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One of the very few guilty pop pleasures “rock” fans would admit to (ABBA was probably another), easy-listening American brother-and-sister duo the CARPENTERS were as much to the 70s as flairs, garish haircuts and “Star Wars”. Their centre of gravitational pull was the shy, unassumming Karen Carpenter, a drummer-cum-reluctant-singer with a velveteen vocal identifiable from any interplanetary craft via the airwaves of FM-radio. But there were lessons to be learned from Karen’s unavoidably sharp decline into the emaciating embraces of the-then relatively unknown anorexia nervosa, a disorder which ultimately whisked up her fragile body to music heaven in early February 1983; she was only 32.
The subsequent poignancy of sad songs such as `(They Long To Be) Close To You’, `We’ve Only Just Begun’, `For All We Know’, `Rainy Days And Mondays’, `Goodbye To Love’ and `Only Yesterday’, became ever more apparent and relevant in a world unaware of the seriousness of her debilitating disease.
Born March 2, 1950, Karen Carpenter first showed musical prowess in her teens when she played glockenspiel for the New Haven High School band in Connecticut. The musically-minded Carpenter family subsequently relocated to Downey, California, in 1963; eldest child Richard (born October 15, 1946) was encouraged from the get-go, initially learning the accordion and transferring his skills to the piano at the age of 9; he eventually ended up at Yale University studying classical music. As a student he filled in for local jazz combos in his spare time, and this put him in good stead for his later years, as did his spell as local choir arranger.
Karen, meanwhile, acquired a proper drum kit, and by the time she was 15, the Carpenter Trio was formed, alongside her songwriting elder brother Richard (on piano) and Wes Jacobs (tuba/stand-up bass). The aforementioned jazz trio survived just long enough to secure a recording contract with R.C.A. Records after winning a Hollywood Bowl talent show in June ‘66. Much to the consternation of her parents and folks who’d heard the strength of her contralto singing voice, a solo KAREN CARPENTER was adamant that the drums were her ticket to success; impressing studio bassist Joe Osborn (who’d invited songwriter Richard and her in on a garage session), she went on to release a single, `I’ll Be Yours’ (b/w `Looking For Love’) on the local, soon-to-be defunct Magic Lamp Records.
Despite being encircled by acts like The BYRDS and GRATEFUL DEAD, the trio had decided that romantic schmaltz was their thing and, with typical thoroughness (after R.C.A. dropped them), proceeded to increase into a six-piece outfit called Spectrum (other members including Danny Woodham and John Bettis). The new-look combo unsurprisingly flopped in the era of acid and free love. Both brother and sister duly took up various odd jobs while continuing to hone their talents; the pair also signed up for some singing lessons and even performed as a duo at Disneyland.
Subsequently discovering their talent for close harmony, they proceeded to cut a few demos which eventually reached the ears of HERB ALPERT at A&M Records, intrigued as he was by the sensuality of Karen’s versatile voice. In 1968/69, sensing the gap in a market overrun with heavy rock bands, the legendary trumpeter signed the siblings almost immediately; they’d come up with the moniker (not with “the” definitive article) when “Carpenters” was registered for the duo on the contract.
Granted free reign in the studio to create a style suitable to their soft-rock aplomb (Osborn on bass; Bettis as Richard’s lyricist), the Jack Daugherty-produced debut album, OFFERING (1969) {*5}, was their easy-listening introduction to the music world. Not particularly productive or mouth-watering for unaffiliated pop fans, the record was duly re-promoted under the title of their minor hit (#54) rendition of The BEATLES’ `Ticket To Ride’; it also chalked up respective Top 20 and Top 40 positions when re-issued in the UK in April ‘72 and August ‘75. Other covers such as DINO VALENTI’s `Get Together’ and BUFFALO SPRINGFIELD’s `Nowadays Clancy Can’t Even Sing’ showed at least some promise, although it was therein decided that their brand of vocals needed a professionally crafted tune to best showcase their multi-talents.
This was achieved with a BACHARACH-DAVID number, `(They Long To Be) Close To You’, a record first recorded as a B-side by Richard Chamberlain that now turned over a million copies and topped the charts (Top 10 in the UK) in the summer of 1970; with the equally enchanting Top 3 `We’ve Only Just Begun’, one of two penned by PAUL WILLIAMS and Roger Nichols, from the CLOSE TO YOU {*7} album, middle America could sleep safe in their beds again; the hippie dominance of the charts was finally finding a challenger. Despite re-raiding the vaults of LENNON-McCARTNEY for `Help’ and BACHARACH-DAVID for both `I’ll Never Fall In Love Again’ and `Baby It’s You’ (not forgetting TIM HARDIN’s `Reason To Believe’), Karen could sing a phone book and come up smelling of roses.
