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THE CARPENTERS’ story is one filled with great international success and elegant contributions to popular music that resonate to this day. It was their remarkable succession of radio-friendly singles for which many millions of fans worldwide will chiefly remember the Carpenters in the 21st Century: “(They Long To Be) Close To You,” “We’ve Only Just Begun,” “For All We Know,” “Rainy Days And Mondays,” “Superstar,” “Goodbye To Love,” “Yesterday Once More,” “Hurting Each Other,” “Please Mr. Postman,” “Only Yesterday,” and “Top Of The World” are just some of them.
Richard Carpenter was born in New Haven, Connecticut, on October 15th, 1946, and his sister, Karen, also was born in New Haven on March 2nd, 1950. By 1965, they were working in Richard’s jazz trio (Richard playing keyboards, Karen playing drums, and Wes Jacobs on bass and tuba), and were living in Downey, California, a suburb of Los Angeles. It was quite clear that Richard was destined to make music his career, and his mastery not only of the piano, but also of arrangement, composition, production, and vocal harmonies made it obvious that he possessed extremely impressive musical talents. Younger sister Karen was a tomboy who idolized her brother, and only was persuaded to become a lead vocalist after Richard’s encouragement and his obvious approval of her efforts. By seventeen years of age, that voice was a remarkable instrument, and, like her brother’s, there also was nothing but a future in music in Karen’s mind.
In June, 1966, the Richard Carpenter Trio won three trophies, including the “Sweepstakes” at the “Battle Of The Bands,” a talent competition held annually at the Hollywood Bowl; but when Wes Jacobs was accepted at Julliard Music School in New York, the trio disbanded. However, the timing worked out well as Richard was changing musical directions.
That same year, Richard met John Bettis, a folk singer/guitarist who later became a songwriting partner as lyricist to Richard’s music. They formed Spectrum, a vocal harmony sextet which included Karen (also playing drums). Although Spectrum seemingly sounded rather like a primitive version of the Carpenters, the sextet failed to attract much interest from record company A&R scouts and disbanded in mid-1968. But one very positive result was that Richard and John Bettis became a formidable songwriting team, writing many of the Carpenters’ timeless songs that became huge international hits.
After Spectrum, Richard and Karen worked with West Coast studio bassist non pareil Joe Osborn, who they had met in 1966. Osborn strongly believed in the Carpenters and allowed them to record a demo in his studio, acting as engineer and even playing bass on several of the tracks. As Richard had created the arrangements for Spectrum, he decided that now he and Karen should overdub all of the vocal parts themselves. One copy of the finished demo reel found its way to Herb Alpert who signed the Carpenters to A&M Records in April of 1969. Less than a year later, the pair’s version of Hal David and Burt Bacharach’s “(They Long To Be) Close To You” not only propelled “Carpenters” to the top of the charts, but it began an impressive string of Top Tens that more than validated the A&M chief’s belief in them. In fact, the Carpenters would go on to become the best-selling act in the label’s history.
One of the reasons for the Carpenters’ meteoric rise to fame was because their recordings had a “sound” that employed a process known as “multi-tracking,” wherein an artist could “overdub” additional musical parts, while listening to the original or “prime” performance. Richard’s love of the overdubbing process eventually influenced the way in which Karen and he recorded their vocal parts, the two having been able to add harmony after harmony while building their “choral” sound. In addition to their trademark harmonies, the main ingredients were Karen’s marvelous made-to-be-recorded voice, her skills as a drummer, plus Richard’s arranging talents and piano chops that reflected his extensive knowledge of generations of pop, jazz and music history. His musical vocabulary turned Richard into the group’s A&R (artists and repertoire) guru, choosing almost every single and virtually all the material he and Karen ever recorded.
Over the years, the Carpenters not only have racked-up many #1 and Top Ten singles, but their albums also became top-of-the-chart fixtures, and virtually all of their early LPs and 45s were multi-million sellers and awarded platinum and gold plaques by the RIAA. The national Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences acknowledged the team by handing Karen and Richard Grammy awards for Best New Artist and Best Contemporary Vocal Performance by a Duo, Group, or Chorus in1970, plus Best Contemporary Performance by a Duo or Group in 1971, and they were nominated fifteen additional times.
In support of their recordings, the Carpenters constantly performed—even at the White House in 1973—their schedule taking on over 815 performances in the early seventies alone. Their concerts spanned the globe, resulting in the duo eventually becoming even more successful overseas than in the United States. In fact, Carpenters recordings have topped international charts from the early seventies to as recently as this year. The Carpenters not only conquered the world with their recordings, but were highly popular on television, appearing as guests on The Ed Sullivan Show, The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, The Carol Burnett Show, The Mike Douglas Show, and The Johnny Cash Show, and subsequently starred in five of their own ABC television specials. However, despite Karen and Richard’s success in these other formats, the duo clearly was most at home and at their peak in a recording studio, especially since, at the time, their overdubbed vocals could not be sonically recreated on a concert stage. By the late seventies, the touring, the demands on their time, and their own personal challenges had been taking a toll on the duo’s well-being for quite a while, and tragically, Karen died a few years later of heart failure from anorexia nervosa on February 4, 1983.
Through their many albums of classic recordings and hit singles, the Carpenters’ legacy carries on. Through the years there have been a variety of documentaries that have aired around the world including Close To You: Remembering The Carpenters on PBS, Carpenters Forever on NHK (Japan), and Celebrating the Carpenters (U.K.). All of this attention and admiration is for obvious reasons: The Carpenters’ music has spent forty one years entertaining the world, the cultural influence of their classics recordings is historic, and the outstanding quality of their body of work will be appreciated for generations to come.