Carpenters, Not The Carpenters

I was, and am still, a fan of the musical duo, Carpenters. It is not the Carpenters. I read that little fact in Carpenters: The Musical Legacy, co-written by Richard Carpenter, along with Associated Press journalist Mike Cidoni Lennox and Chris May.

Their early hits had a sound and poignancy that was sophisticated yet inviting. Karen’s voice was an emotional lasso and Richard’s arrangements had that amazing Bacharach/David sensitivity. In junior high chorus class we learned several Carpenter songs. When you sing a song, you better appreciate the splendor and emotional connection to such a wonderful musical creation.

Richard and Karen Carpenter were a big deal in the 1970s. Grammy Awards, Gold and Platinum records, a star on the Walk of Fame, television specials and hundred of concerts. They were a wholesome slice of middle class America – which was both an asset and a liability.

Herb Alpert signed them to A&M records after hearing a tape of them, and gave them a lot of creative input in the recording process. Richard seemed to “get” the recording process quickly, as the musical director for the group, who understood how to take full advantage of his and sister Karen’s voices to get that full, rich wave of vocals. He took advantage of the standard recording process of doubling and tripling their vocals, adding layer after layer to get what Richard described as a choir of their voices.

Karen Carpenter had the most amazing and unique voice. I fail at adequately describing her vocal qualities, so I found others who can.

William Hosley, writing for Connecticut Explored, described Karen’s voice as fully formed, meaning without training, her voice was warm and natural, “…pitch-perfect contralto whose low range and tonal depth is instantly recognizable. Bandmates recall spotless, unerring performances in which night after night she hit notes like radar. Moreover, her emotional connection to their songs was uncanny…”

Nathan Weinbender, music writer for Spokane’s Inlander wrote, “her distinctive voice — as crystalline as it was crystal-clear, dripping with world-weary melancholy one moment and wide-eyed wonder the next — that became the group’s calling card.”

The debut album, with the weird cover.

Their first album, Offering (1969), did not set the world on fire. The first single was “Ticket to Ride”, arranged as a ballad. Richard admits they worked fast in recording the album and unfortunately did not pick the strongest material.

The Offering album repackaged to take advantage of the success of their second album.

Carpenters, after some false starts with other record labels, were signed to A&M Records, Herb Alpert’s successful indie label. Alpert was quoted as saying he got pushback from his own people about signing these two tragically unhip kids, who’s debut didn’t sell. Alpert might have been the first person to actually hear the potential of Karen’s voice when the initially heard it on their demo tape.

The Carpenters’s second album, Close to You (1970) would change everything. Two million copies sold, number two on the Billboard chart, along with eight Grammy nominations and two wins.

“(They Long to Be) Close to You” was written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David. Recorded a few times since 1963, including by Herb Alpert, who did not like his version, however he persuaded Richard and Karen to record it. Neither of the Carpenters was overly impressed with song, but Richard, with assistance from Alpert, wrote a new arrangement for it. It’s this arrangement that we hear.

The song was released and took off before the album was done, so hurriedly, the album was finished. Two million copies sold and four weeks at number one.

“We’ve Only Just Begun”, written by Paul Williams and Roger Nichols originally for a bank commercial. Yes, a television commercial. Richard asked Williams if his song was actually longer than the brief commercial. Mark Lindsay (Paul Revere & the Raiders) had already recorded a version, but Richard knew he could give it a better arrangement. The Carpenter version rose to number two on Billboard.

Carpenters (the Tan Album)

The Tan Album (1971) reached number two on Billboard and sold four million copies. Not bad for a sophomore effort.

“For All We Know”, the first album single, peaked at number three, and also won of an Academy Award, as the song was from the film, Lovers and Other Strangers. The Carpenters would record another Oscar-nominated film song, “Bless the Beasts and the Children”, from the film of the same name (and released on their next album). What is evident is how quickly the Carpenters went from unknown to significant players in the music world. For a short time, they were considered hip, not in the Linda Ronstadt world of hip, but they released music that was interesting, sophisticated pop. Richard tells the story of being pursued by film producer/director Stanley Kramer (Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Inherit the Wind) to record a song for his film. There was respect, not only the Carpenters’ name attachment, but for how Richard would mold a song to fit them, and his reputation as an arranger. Famed composer Henry Mancini (Peter Gunn, Moon River) even dropped by to pitch a song for the Carpenters to consider recording.

