Carpenters - Biography
By J Poet
The Carpenters seemingly came out of nowhere (actually New Haven, CT by way of Downey, CA) to score the a #1 hit single and album with the Burt Bacharach/David tune “(They Long to Be) Close to You” in 1970. The duos smooth sunny sound made them favorites on Top 40, easy listening, and adult contemporary radio, but behind the white bread image there were problems a plenty. Richard was addicted to pain medication and Karen had severe anorexia. After five years with 19 top 10 hits including "Rainy Days and Mondays," "Goodbye to Love," "Yesterday Once More," and "Top of the World”, 17 gold albums, three Grammys – Best New Artist for their Close To You (1971 A&M) album, Best Contemporary Vocal Group Performance for the “Close to You” single and Best Contemporary Vocal Group Performance for The Carpenters (1972 A&M) album, and sales approaching 80 million records. Karen cut a solo album that never appeared in 1979 then reunited with her brother for Made in America (1981 A&M), which included the hit “Touch Me When We’re Dancing”, but they couldn’t perform due to Karen’s failing health. She died in 1983 due to complications from her anorexia. Richard Carpenter continues in the business as a producer and has made two solo albums, Time (1987 A&M) and Pianist, Arranger, Composer, Conductor (1998 A&M) an instrumental tribute to his sister.
Richard Carpenter was playing piano by age 11 and studying keyboards at Yale by the time he was 15. Richard played in a jazz trio in New Haven, before the family moved to California. Richard went to Downey High School, but continued his keyboard studies at University of Southern California. At 14 Karen started drumming on the furniture in the family home with chopsticks. After getting a drum kit, her playing progressed rapidly. The Richard Carpenter Trio, with Wes Jacobs on stand up bass and Karen on drums and vocals. Karen signed with a small label called Magic Lamp, but two singles she made with Richard playing piano did nothing and the label soon folded.
In 1966 The Richard Carpenter Trio won a contract with RCA in a battle of the bands contest. They made some recordings for a potential album in 1966, but the company considered the music too soft and dropped them. Another jazz rock band followed and quickly broke up, but Richard was busy learning how to record and produce at the studio of his friend Joe Osborn. He overdubbed Karen’s vocals in the manner of Les Paul and Mary Ford and The Beach Boys, laying down lush harmonies. With another trio they won a slot on Your All American College Show, which gave them valuable public exposure, which led to a 50,000 dollar contract doing commercial jingles for the new Ford Maverick.
The Ford money financed more demos, and one made its way to the hands of Herb Alpert who signed them to A&M. The Carpenters quit their Ford Motor Company gig and made Offering (1969 A&M) retitled Ticket to Ride (1969 A&M) after that single became a minor hit. The album stayed on the charts for a year with slow, steady sales. Burt Bacharach who was also on A&M at the time, suggested they cut “Close to You.” The single hit #1 and the Close to You (1970 A&M) album went gold and won a Best New Artist of the Year Grammy. The “Close to You” single won the Grammy for Best Contemporary Vocal Group Performance. “We’re Only Just Begun”, the second single from the album, hit #2 and went gold.
The Carpenters (1971 A&M) included two more smashes “For All We Know” and “Rainy Days And Mondays”. The album went on to win a Best Contemporary Vocal Group Performance Grammy. All this time, Karen was struggling with anorexia, promising she’d eat, but never following through on the promise. The Carpenters (1971 A&M) led to their first tour of Europe and Japan. A Song for You (1972 A&M) went gold behind “Hurting Each Other” and “It’s Going To Take Some Time”. Now & Then (1973 A&M) which included another gold #1 single, “Sing”; the album was gold as well. The Singles 1969-1973 (1973 A&M) crowned the year with its multi-platinum success.
Horizon (1975 A&M) extended their run with the hits “Please Mr. Postman” and “Only Yesterday” pushing the album to gold. After watching the tapes of an appearance on a Bob Hope TV Special, Karen felt she was too fat and started a crash diet that send her weight to a dangerous 91 pounds. A Kind of Hush (1976 A&M) led to an ABC TV show The Carpenters Very First Television Special, with John Denver. They toured Japan, the States and Europe and documented their London gig with Live at the Palladium (1976 A&M). On the tour, the Quaaludes Richard had been taking for his back pain became an addiction. He knew rehab was in the cards.
Passage (1977 A&M) included their first country Top 10 hit, “Sweet, Sweet Smile” and the faux Krautrock ballad “Calling Occupants Of Interplanetary Craft”. They dedicated 1978 to touring, TV shows and a long delayed Christmas album, Christmas Portrait (1978 A&M). Richard also went into rehab. Karen tried recording a solo album, but her failing health made the performances spotty and the project was canned. In 1980 they were working on what would be their last album, Made in America (1981 A&M). Karen’s time was split between the recording studio in New York, therapy and hospital stays. She was too weak to tour to support Made in America and was found dead at her parents’ home on February 4, 1983. Richard put together a posthumous collection of out takes called Voice of the Heart (1983 A&M) and another Christmas album of out takes An Old Fashioned Christmas (1984 A&M). He continues in the business as a producer and arranger and has made two solo albums, Time (1987 A&M) and Pianist, Arranger, Composer, Conductor (1998 A&M) an instrumental tribute to his sister.