From the start, the Carpenters understood the elements that went into making a great single – strong emotional appeal, a sense of drama, and an element of surprise.
That’s why Karen and Richard had one of the best batting averages in pop music in the 1970s. From Close To You in 1970 to There A Kind Of Hush in 1976, they never missed the Top 20. The Carpenters were the Number One American hit makers of the decade, according to Joel Whitburn’s authoritative Top Pop Singles. But Karen and Richard’s success went far beyond their homeland. They topped the charts from Holland to Hong Kong.
Even though they recorded as the Carpenters for just 13 years, Karen and Richard made a deep and lasting impact. A compilation of their hits topped the U.K. chart for seven weeks in 1990. A similar collection became the best-selling international release of 1996 in Japan.
“If I Were A Carpenter”, an album of the Carpenters’ songs performed by young, alternative acts, became a hit in 1994. The duo’s recordings have been featured in such recent movies as Boys On The Side and Tommy Boy. And such diverse artists as k.d. lang, Sonic Youth, Luther Vandross and Shania Twain have said that they are Carpenters fans.
Karen and Richard were never considered hip or fashionable. But fashions come and go, while the Carpenters’ music has not only endured, but has grown in stature. Their recordings have become classics. Their sound has become timeless.
Karen Carpenter died in 1983 at the age of 32. But the music that she and Richard created lives on.
If you made a checklist of the qualities of a great singer, Karen Carpenter had them all: tremendous presence, a natural, conversational ease, and impeccable intonation and control.
But a checklist couldn't begin to capture the emotion that Karen put into everything she sang. Karen had a remarkable facility for peeling away the outer layers of a song and getting to its core. And once she located a song's essential truth, she would relate it as if she were singing just to you. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Herb Alpert, the co-founder of A&M Records, remembered the first time he heard a demo tape of Karen's voice: "It just jumped right out at me," Alpert said, "It felt like she was in the room with me." Alpert wasn't the only one who felt that way. The intimacy in Karen’s voice enables her to build a one-to-one bond with millions of fans all over the world.
In a 1974 Rolling Stone cover story on the Carpenters, writer Tom Nolan observed that Karen’s voice expressed “fascinating contrasts: youth with wisdom, chilling perfection with much warmth.” The warmth in Karen’s voice was genuine – as was the longing and vulnerability she so often expressed. Those qualities gave added dimension to the Carpenters’ happy songs and made their sad songs all the more moving.
Karen's natural, unpretentious style seemed effortless. Alas, that easy-going quality often caused her to be taken for granted. Fortunately, in the years since Karen's death, she has received ever-increasing recognition as one of the most gifted pop vocalists of all time.
As the chief architect of the Carpenters' sound, Richard Carpenter arranged and orchestrated almost all of the duo's recordings. He produced most of them, composed many and played keyboards on all but a few.
Richard received five Grammy nominations for his arrangements, recognizing his contributions to such signature Carpenters hits as "Close To You,", "Superstar" and "Sing." Richard's arrangements, which have been studied at such prestigious institutions as Stanford University and the Berklee College of Music, have proved highly influential. His arrangement of "We've Only Just Begun," which blends the romanticism of easy listening with the pulse of pop/rock, provided a virtual blueprint for the modern "adult contemporary" format.
In addition to his work in the studio, Richard took charge of finding the duo's material. He spotted future hits in a wide range of sources, from a major Hollywood movie to a local TV commercial. Richard also teamed with lyricist John Bettis to write six of the Carpenters singles, four of which reached the Top 10 in both the U.S. and the U.K.
In his Rolling Stone review of The Singles 1969-1973, critic Paul Gambaccini made note of Richard's role in the Carpenters' success. "Heard together, the duo's hits prove that Richard Carpenter didn't study music at Yale for nothing. His clean arrangements, delicate piano turns and conservatively employed strings enhance almost every cut, and after a few tracks it becomes obvious his contributions have been grossly underestimated."
