ALMOST WILD (Valerie Carter, R.I.P.)

Sometimes, one gets by me–I missed Valerie Carter’s passing a year ago. Having just learned of it (as usual while I was looking for something else) I wanted to say a word.

Valerie Carter had the misfortune to be born with lead singer talent, leading lady looks and the soul of a woman who preferred remaining in the shadows. Absent the first two qualities, she would have been left alone…and probably lived a much happier and longer life. Since she had those qualities in abundance, she was pushed to the front early and often–it must have taken an iron will to get back to the obscurity she preferred and stay there.

There was no more startling experience in late-seventies record buying than coming across either of Carter’s first two solo albums in a stack of vinyl somewhere. The eyes looked straight through whatever camera had taken her picture and, staring off the album covers, straight through you.

One of the few things that equaled that experience was getting the records home and finding out that the voice on the black wax inside was a match for those eyes.

Just a Stone’s Throw Away, in particular, spent a lot of time on my turntable in the eighties, which is when I discovered Carter (she recorded these albums in the late seventies–I saw them in the bins several years before I bought them on Dave Marsh’s recommendation–for irony, see bellow). I used to think of her as a great lost talent–but I realized, from bits and pieces I picked up over the years, that she was one of those who maybe just wanted to stay lost. Her friend Linda Ronstadt was one who, a decade earlier, had been in the same boat. Ronstadt went through the whole process–the soul-killing compromises, the slings and arrows of jealous competition and even more jealous rock-crits (Marsh took it the furthest in Stranded, where he professed he would rather have the records he was taking with him than Ronstadt herself–now that’s bitterness–but he had plenty of company)–and made it to superstardom. I sometimes wondered if Linda ever put a word in Valerie’s ear suggesting it wasn’t really worth it.

Whatever happened, it was the world’s loss.

The lady could sing…

…a fact recognized by Ronstadt, James Taylor, Jackson Browne and the legion of others who kept her on speed-dial whenever they needed a backup singer for the next few decades.

And she was a pretty good muse too…

She died last year at 63, of complications that were doubtless rooted in years of the self-abuse so often endemic to those whose souls seek the shadows even if their talent begs for the spotlight.

From reading about her life, it doesn’t seem like she found much of the peace she brought to others while she was here.

I pray it’s hers by now.

5 thoughts on “ALMOST WILD (Valerie Carter, R.I.P.)

  1. I’m so glad that you’ve given Valerie some well-deserved attention here: the space she wanted, you might say, even if by a different definition. I don’t think she would mind a posthumous moment in the web-log spotlight when the focus is on music! When her voice hits the higher registers and her vibrato kicks in, you realize you’re listening to one of the greatest voices you’ve never heard.

    *I’d* never heard of Valerie (she would approve) until I was dragged to the NYC performance of Ringo’s All-Starr Band in ’92 by a Beatle-freak friend. I wound up being glad I’d gone, as I got to hear Burton Cummings himself sing “Undun.” That was a surprise. The guy sounded like he hadn’t aged an hour since the ’60s.

    As close as I can remember to verbatim, Ringo introduced a new song called “Weight of the World” this way: “She’s not here tonight, but a lady called Valerie Carter overdubbed several back-up vocals for me on the recording of this next song. Find her music if you can, because the fact that I’m singing lead on a song that has Valerie singing back-up is utterly ridiculous.”

    I’ve got to hand it to the guy for having a healthy sense of humor about himself. But in a literal sense, Ringo, I won’t apologize for completely agreeing with you.

  2. NDJ

    Thanks for calling attention both to Valerie Carter’s passing and her recording career. I recall giving a listen to her albums way back then (JUST A STONE’S THROW AWAY in 1977 and WILD CHILD in ’78) and being impressed with her singing but dismissing them as so much El Lay fluff.

    Earlier today, after reading your obituary above, I spent an hour listening to her on YouTube. Nothing has changed: she had an amazing voice, she was a fine singer (far better than so many others that hit the top), but most of the tracks from the aforementioned albums suffer from sounding like so many other ’70s El Lay rock: oh so laid-back with a feeling more like MOR than rock & roll.

    In fact, a lot of it sounds like Doobie Brothers Lite, as if they weren’t lightweight enough. I was surprised by the touches of disco that kept popping up—but then disco was here there and everywhere in the late ’70s.

    Despite her voice and her singing (and her physical beauty), records like hers were ubiquitous and easily lost back then and were usually quickly consigned to the cut-out bins of America.

    I would have liked to hear what she could have done had she been recorded by someone like Rick Hall with the Muscle Shoals musicians . . .


    • I can’t disagree with you about the quality of the production, especially on the second album (that’s one reason I linked a live performance from her pre-recording career). But I’ll forgive a lot to listen to a voice like that.

      Your idea about what she might have done in another time and p lace is intriguing and one I hadn’t thought of. Given that she was a southerner (fellow Floridian actually), it’s easy to imagine her winding up at a southern studio a decade earlier and turning into Bobbie Gentry or a white Candi Staton….maybe just needing that one special record to hook her into a career. (Then again, Gentry didn’t exactly love the spotlight either….maybe it was something in the segregated water.)

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