The Tan Album also produced the hits “Rainy Days and Mondays” and “Superstar”, both reaching number two on Billboard and Gold selling singles. Hailed as a fine album that was more than just a random collection of a few commercial hits and filler, Richard was somewhat disappointed in it. He said it could have been better if they’d had more time, but with television appearances and booked live performances, additional time just was not possible.

“Rainy Days and Mondays”, written by Williams/Nichols, had been composed for another artist, who passed on the song. Richard liked “the hook”, but felt the song needed work. In those days, Paul Williams was rapidly developing his career as both a songwriter and a performer/personality. He and had written “(Just an) Old Fashioned Love Song” specifically for the Carpenters, but according to Richard, they didn’t feel it was right for them. Williams offered it to Three Dog Night, who made it a top five hit.

“Superstar” was a song that Richard heard Bette Midler sing on The Tonight Show. He loved the Leon Russell/Bonnie Bramlett song, even though it had a rather mature theme, for a duo with such a wholesome image.

In Carpenters: The Musical Legacy, Richard hints at the pace and expectations that would soon turn into problems for both he and Karen. They were pushed to constantly tour. Richard conveyed to the record label that the duo did not need so many days on the road to sell the new records because they were already selling. However, the Carpenters’ accountant said because of how expensive their tours were, they needed 142 dates to financially break even, so long tours were important.

A Song for You (1972) took seven months of studio work, an eternity compared to past albums. Richard attempted to slow the pace and the result is generally considered their best overall album. The duo would surpass this effort.

Six singles were released:

“Bless the Beasts and Children” Released: August 12, 1971 (discussed above)
“Hurting Each Other” Released: December 23, 1971 A song written in 1965 and recorded a few times. The Carpenters’ version would reach number two.
“It’s Going to Take Some Time” Released: April 13, 1972 Written by Carole King and Toni Stern, and recorded for King’s Music album, the Carpenters’ recording just missed the top ten.
“Goodbye to Love” Released: June 19, 1972 co-written by Richard, a top ten song. He used a distorted guitar as a solo, something unknown for a Carpenters’ recording. Some fans were not amused.
“Top of the World” Released: September 17, 1973 Also co-written by Richard, the song was a big hit for country artist Lynn Anderson, so the Carpenters released their version.
“I Won’t Last a Day Without You” Released: March 25, 1974 Another Williams/Nichols song that the Carpenters took to the top ten.

Released in 1973, Now and Then, defied the forward motion of the duo. Reviews were mixed and the novelty of nostalgic tunes did not help their “hipness” imagine effort, although it was popular with their core audience. Other than “Yesterday Once More” and “This Masquerade”, I cannot say much for this effort.

On the strength of “Sing” and “Yesterday Once More” and the oldies medley, the album sold well, but reviews were mixed. Nostalgia was popular in America with American Graffiti and The Sting.

A&M released a Carpenters set of their singles, The Singles, which was a huge seller. Richard re-recorded “Ticket to Ride” and changed some things with “Top of the World”, which was finally released as a single. For the first time, the Carpenters had a number one album in America. Richard felt that holding back “Top of the World” as a single was a big mistake and cost them several million in album sales. The Singles really was a greatest hits collection.

In 1974, the album track, “I Won’t Last a Day Without You” was tweaked and released as a single. This was the Williams/Nichols song. Because of constant touring, an album would have to wait, but they recorded a version of “Please Mr. Postman” that was a number one hit.

It was not until 1975 that Horizon was released. It did not make the top ten, a first in five years. It sold only a million copies, a disappointment. Reviewers noted the strong production and Karen’s voice, but the songs were middling. Richard didn’t believe the material was there, most of them were downers and he said, it was all too sleepy.

“Please Mr. Postman” Had long ago been released as a single.
“Only Yesterday ” Co-written by Richard was a top ten song.
“Solitaire” Was a Neil Sedaka song, not bad, not great.

Next up was A Kind of Hush, released in mid 1976. Richard called it well-performed, but “a nothing” album. The previous year, after a string of concerts, Karen’s health caused the cancellation of concerts in Japan and England.

The album peaked at number 33 and quickly disappeared. The lead single was the track, a remake of the Herman’s Hermits song. Richard realized that they had done enough oldies when the song was a weak hit. The next song, “I Need to Be in Love”, was a Richard co-write and he said it was Karen’s favorite song. Richard said the ballad was a complex and challenging song, it needed to be listened to several times to sink in, but it didn’t have what Richard said was the “classic Carpenters sound” so listeners weren’t drawn to it.

