The Carpenters (Contemporary Musicians)
Performing songs that some condemned as fluff but millions loved, the Carpenters became an amazing success story after bursting onto the pop music scene in 1970. Karen and Richard Carpenter had 19 Top Ten singles from 1970 to 1981 and released 17 albums during the 1970s that each sold over a million copies. The duo generated sales of 80 million records worldwide with their soft-rock sound, which was "the squeaky-clean antidote to the early-70s brew of antiwar protests and acid rock," according to Tim Purtell in Entertainment Weekly.
Richard Carpenter learned to play piano at age 11 while growing up in New Haven, Connecticut, while his younger sister Karen took up the drums. By the time he was 17, Richard was performing with an instrumental trio in various clubs. After the Carpenter family moved to California, Karen was signed to a recording contract with a small local label, Magic Lamp, in 1965. She recorded the single "I'll Be Yours" for the label, with her brother on piano, Wes Jacobs on bass and tuba, and Joe Osborn as session bassist. After this record and a subsequent single went nowhere, the Carpenters formed a jazz instrumental group with Jacobs called the Richard Carpenter Trio. The group's talent earned them a victory in a "Battle of the Bands" competition at the Hollywood Bowl in 1966, with first prize a recording contract with RCA Records. However, the two RCA albums they cut never made it to record stores; at the time, the group's sound was considered "too soft."
Concentrated on Harmonies and Arrangements
Jacobs left the group to study music after the connection with RCA was severed, and the Carpenters formed a new band called Spectrum with four students from California State University. Featuring John Bettis on bass and Danny Woodhams as guitarist, the group was short-lived and broke up after a few gigs at Disneyland and Los Angeles clubs such as the Troubadour and the Whisky A-Go-Go. At this point the Carpenters began focusing on vocal harmonies and overdubbing effects, and Richard continued developing what would become his formidable skills as an arranger.
Showcasing Karen's pleasing contralto in both a solo setting and combined with Richard's baritone, they recorded a series of demo tapes in bassist Osborn's garage and began hawking them to record companies. One of the tapes made its way to Herb Albert, the trumpet player and founder of A&M Records. Albert signed the Carpenters to a contract, and by 1969 the group had recorded Offering, their debut album. A cover of the Beatles' "Ticket to Ride" on the album reached Number 54 on the U.S. charts.
Recorded by Dionne Warwick some seven years earlier, "(They Long to Be) Close to You," by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, was transformed in the studio by the Carpenters in 1970. The duo's version became one of pop music's seminal demonstrations of boy/girl harmony and the "easy listening" sound. It featured an understated piano arrangement by Richard, as well as first-rate production by Jack Daugherty. Listener approval for "Close to You" was overwhelming, and the song soared to Number One.
It was soon followed by the hit "We've Only Just Begun," which, according to the Guinness Encyclopedia of Popular Music, "highlighted Karen's crystal-clear diction, overladen with intricate harmonies and a faultless production." Thus began the Carpenters' incredible hit parade, which landed 17 of their songs in the Top 40 during the next 11 years.
From 1970 to 1972 alone, the Carpenters generated six Top Five hitsClose to You," "We've Only Just Begun," "For All We Know," "Rainy Days and Mondays," "Superstar," and "Hurting Each Other." Along with Richard's arranging and musical direction, much of this success was due to the high quality of material the Carpenters were getting from songwriters such as Bacharach, Paul Williams, and Roger Nichols. They also employed the services of top sidemen like virtuoso guitarist Tony Peluso. Richard also wrote some hits for the group in partnership with former Spectrum bassist Bettis. As a result of this output, the group's compilation album, The Singles 1969-73, became one of the best-selling albums of all time and was on the LP charts for an amazing 115 weeks.
One success after another kept the Carpenters working relentlessly in the early 1970s, both in the studio and on the concert circuit. Their fame also won them their own brief television series, Make Your Own Kind of Music, in 1971. The show featured trumpet player Al Hirt and Mark Lindsay, former lead singer with Paul Revere and the Raiders. The Carpenters were also asked to perform at the White House in 1974 during a state dinner. While Richard continued to play the piano on their recordings, Karen's drum work became restricted to their stage act.
Inevitably, the performance grind began to take Its toll: in 1975 a major tour of Europe was canceled as Karen was reported to be suffering from nervous and physical exhaustion. Reports of her weight having dropped to 90 pounds raised suspicions about crash diets; it was later revealed that she was afflicted with anorexia nervosa. In 1993 Richard Carpenter told Entertainment Weekly, "I still have no idea why this disorder struck Karen."
