Karen and Ella

Karen Carpenter and Ella Fitzgerald
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This morning we came across a YouTube video that literally had us in tears. Maybe it’s the stressful times we’re living in, but let’s face it — we’re suckers for what’s known as The Great American Songbook. Especially when its songs are beautifully sung. Call it nostalgia if you will, but a great voice is still a great voice. And this video has two of them — Ella Fitzgerald and Karen Carpenter.

On May 16, 1980, ABC television aired “The Carpenters: Music, Music, Music” starring the hugely successful pop duo Karen and Richard Carpenter. Ella and singer John Davidson were special guests. Nelson Riddle and his Orchestra provided the instrumental backdrop; composer and arranger George Wyle contributed “special music material.”

The video

The scene opens on a darkened set. Ella sits downstage, next to a long, narrow barrier — maybe a bar? The orchestra uncoils a smooth, smoky intro. Karen enters through curtains upstage. She is the first to sing:

Karen Carpenter and Ella Fitzgerald
Click to open on YouTube

Is it live or is it Memorex?

There seems to be a difference of opinion as to whether or not Karen is lip-syncing throughout. Some listeners believe she only pre-recorded the first song, “Masquerade,” and the rest is live. Others insist she mimed the whole thing, possibly at the behest of her perfectionist brother Richard.

Ella, everyone seems to agree, is live. The situation calls to mind Fitzgerald’s famous glass-shattering TV ad from the early 1970s: “Is it live or is it Memorex?” In fact, by the time this TV special aired, Fitzgerald was enjoying a late-career resurgence thanks to those Memorex commercials. And a gaggle of Boomer audiophiles were left arguing over whether or not audio cassettes were “good enough” for serious listening.

But we digress. Anyway — does it matter who lip-synced what? With Riddle’s gorgeous arrangements providing the perfect setting, these two professionals come so close to musical Nirvana it’s scary. At 3:27, after Karen finishes a chorus of “Someone to Watch Over Me,” you can just barely make out Ella saying “so pretty.” That’s Ella Fitzgerald, complimenting Karen Carpenter. All right then.

Go ahead; watch it again:

Karen Carpenter and Ella Fitzgerald
Click to open on YouTube

Better have a hanky close to hand.