching Johnny before bed. “She sang it more as a modern day torch song, but the song really caught my ear,” he remembered later. “I felt, with the right arrangement, the song could be a hit, and was a natural for Karen.”
He ran upstairs and told his sister, “I’ve found the tune!” When Karen, who was familiar with Rita Coolidge’s version, heard what song Richard had in mind, she said, “That’s nice.”
“Richard looked at me like I had three heads,” she said in a 1976 interview. “He said: ‘Are you out of your mind?'”
It was one of the few times Karen wasn’t on board with her brother’s selection of song from the get-go. In her defense, this was a song about a groupie, not a natural choice for performers as chaste and wholesome as the Carpenters were. “But he heard the whole record in his head, needless to say,” Karen recalled, and she reluctantly came on board.
To make the song safer for radio, Richard changed one word: “I can hardly wait to sleep with you again” became “I can hardly wait to be with you again.” The anti-censorship crowd cried foul, but the publishers were delighted – many artists, they later told Richard, had steered clear of the song thanks to that word.
When Karen stepped up to the mike, she sang a guide vocal designed to help the other musicians be familiar with the song, reading off a napkin that Richard had written the lyrics out on. That guide vocal was all the song needed – like Bonnie Bramlett before her, Karen Carpenter got it right the first time. When she heard the final results, she realized what Richard had known all along – this was a hit. “It didn’t knock me out until I recorded it, at which time it blew me over,” she said in one interview; in another, she said, “When I heard his arrangement of it I fell over, and now it’s one of my favorites too.”
The Carpenters’ recording of “Superstar” went to number 2 on the pop charts and number 1 on the adult contemporary charts. It’s now the best-known version of the song, with any covers following its footsteps and no others. Bette Midler, whose cover inspired Richard Carpenter and was then swept aside, made a bunch of nasty jokes about Karen Carpenter afterward (“She’s so white she’s invisible!”), which she has since apologized for. Karen professed to not be bothered by the jokes – “She’s funny as heck… She likes to pick on me, but I think that’s just a good showbiz bit for her.” Anyway, the gold record didn’t belong to Bette Midler, or to Cher, or to Rita Coolidge or Bonnie Bramlett. It belonged to the brother and sister from sunny Downey, California.
See more Carpenters covers in our archives.