From then on in, the CARPENTERS’ flawless MOR formula saw them conquering the charts all over the globe. Massive hits came thick and fast, continuing with a triumvirate of Top 3 smashes, `For All We Know’, `Rainy Days And Mondays’ and LEON RUSSELL’s sexually suggestive `Superstar’; all spawned from the duo’s third set, the eponymous CARPENTERS (1971) {*7}. At times a tad corny and uncomfortably cheesy, the jazzy AM-pop of songs by Bettis-Carpenter, Williams-Nichols, BACHARACH-DAVID (on a medley), RANDY SPARKS (on `(A Place To) Hideaway’), and the cinematic HENRY MANCINI (on closer `Sometimes’), the template was set in stone.
1972’s A SONG FOR YOU {*8} was another platinum seller, featuring a further three major success stories in `Hurting Each Other’ (a cover of a once-indistinct RUBY & THE ROMANTICS platter), `It’s Going To Take Some Time’ (from the Midas-touch quill of CAROLE KING) and one of a handful of Bettis-Carpenter’s best-ever pieces `Goodbye To Love’; the latter “power ballad” featured an uncharacteristic fuzz guitar solo by band member Tony Peluso. Where as `Bless The Beasts And Children’ (from the movie of the same name) had air-played its way into the lower regions of the charts via the flip-side of summer 1971’s `Superstar’, the misjudged `Top Of The World’ took a year plus to be recognised as a bona fide single, and a chart-topping one at that; the belated 6th single from the LP, Williams & Nichols’ `I Won’t Last A Day Without You’, stalled one place from a Top 10 spot in May ’74.
By this time, the CARPENTERS were at No.2 on home-soil, and in Britain, with the slightly disappointing NOW & THEN (1973) {*6}, an album counting on big hitters such as `Sing’ (a tune from Sesame Street) and `Yesterday Once More’. The cool and breezy factor somewhat dissipating with a near side-long medley of covers from The BEACH BOYS’ `Fun, Fun, Fun’ to Goffin & King’s `One Fine Day’ (dedicated in part to their mother Agnes), the duo complicated things further with readings of HANK WILLIAMS’ `Jambalaya (On The Bayou)’ (a UK-only hit), LEON RUSSELL’s `This Masquerade’ and RANDY EDELMAN’s `I Can’t Make Music’.
A break in proceedings was certainly due them as A&M unveiled THE SINGLES: 1969-1973 {*9}, a regrettably re-mixed and re-cut compilation of 12 songs that went multi-platinum and cemented their reputation as everyone’s favourite purveyors of clean-cut all-American pop. Still on constant tour half of the year (import fans could purchase LIVE IN JAPAN (1975) {*6}; recorded summer ’74 in Osaka), the rut was halted mid-’75 when an exhausted Karen collapsed on stage in Las Vegas. Promoting their HORIZON (1975) {*6} album – featuring Hot 100 hits `Please Mr. Postman’ (a Motown mover), `Only Yesterday’ and NEIL SEDAKA’s `Solitaire’, there was more to Karen’s gaunt appearance than met the eye – she was basically suffering from anorexia; also hidden from the public was Richard’s addiction to Quaaludes (sleeping pills). Meanwhile, the album was lambasted for its menial cover versions of the Andrews Sisters post-WWII hit, `I Can Dream, Can’t I’ and the EAGLES’ `Desperado’. The duo’s cutesy, saccharine appeal was beginning to wane.
More or less going through the motions while the siblings tried in vain to sort out their problems, complacency was partly to blame for poor sales (at least Stateside) on their seventh album, A KIND OF HUSH (1976) {*5}. Opening with a title track hit better known to HERMAN’S HERMITS acolytes, and another chart volley by way of `I Need To Be In Love’ (penned by Bettis, Carpenter and ALBERT HAMMOND), their formula was cracking under the weight of bland cover material like SEDAKA’s `Breaking Up Is Hard To Do’ (very CAPTAIN & TENNILLE), EDELMAN’s `You’, DeSHANNON’s `Boat To Sail’ and the sub-par Harold-Kahn-King piece, `Goofus’.