Track by track notes:
We've Only Just Begun
We've Only Just Begun quickly supplanted Close To You as the Carpenters’ signature song - no small feat. The idyllic ballad could have easily seemed gracious, but the Carpenters gave it blood and guts. Karen’s lead vocal conveys strength, optimism and a deep contentment. Richard’s arrangement blends the romanticism of easy listening with the pulse of pop/rock. Richard had spotted the Paul Williams/Roger Nichols tune on Los Angeles television - as a bank commercial. The Carpenters' recording turned it from a jingle into a standard: It received a Grammy nomination for Song of the Year and became the weeding song for a generation.
Top Of The World
Top Of The World is the No.1 smash that almost got away. Richard and John Bettis wrote the lilting ballad for the “A Song For You” album in 1972, but the consensus at A&M and in the Carpenters camp was that it wasn’t quite strong enough for single release. When Karen and Richard moved on to their next album, Lynn Anderson covered Top and promptly landed a No.2 country hit. There were other signs that the Carpenters had underrated the song: It made radio station play lists on requests alone; it went gold in Japan. The Carpenters finally got the message and put out a retooled version of the song to coincide with the release of “The Singles 1969-1973”. The smash hit No.1 and went gold in December 1973. “The Singles” also reached No.1 in both the U.S. and the U.K. – where it remained on top for a commanding 17 weeks.
Ticket To Ride
Karen and Richard were teenagers in Downey, Calif. When the Beatles’ Ticket To Ride hit No.1 in 1965. The Carpenters were just about the hottest recording group in the world nine years later when Paul McCartney invited them to stop by at a recording session. McCartney greeted his American visitors by singing a few bars of their No.1 hit, Top Of The World. The Carpenters’ version of Ticket To Ride made the lower reaches of the Billboard chart in February 1970. It dropped off in March, but came back stronger than ever following the April 10 announcement of the Beatles’ breakup. The duo’s melancholy interpretation of the Fab Four fave seemed to set just the right mood for bummed-out Beatlemaniacs. Richard’s arrangement is among his most inventive: His baroque piano introduction increases the listener’s surprise when he finally realizes that he’s listening to a Beatles song.
If the Carpenters' version of Close To You is a sunny day at the beach, their rendition of Superstar is a cold, dark night. Karen and Richard's recording of the Leon Russell/Bonnie Bramlett ballad is probably their most widely admired work. Karen’s husky vocal exudes power. Richard’s haunting arrangement creates a chilling sense of foreboding. Joe Osborn's bass fills heighten the drama. The song was first popularized by Rita Coolidge on Joe Cocker's 1970 album, “Mad Dogs And Englishmen”. It has since been recorded by artists as diverse as Luther Vandross and Sonic Youth, but the Carpenters' 1971 recording has never been topped.
Rainy Days and Mondays
Paul Williams and Roger Nichols, who wrote the blissful We've Only Just Begun, also created the melancholy Rainy Days and Mondays, one of the most nakedly emotional ballads ever to become a pop hit. The Carpenters’ 1971 recording of the song ranks among their all-time best. Karen's bluesy vocal is a study in control, as she builds effortlessly from a conversational opening to a searing finish. Bob Messenger's sax solo enhances the recording's jazz-tinged sophistication. Rainy Days And Mondays was the opening track on the 1971 “Carpenters” album, which brought Karen and Richard their second straight Grammy Award for Best Pop Performance by a Group.
Tony Peluso’s fuzz-guitar solo on Goodbye To Love turned a lot of heads in the summer of ’72. It also brought the Carpenters some irate letters from easy-listening traditionalists who accused them of going “hard rock.” The long guitar-and-vocals fade gives Goodbye To Love an epic quality – making it the Hey Jude of unrequited love songs. The downbeat ballad was the first Carpenter/Bettis composition to be released as a single. It was Karen's favorite of the Carpenters’ first dozen hits.
Yesterday Once More
Richard and John Bettis wrote Yesterday Once More in response to the nostalgia craze of the early ‘70s. The wistful ballad, which set up the oldies medley on the “Now And Then” album, became a smash in its own right in the summer of 1973. The song went gold and reached No.2 in both the U.S. and the U.K. It did even better in Japan, where it became one of the best-selling singles of all time.
