In the nascent days of cable tv in the ’70s, when it was known around these parts as “Cablevision,” acquiring content was a challenge. At least I assume it was, because to my kid eyes it seemed like they were showing the same cruddy movies every single day with little to no variation. As a result I thought this cable thing was overrated and just plain sucked. Then, out of the blue, something happened that radically altered my opinion. A movie came along that I loved so much that I wanted to see it all the time and their inability to fill the air with massive amounts of new stuff meant I could. The movie in question: the now bonafide cult classic of suburban teen ennui and Matt Dillon’s film debut, 1979’s Over the Edge. It felt like an epiphany. It was the very first time I’d seen “myself” in an actual movie. The kids were the same age as me and my friends, they looked like us, talked like us and and got up to the same stupid, semi-illegal stuff we did to kill time (although we never went through with the plans to burn the school down like the kids in the movie did because we were all talk). Anyway, I loved it.
Over the course of the film, tension between the kids and the adult authority figures grows until it ultimately explodes into a violent and deadly confrontation.The closing scene shows the aftermath with the kids who were caught and arrested for their part in the mayhem being taken away on a school bus heading to “The Hill”, some juvie-reform school type place. The sun is going down, streaming through the bus’s windows onto the faces of the kids, and though it’s by no means a happy ending, the scene is imbued with hope. And that’s solely down to the song soundtracking it, Valerie Carter‘s languid, gorgeous cover of The Five Stairsteps’ “O-o-h Child.” The scene and the song literally meld together as one and the whole thing is kinda perfect.
The Five Stairsteps were a family group featuring 5 of the 6 kids in the Burke family, and they enjoyed great success in the R & B charts. They only ever managed to land one song in the pop Top 10, but oh man, was it a good one. Released in 1970, “O-o-h Child” was and is an incontrovertible classic (hear it here). With its urgently sunny horns and hopeful core message, it remains the perfect listening salve for anyone having a hard time. Yet somehow, in 1977, Valerie Carter made this seemingly perfect song even better.
While most of Valerie’s career was spent singing back-up for people like James Taylor, Jackson Browne and Christopher Cross throughout the ’70s and ’80s, she did record two promising solo albums during that time. Her first and best, Just a Stone’s Throw Away, featured her version of “O-o-h Child” as its lead track. Unlike the original, the mood on Valerie’s is not one of horn-fueled urgency but of tentative consolation. The song unfolds slowly as her warm and soaring voice gradually ascends, its full power unleashed in the climactic last verse. The whole thing exudes a soulful ’70s Southern California sun going down vibe and features an especially handsome and breezy guitar solo in the bridge. I hate the word sublime, but you know what, the whole thing is utterly sublime. And, true confession, it is not only my favorite cover version ever but one of my straight up favorite songs of all-time.
The best way to describe her career is as one of those woulda/coulda/shouda situations. After the aforementioned releases ( in 1977 and 1978), it was literally crickets in terms of her solo output; she didn’t release another album until 1996. Her time in between was spent touring with James and Jackson and singing on other people’s records, her most famous vocal turn appearing within soft rock flamingo Christopher Cross’s self-titled debut album, which sold 5 million copies and was the Grammy Album of the Year in 1980. While a lot of people were exposed to her beautiful, soaring, full of longing voice on the album’s duet “Spinning” they didn’t necessarily register that it was her, Valerie Carter, masterfully lifting it off the ground ( and she totally does, listen below), they were just, you know, playing the Christopher Cross album and basking in its west coast sunset glow ( by the way, it’s a pretty nice glow and no one should be embarrassed for liking it, so go on then, bask).
Valerie Carter passed away on March 4th of 2017 at the too young age of 64. It appears the last years of her life were challenging as she battled substance abuse issues, got arrested twice as a result in 2009 and was ultimately sent to rehab.
She was an incredible singer, in possession of a truly transcendent voice, just a wondrous artist that never got the appropriate due in her lifetime, yup. Anyway, I wanted to acknowledge her upon her passing, to try and explain how f-ing awesome I think she was. Not sure if I’ve conveyed that convincingly or with the appropriate force. All I know is both “O-o-h Child” and “Wild Child”, the title track off her second album have acted as literal lighthouses in a storm for me during some absolute crap times. And when life feels like too much, I can’t think of another voice I’d rather hear.
Listen to “O-o-h Child”
Listen to “Wild Child”
By the way, Jackson Browne wrote a song about Carter in 1980 which pretty much sums it up and says it all: it’s called “That Girl Could Sing.”