Brother and sister Karen
and Richard Carpenter
's unabashed middle-of-the road Pop
- a sales phenomenon in the early 70s- has withstood the rigours of fashion and, in the wake of Karen's tragic death in 1983, been critically reappraised. The angelic voice of Karen
lingers in the memories of all who have heard it wing its way on a gentle breeze of pure pop.
Karen first drummed with a school marching band and Richard started learning the piano aged 12. They had both also been choristers but first played together in 1963, when they formed a Jazz trio with Richard's California State University friend Wes Jacobs. Richard's college choir director recommended he send a tape of the trio to session bassist Joe Osborn, who released a recording (credited to Karen featuring Richard and Jacobs) in June 1966. When they won a Battle Of The Bands competition at The Hollywood Bowl, they were approached by RCA, who recorded a demo, but later dropped them. The group split when Jacobs left to study in New York, but Richard and Karen continued with four other Cal State students as The Summerchimes, a vocal harmony group rechristened the slightly more hip Spectrum before folding in 1968.
After continuing as a duo, Karen and Richard were recruited by Ford Motor Company jingle composers John and Tom Bahler of the group Going Thing, with whom they signed to the J.Walter Thompson advertising agency. However, they were then poached by Herb Alpert who signed them to his A&M label in April 1969 and released thir debut album Offering (1969) a few months later. The album sold poorly until retitled Ticket To Ride, to cash in on the moderate success of their Beatles cover.
Soon after came their commercial breakthrough, courtesy of songwriting legend Burt Bacharach who had already asked them to perform a medley of Bacharach and David songs at a benefit concert. The Carpenter's re-interpretation of the little-known '(They Long To Be) Close To You' hit US No. 1 in July 1970, while the album Close To You (1970) reached US No.2 and set the standard for a long run of sentimental covers and self-penned hits, including 'We've Only Just Begun', 'Rainy Days And Mondays', 'Superstar', 'Sing', 'Yesterday Once More', 'Top Of The World', 'I Won't Last A Day Without You', 'Please Mr. Postman' and 'Only Yesterday' as well as concert appearances and the 1971 NBC TV series Make Your Own Kind Of Music.
The heyday for the Carpenters was the early 70s, but they had hits later in the decade with 1976's 'There's A Kind Of Hush (All Over The World)' and 1977's 'Calling Occupants Of Interplanetary Craft (The Recognized Anthem Of World Contact Day)'. However, the workload took its toll on Richard, who became adicted to Qualuudes. The health of Karen was a even greater cause for concern: she dieted compulsively and was now painfully thin.Whilst Richard recovered, she began work on a solo album with producer Phil Ramone but abandoned it to contribute to The Carpenter's Made In America (1981).
Briefly returning to the US Top 20 with 'Touch Me When We're Dancing' in 1981, The Carpenters' final recordings were in 1982. On 4 February 1983, Karen was found unconscious at her parents' home and rushed to hospital where she died of cardiac arrest linked to anorexia. A television biopic, The Karen Carpenter Story, topped the US ratings when it was shown in 1989 and numerous compilations testify to The Carpenters' unique and fragile sound (and their sensational commercial success. Fans of The Carpenters in 1994- including such unlikely artists as Sonic Youth and Babes In Toyland- covered a selection of their songs for the tribute album If I Were A Carpenter. A more traditional treatment came on Richard's Pianist-Arranger-Composer-Conductor in 1998.
Sources: Karen Carpenter