All of this was about to change, as in mid 1976 a deal between the Carpenters and the ABC network was announced and on December 8, 1976, “The Carpenters Very First Television Special,” with guests John Denver and Victor Borge aired to outstanding ratings, placing No.6 for the week. As a result, a deal for more specials was offered, and by 1980 Karen and Richard had completed five specials for ABC.
Richard was never as fond of these as Karen, who was clearly the star and enjoyed the experience of making them. He feels that, while still being palatable to the average viewer, the specials should have taken more of the musical high road, such as those of Barbra Streisand and Barry Manilow, emphasizing Karen’s remarkable voice, rather than including so many comedy sketches and canned laughter. Richard firmly believes that one reason Karen is relatively underrated as a great singer today is due to the sweet, square image promulgated by the record label, management, and their public relations firm alike, one that he was battling, with little success, throughout their career. Richard believes that the specials, well-executed and successful though they were, did nothing to change that image.
With A Kind Of Hush delivered to A&M for June, 1976 release, it was time for Karen and Richard to embark on the first of the postponed tours, this one in Japan, where they performed 21 concerts in a 27 day period in March and April. All were SRO, the tour was a resounding success, and Karen, Richard, and all concerned left for home a bit spent but happy all had worked out so well.
After completing the U.S. summer tour and wrapping the first T.V. special, the Carpenters left for Europe and the second postponed tour. Another success, this tour culminated with a record-breaking run at the London Palladium, where an album “Live At The London Palladium” was recorded, mixed by Karen and Richard at AIR Studios, starting about the third night into the engagement, and released within days of the Carpenters’ departure.
During the tour, it was becoming increasingly apparent to Richard (and many around him) that his use of a prescription sleeping pill that he had been taking before bed sporadically since late 1971, was no longer sporadic, but now habitual. The medication, Quaalude, had been prescribed by the family doctor who, quite correctly said that, taken as directed, the pill was safe and effective. Richard, not being a party animal, but being a bit naïve, had never heard of Quaalude, which was quite a hit with some of the younger generation on the party circuit. Richard soon found out why; a common side effect was euphoria. To Richard, who had never smoked through high school and college and had not had his mood altered by so much as a beer, this proved quite the experience! All seemed well and good to Richard for the first few years, as he took them in limited quantities, only before bed, and enjoyed the release at the end of some very trying days. The trouble was, of course, that nothing is forever, and that as the years passed he built up a tolerance and ended up taking more. By late 1976, it was affecting him badly at times and he knew that, before too long, he was going to have to face up to the problem.
In 1977, All You Get From Love Is A Love Song brought the pair renewed American success, reaching No.35 at its peak. But it was the very uncharacteristic Calling Occupants Of Interplanetary Craft (The recognized anthem of World Contact Day) which gave them their only entry in the British chart that year. It reached No.9
These titles, along with the next single Sweet, Sweet Smile, were culled from the album ‘Passage’ which attained gold status. Sweet, Sweet Smile, a recording with a deliberate country arrangement, actually became a Top Ten hit on the American country charts, a first for Karen and Richard. (Top Of The World had previously reached No.2 on the country charts four years earlier by Lynn Anderson, whose recording was a virtual clone of the Carpenters’ track.) In 1978 ‘The Singles 1974-1978’, a UK-only release, took them to the No.2 spot on the British album chart.
For Karen and Richard, 1978 was dedicated to concert performances, video taping two television specials, and a project the pair had wanted to devote considerable time to since 1971, the making of a Christmas album. Karen’s voice, of course, was perfect for interpreting holiday music, both sacred and secular, and Richard’s talent in arranging and writing was a natural for the genre as well; Merry Christmas, Darling and the duo’s 1974 Christmas release, Santa Claus Is Coming To Town being excellent examples. The only problem was that Richard, due to his ongoing addiction to sleeping pills, was (and for some time had been) sapped of his normal amount of energy and a lot of his creative juices as well. (In hindsight to Richard now, and to the amazement of many around him then, it’s a wonder he was able to accomplish the rather large amount he did!) What Richard finally opted to do as far as his part in what was to become “Christmas Portrait”, was to select the material, sequence the tunes in advance (as he wanted one to flow seamlessly into the next,) hire two world-class arrangers who worked in the traditional mold, Peter Knight and Billy May, and just produce the sessions.
The result was most impressive; with an outsize orchestra and chorus comprised of the finest studio talent in Hollywood, great songs, great arrangements, all interpreted by Karen, who was born to the genre, “Christmas Portrait” could not have missed, and it didn’t; it was a hit when released in October 1978, and over the years has passed the 14 million mark in sales. The ongoing success of the album is bittersweet to Richard, who has realized for years what he could have done with the songs and the fact that, as a result, “Christmas Portrait” would have sounded much, much more like a true Carpenters album. As Richard says, “ ‘Christmas Portrait’ is really Karen’s first solo album, and it should have been released as such, but I don’t believe A&M would have been too keen on that, especially since no conventional album had been released by us that year.”
By late 1978, Richard, with much encouragement (and brow-beating) from family and friends, decided to ‘face the music’, and in January of 1979, entered a rehab facility for a six-week program. For any number of reasons, the first three weeks were “hell-on-earth,” Richard says, “but after that, things really started to change, and of course, all for the better.” Still, all of this had been a monumental change for Richard and he decided it was wise not to delve right back into work, and to pretty much take the rest of 1979 off; all the better to get accustomed to his changed fortunes. Karen, however, not one to stand idly by, wanted to take this time and record a solo album, something she and Richard felt she deserved. The only problem was that Richard (and others) knew she was not in the proper physical condition to tackle such a project. (During Richard’s six-week stay, Karen had to enter a hospital once again, due to exhaustion and low weight.) Karen would hear none of it and enlisted the talents of the highly successful East Coast producer, Phil Ramone.
Phoning Richard in May for his ‘blessing,’ Karen then departed L.A. on the first of many trips to New York. Due to a number of factors, including Phil’s incredibly ambitious multi-artist studio schedules, Karen’s album took quite a bit longer to complete than originally planned. Ideally, the plan was to release the album in early 1980, while Richard and Karen finished their fifth T.V. special and began work on their album. When it transpired that A&M was not particularly happy with the finished solo album and suggested, at the very least, that some new songs were needed, the time came for Karen to make a decision as to the album’s future. After much soul-searching and some pragmatic thought, she, understandably unhappily, decided on shelving the project, at least for the present time.
By 1980 the Carpenters were back in the studio working on more tracks. The resultant album, ‘Made In America’, released in June 1981, confirmed that the duo still had a considerable following among the album-buying public.
In Britain it only just missed the Top Ten, with tracks that included Back In My Life Again, Because We Are In Love, I Believe You, Those Good Old Dreams, Strength Of A Woman, When You’ve Got What It Takes and When It’s Gone.
In addition, Touch Me When We’re Dancing, a single taken from the album, in 1981 gave the Carpenters what would become their final American Top 20 entry.
Last Updated June 4, 2008
May 2004 © Richard Carpenter