The Carpenters' pop formula began to wear thin in the late 1970s, and their hit production slowed. Cutbacks on touring and Richard's increasing involvement in behind-the-scenes production further reduced their visibility. Karen continued her battle against anorexia, and Richard checked into a drug rehabilitation clinic in 1978 to rid himself of an addiction to prescription drugs. They managed to crack the Top 20 again in 1978 with a cover of Herman's Hermits' "There's a Kind of Hush." Meanwhile, Karen attempted a solo career, but her 1979 album, produced by Phil Ramone, was never released. The siblings reunited and made something of a comeback with their 1981 Made in America album, which reached Number 12 in the United Kingdom.
After her two-year marriage to real estate developer Thomas J. Burris ended in 1982, a distraught Karen entered therapy in New York City. She gained 15 pounds and seemed to have won her eight-year battle with anorexia. But long-term stress on her metabolism had Irrevocably affected her heart functioning, resulting in a fatal heart attack in 1983 during a visit to her parents' home in California.
The Carpenters had been planning to tour again and record a new album at the time of Karen's death. Richard put together a few albums using tapes of Karen and in 1987 recorded his Time album, which featured performances by Dionne Warwick and Dusty Springfield. In 1993 he was reportedly working on a book about the Carpenters. Karen Carpenter was later immortalized in a song by alternative rock band Sonic Youth, "Tunicong for Karen," and in a 1989 television movie about her life.
In her review of 1991's From the Top, a retrospective CD package of Carpenter songs, Elizabeth Wurtzel wrote in the New Yorker that the collection "documents one of the most undistinguished successful music careers ever." The Carpenters would be remembered "not really as musicians but as cultural icons," she added. Despite this sort of criticism, standards such as "Close to You" and "We've Only Just Begun" have etched a permanent place for the Carpenters In the pop music pantheon.
Many critics have changed their originally negative views of the group to more favorable ones over the years. As was pointed out in The Harmony Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock, "Although often critically berated for blandness and [their] wholesome, clean-cut image, the Carpenters were praised by musicians and industry insiders for musicianship, excellent choice of sidemen ... and professionalism."
That opinion was confirmed in 1994 with the release of an all-star tribute album, If I Were a Carpenter. Leading alternative rock acts including Sonic Youth, Cracker, and the Cranberries recorded the homage to the pop duo whose 1970s hits had influenced so many of the artists of the 1990s. Jeff McDonald of Redd Kross summed up the collective sentiment of the participants: "I'd always been a huge fan of the Carpenters, and an admirer of their songs. The quality of their songs was so wonderful, they were lyrically very sophisticated, not this teenybop fare.... Most bands just want to write perfect pop songs. And these are perfect pop songs."
Singles; on A&M
"(They Long to Be) Close to You," 1970.
"We've Only Just Begun," 1970.
"For All We Know," 1971.
"Rainy Days and Mondays," 1971.
"Top of the World," 1973.
"Please Mr. Postman," 1975.
"Touch Me When We're Dancing," 1979.
Albums; on A&M
Close to You, 1971.
Ticket to Ride, 1972.
Now and Then, 1973.
The Singles 1969-73, 1973.
A Kind of a Hush, 1976.
Made in America, 1981.
From the Top, 1991.
The group's songs were also featured on the retrospective tribute album If I Were a Carpenter, recorded by various artists, including Sonic Youth, Cracker, the Cranberries, Grant Lee Buffalo, Redd Kross, and Michael Sweet, A&M, 1994.
Coleman, Ray, The Carpenters: The Untold Story, an Authorized Biography, HarperCollins, 1994.
The Guinness Encyclopedia of Popular Music, Volume 1, edited by Colin Larkin, Guinness, 1992.
The Harmony Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock, Sixth Edition, Harmony, 1988.
The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock, compiled by Nick Logan and Bob Woffinden, Harmony, 1977.
The Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music, edited by Donald Clarke, Viking, 1989.
Rock Movers & Shakers, edited by Dafydd Rees and Luke Crampton, ABC-CLIO, 1991.
Detroit News, September 14, 1994.
Entertainment Weekly, February 5, 1993; September 16, 1994.
Los Angeles Magazine, January 1989.
New Yorker, December 23, 1991.
New York Times, February 5, 1983.
People, October 26, 1987.
TV Guide, December 31, 1988.