Whereas British fans were subjected to further schmaltz courtesy of LIVE AT THE PALLADIUM {*4} – UK Top 30 in 1977 – home fans had to wait until that May to find out the merits of modest hit single, `All You Get From Love Is A Love Song’ (written by Steve Eaton).
Fast-forward four months, perhaps as a result of the testing times (Star Wars, Close Encounters and er… punk), the CARPENTERS cued the uncharacteristically spaced-out cover of KLAATU’s `Calling Occupants Of Interplanetary Craft’ – sub-titled “The Recognised Anthem of World Contact Day” – phew!. Karen and Richard turning prog? Not in this grey world, although the sibling’s cosmic re-vamp reached the UK Top 10 having ironically stalled outside the American Top 30. Spawned from the Top 50, PASSAGE (1977) {*5} – which again sold better in Old Blighty – the rest of the set was suffocated by an ornate take of `Don’t Cry For Me Argentina’, an embarrassing `B’Wana She No Home’, JUICE NEWTON’s countri-fried `Sweet, Sweet Smile’ and the calypso-collapsing `Man Smart, Woman Smarter’ (via ROBERT PALMER).
If the CARPENTERS’ CHRISTMAS PORTRAIT (1978) {*3} was aimed at the OAP market, then it certain worked as moderate sales figures suggested. More serious was Karen’s futile attempt at a solo career when her synth-pop disco set was shelved in ’79/’80; the eponymous Phil Ramone-produced KAREN CARPENTER {*5} would go undiscovered until 1996 long after her death; high points PETER CETERA’s `Making Love In The Afternoon’ and the previously-issued Rod Temperton song `Lovelines’; its low points PAUL SIMON’s `Still Crazy After All These Years’.
As clear as the blusher on her rosy-red cheeks it was disturbing to witness the deterioration of Karen every time she featured on TV. But then again, times looked upbeat for the singer when she was swept off her feet by real-estate developer Thomas Burris, whom she wed on August 31, 1980. Allegedly an abusive marriage that ended in a divorce (Karen wanted children desperately; he’d had a vasectomy), they divorced just over a year later; the astute singer revising her will to leave nearly everything to her brother and parents.
Yes, it had looked bleak for everyone concerned as Karen’s weight had dropped to around 5 or 6 stone; she’d been over 10 stone in the early 70s. 1981’s MADE IN AMERICA {*5} clawed back some lost time, although its title (once again!) made better inroads in Britain, where the album just about reached the Top 10, despite only home-soil hits through `Touch Me When We’re Dancing’ (#16), `(Want You) Back In My Life Again’ (#72) and `Those Good Old Dreams’ (#63); add to that The ADRISSI BROTHERS’ `I Believe You’ (a #68 entry in 1978!) and another MARVELETTES gem `Beechwood 4-5789’, and the CARPENTERS could’ve looked to have been in recovery mode.
The duo/group continued a brief recording spell (with `Now’ in April ‘82), whereas Karen performed in front of a class at Buckley School in Sherman Oaks. The likes of friend and singer DIONNE WARWICK had noticed a slight resurgence in Karen’s attitude later that year, but the clock was ticking fast on Karen after numerous admissions to hospitals and clinics. Her weight in fluctuation, she collapsed at her parents’ home in Downey; she died later that morning (February 4, 1983) from heart failure. This was put down as a direct result of her anorexia nervosa problem (and the apparent use of ipecac syrup), which had dogged her in her final years, and which she tried in vain to keep secret from her adoring fans. It mattered little that the posthumous CARPENTERS-credited album, VOICE OF THE HEART (1983) {*4} – Top 10 in Britain (Top 50 Stateside) – garnered mixed reviews.
Obviously distraught at losing a close friend as well as a sister, RICHARD CARPENTER – married to his cousin Mary Rudolph, in ‘84 – would take four years in preparing for his solo outing, TIME (1987) {*4}. Featuring guest spots from DUSTY SPRINGFIELD, DIONNE WARWICK and actor Scott Grimes, ballads such as `Something In Your Eyes’ didn’t quite have the effect and sparkle of his work with Karen, and sales figures were indeed poor; after a spell of relative inactivity, the sophisticated sibling was back in January 1998 in order to unleash instrumental versions of the duo’s “greatest hits” under the tag: PIANIST, ARRANGER, COMPOSER, CONDUCTOR {*4}; `Yesterday Once More’ – already utilized for a CARPENTERS “best of” package – would’ve been a more appropriate title.
© MC Strong 2000-2004/GRD/BG/MCS // rev-up MCS Mar2016

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