1976. Sold out concert tours. A new, high-powered manager, new stage show, a highly-rated television special – and an album that didn’t sell.

1977. A new album, Passage. It didn’t sell either. A&M had suggested, firmly, to hire an outside producer. Richard was the musical director, arranger and producer – even in the early days when someone else was credited. A lot of top producers passed. Even Richard admitted that he would have tough for a producer to work with.

The record label also asked them to depart from the classic Carpenters sound. This was 1977, not 1971, musical tastes (meaning radio play) had changed.

I find it interesting that Linda Ronstadt was able to navigate the pop, rock, country, traditional pop and even Mexican folk genres successfully, even reaching back to early rock and roll classics, whereas the Carpenters were unable to find lasting acceptance when they did venture beyond the “sound”.

“On the Balcony of the Casa Rosada”/”Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” was a huge production, with an orchestra and choir. Richard loved the idea initially, then was sorry about it after it’s release.

The singles were “All You Get from Love Is a Love Song” which barely broke the top 40, but was an easy listening hit, but failed to find a broader audience. Richard and the folks at A&M thought for sure this would be a return to form. It was not.

“Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft” had been a minor hit for the Canadian band Klaatu. For the Carpenters, also a minor hit.

“Sweet, Sweet Smile” was a country-pop song co-written by Juice Newton, but with Richard’s countrified arrangement it failed to crack the pop top 40, although it got some country play.

In 1978, the Carpenters did what every legacy artist now does, record a Christmas album. Christmas Portrait reached 56 on the chart and would eventually sell a million copies. According to Richard, they had been wanting to do a Christmas album since before their fame. A version of “Merry Christmas, Darling” had been recorded by them in 1970.

The Carpenters had actually hosted a holiday television special in December 1977, The Carpenters at Christmas, followed in 1978 by Carpenters: Christmas Portrait. Both were well-received, but Richard is quick to point out that his growing problem with Quaaludes, was affecting his health and his work. Richard said that was why he had been hiring out the orchestrations for several years and not songwriting as he had done in the past. Richard spend six weeks at the Menninger Clinic to kick his drug addiction.

Karen’s health problems are well-known, but obviously not then. She recorded a solo album, with producer Phil Ramone in NYC, but the general consensus was the album did not focus on her strengths and A&M made the decision not to release it.

So, back to work they went, in 1980, recording what would be Made in America. Work stopped when Karen announced she was as getting married. This was a new relationship. Work resumed after the honeymoon.

The finished album was released in 1981 and would be the Carpenters’ last album of new material while Karen was alive. Made in America featured the song, “I Believe in You”, which had been released as a single three years earlier, but had not come anywhere close to the top 40, but found play on the adult contemporary chart. Richard didn’t feel the record label got behind it.

“Touch Me While I’m Dancing” reached number 16 on the Hot 100, and number one on the adult contemporary chart. They waited and waited for the song to climb higher, but instead it came down. Several other singles were released but did not track as high.

Karen’s one year marriage came to an end, as her health continued to decline. Sadly ironic that this fresh-faced young girl with the grownup and worldly voice, the girl next door from suburbia, would be a victim of emotional issues that would eventually rob her of life at age 32.

After her death, Richard would use unfinished tracks, plus a few from Karen’s unreleased album to produce three albums of unheard Carpenters music. They had recorded many songs through the years that had Karen’s vocal guides. Richard worked to add and replace instruments and add backing arrangements.

Richard and Karen were never able to break free of their wholesome image, a problem as they got older and navigated changing musical tastes. Efforts to grow beyond their image and sound were unsuccessful. Karen’s passing seemed to preserve the Carpenters’ legacy, locking it forever inside our memories. Is that a bad thing? No. The classic Carpenters’ sound is to be revered and enjoyed. Karen’s voice and Richard’s arrangements and production are simply, perfect to the ear.

2 thoughts on “Carpenters, Not The Carpenters

  1. I’ve always enjoyed the music of Carpenters. Karen had an amazing voice that drew you in. Their songs were well-crafted pop tunes. While I’m not sure Carpenters would have been able to overcome their imagine and “be hip”, I think it’s safe to assume we would have heard many additional nice songs. A 32-year-old woman dying from heart failure brought on by anorexia truly is a tragedy.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s