It's Going To Take Some Time
The Carpenters' stylish rendition of Carole King and Toni Stern's It's Going To Take Some Time came out just four months after King introduced the song on her “Music” album. As the singer-song-writer graciously noted in congratulating the Carpenters on their recording, "You make my version sound like a demo!" Though pleasingly melodic, the single lacked the distinctiveness of the Carpenters’ six previous hits, all of which had gone gold. Richard now wishes that the song had remained what it was probably always meant to be – a nice album cut.
The sense of longing in Karen’s voice came across even on happy songs such as Sing. That gave the Sesame Street sing-a-long a bittersweet quality, similar to Charles Chaplin’s theme song, Smile. Karen and Richard first heard Sing, which had been a minor chart hit for Barbra Streisand, on the set of a TV special in January 1973. By late February, their version was zooming up the charts. Sing brought the Carpenters their seventh gold single and their third Grammy nomination for Best Pop Vocal Performance by a Duo, Group or Chorus.
For All We Know
For All We Know was the second weeding song in a row to become a Carpenters smash. But there was a crucial difference: Where We've Only Just Begun expresses romantic certainty, For All We Know conveys a measure of doubt and ambivalence. Karen’s reading captures both the devotion and the doubt. Richard wrote the descending bass line which Joe Osborn plays with characteristic fluidity. The Carpenters' single was in the Top 10 in April 1971 when the song, from the movie Lovers And Other Strangers, won an Oscar as Best Song of 1970.
Hurting Each Other
Though Hurting Each Other was one of the Carpenters’ shortest singles (at just 2:47), it has a big dynamic range. After a “cold opening” of just Karen and piano, the single builds to a big chorus replete with tympani – only to drop back down and repeat the process. Richard modeled the recording after the hyper-emotional 1960s hits of Little Anthony & the Imperials. Hurting Each Other, which became the Carpenters’ sixth consecutive gold single in February 1972, was a remake of 1969 release by Ruby & the Romantics. Karen and Richard went on to record two other songs that had been introduced by that R&B quintet – the 1963 classic Our Day Will Come and a 1965 release, Your Baby Doesn’t Love You Anymore.
Close To You
In late 1969, Burt Bacharach heard and admired the Carpenters’ remake of Ticket To Ride, and asked them to perform a medley of his songs at an upcoming benefit. Herb Alpert, who had signed Karen and Richard to his A&M Records, suggested they include (They Long To Be) Close To You, which, despite covers by Dionne Warwick and Dusty Springfield, had never become a hit. Richard didn’t think the song was right for the medley, but Alpert was sure the song was right for the Carpenters. He urged Karen and Richard to record the song for their next album. Alpert was on to something. The Carpenters’ light touch on Close To You was just right for the romantic creampuff. Karen’s lead vocal is engagingly coquettish. Richard’s slow-shuffle arrangement features a warm trumpet solo and a splash of mellow California harmonies. Bacharach, who arranged Warwick’s 1964 recording of the song, was impressed. “I think Richard Carpenter really nailed the essence of the song,” the pop titan says. “I never had it. We do that song (in concert) and I’m very aware as we do it, “Boy, I blew this one.” The facts speak for themselves. Of the hundreds of outside cover versions of Bacharach songs to be released over the past 40 years, this is the only one to reach No.1. Close To You brought the Carpenters two Grammy Awards – for Best New Artist of the Year and Best Contemporary Vocal Performance by a Group.
by Paul Grein, June 1998
1. ** We've Only Just Begun 4:09
2. *** Top Of The World 2:28
3. ** Ticket To Ride 4:09
4. ** Superstar 3:40
5. ** Rainy Days And Mondays 3:14
6. ** Goodbye To Love 3:58
7. * Yesterday Once More 3:57
8. ** It's Going To Take Some Time 2:55
9. * Sing 3:18
10. ** For All We Know 2:34
11. ** Hurting Each Other 2:47
12. ** (They Long To Be) Close To You 3:43
* Produced by Richard and Karen Carpenter
** Produced by Jack Daugherty
*** Produced by Richard and Karen Carpenter and Jack Daugherty
Arranged and Orchestrated by Richard Carpenter
1972 A&M Records, Inc., a PolyGram company.
© 1973 A&M Records, Inc., a PolyGram company.
Click on an underlined Song Title to go to Song Notes
Last Updated June 4, 2008
May 2004 © Richard Carpenter