With a powerful, soulful voice that invoked elements of Janis Joplin, Aretha Franklin and Barbra Streisand, Karen could scream and have an audience scream, hold those long, lilting notes and moisten their eyes. She "tears through a song like a tornado," wrote a critic in Record World.
She had been performing since the age of 14, and after years of flying at tree-top level doing one-nighters for short money with rock bands, lightning struck at age 27 and she was "Miss Hot Shot." Television appearances, a couple of world tours and a million complimentary words written about her put Karen in the fast, limousine lane.
It wasn't the timeworn story of a sudden climb to the rarefied atmosphere of sudden success where booze, drugs, emotional upheaval or immaturity combine to incinerate a star. The planets that aligned in perfect order for a moment in time to beam down light on Karen simply went away, and so did Miss Hot Shot.
She went back to the Philly and South Jersey lounges and catered affairs and worked hard to get it all back. She didn't really want the limos back. It was the people, the large numbers of them in one place, riveted to what she did best in the world, that she wanted back.
Andy Kahn, who got out of the business full time seven years ago to go into the family's paint and window treatment business, said, "Disco went through a media blitz - disco sucks, disco is dying. Within the year, 1979, the whole disco fad had worn off with the advent of what became punk rock, the new fad in music. Disco was supposedly not hip anymore."
After that, she was still a hot property, but the timing, or song or people, never quite worked. She tried different directions, but they led nowhere. In a business where the lights go out very soon after the song stops, Karen's time on the meter ran out. She was a dynamic piano player and, with her singing, created a large following for herself in the Greater Philadelphia area. She made a living.
But the taste for that vintage year of 1978 stayed on her tongue.
"She was always saying to me or Kurt, 'Can we do it again? Can't we get it back together again? Try one more time. What we had was magic, fantastic, how much fun we had. People responded. Can't we do it?' "
On Sept. 30, Kahn brought her in to perform at the Mandell Theater on the Drexel University campus. It was a benefit concert for Action AIDS. It was basically a jazz concert, but Karen and the song "Hot Shot" would forever be inseparable, and that is what she sang.
"It brought the audience down. Five hundred people went bananas," said Kahn. "She looked great in that dress, better than I had seen her in a long time. I looked at a videotape this weekend. She was beaming and glowing. It was a tremendous high for her. We talked about doing something else this spring."
Bob Beato believed she could get it back. He was her agent at the time of her death and had known her since the 1970s.
"Every place she played she got rave reviews," said Beato, who runs B.B. Productions in Richboro, Bucks County. "She was willing to work. The problem is, the whole business is on the critical list right now. She said, 'Get me back up there.' We were trying."
He admired her as a pro and as a person. "She was a sweetheart," he said, ''very talented and very bright. Theatrical one hundred percent of the time." Some days she would call him 10 or 15 times. It wasn't just to build her confidence. He said she was "a go-getter" who would go to a lounge manager on her own and talk him into a booking. But she would call. They talked and she felt better. Beato said she always had a weight problem and it nagged at her sometimes. "She wanted to be a star," he said.
But if she had any of the former star or star-in-waiting ego, it didn't show.
"She was one of the sweetest, most caring people I've ever met," said Lloyd Z. Remick, an entertainment, sports and media attorney who represented her and had known her since she was 17. When he was in the hospital, she sent him a card every day. When a member of his family had problems, she called with concern.
"She just had time for everybody. She cared about her music and was interested in giving her music and talent to the world. She was just nice to everyone." He watched when her career suddenly receded from other continents to the cocktail lounges of Northeast Philadelphia.
"In her case, she was content to live in Philadelphia," said Remick. "It wasn't that she missed the limousine scene. That didn't bother her. What did bother her was she wasn't able to keep performing in front of crowds. That is what she lived for."
Renee Koch lived with Karen. They were close friends who met one day while Karen was walking her basset hound Miss Ellie. Karen loved dogs and was known to stop a recording session to hold and pet a dog if someone came into the studio with one. Renee said that when a domestic crisis hit and she had no place to live, Karen took her in.
"She was such a good person, she loved everybody," Koch said.
There were no hobbies, no men to speak of, no other interests but her friends and her music and the distant dream of getting back "up there."
Last Wednesday she had trouble breathing and reluctantly went to the hospital. The exact cause of her death still wasn't known, but Renee said a doctor called Karen's mother and said it might have been perforated ulcers that ruptured.
When she was on top, Karen told Inquirer feature writer Maralyn Lois Polak in a 1978 interview:
"I can sing. I know I can sing. And I can move to the music. But I've always wanted to dance. Not just rock dancing, or disco. I always wanted to glide. In my next life I will probably be a long graceful swan, but I won't have my canary-bird voice. Think about it: In this life, I was a canary, and in the next life, I'll be a swan."
Survivors include her mother, Irene Rabinowitz Young, and a brother, Paul Young. Graveside services were to be held at 11 a.m. today at Shalom Memorial Park, Byberry and Pine roads.