The Carpenters

Published Date: April 8th, 2007
Category: Entertainment

St. James Encyclopedia of Pop Culture by Jeff Merron

Between 1970 and 1975, The Carpenters, a brother-sister musical act, were one of the most popular and recognized pop groups. Because they emerged following a decade (the 1960s) in which the most influential performers were those who pushed the bounds of pop music, they were often criticized for their wholesome, straightforward style. However, Karen Carpenter, with her extraordinary voice and girl-next-door good looks, and Richard Carpenter, with his world-class composing abilities, overcame the criticism to produce 19 top-10 singles during the 1970s.

Karen (1950-1983), who was both a singer and a drummer, and Richard (1946–), who was the group’s arranger, producer, and keyboardist, were born in New Haven, Connecticut, to Harold Bertram Carpenter and Agnes Tatum. While children, they developed an enthusiasm for popular music. While Richard pursued music avidly, Karen played the flute briefly, but was more interested in sports. The family moved to Downey, California, in 1963. In 1966, Karen and Richard teamed up with bassist Wes Jacobs to form the Richard Carpenter Trio, an instrumental band. Karen also signed a solo singing contract with the Magic Lamp record label, and recorded “Looking for Love” and “I’ll Be Yours,” released as singles. Shortly after, the Richard Carpenter Trio won “The Battle of the Bands” at the Hollywood Bowl.

It wasn’t until 1969, however, that the band, refashioned as the Carpenters and with Karen singing as well as playing drums, was “discovered” by world-famous trumpeter Herb Alpert, leader of the Tijuana Brass, and co-founder of the A&M record label. Upon hearing a demo tape of the Carpenters, he immediately recognized the extraordinary quality of Karen Carpenter’s voice. “It was full and round, and it was … amazing. This voice was buzzing into my body, and it was the way they presented it.” Their first album, Offering, was released on the A&M record label in 1969. It did not sell well, although their cover of the Beatles’ “Ticket to Ride” reached number 54 on the U.S. singles charts. In 1970, their album Close to You, included their first number one single of the same name (which sold more than 300,000 copies), and the duo began international tours that would include up to 200 concerts in a year. That year they also released the hit singles “We’ve Only Just Begun,” and “For All We Know.” They won Grammy Awards in 1970 for best contemporary vocal performance by a group for “Close to You,” and also for best new artist. In 1970, “For All We Know,” featured in the film “Lovers and Other Strangers,” captured an Academy Award.

Between 1970 and 1975, the Carpenters were one of the hardest working bands in pop music. Richard was the guiding force behind the duo’s production and arrangements, and also wrote songs with Richard Bettis. But material supplied by songwriters Burt Bacharach, Paul Williams, and Roger Nichols helped the Carpenters gain astounding success with 17 million-selling albums between 1970 and 1981. Other well-known standards released by the duo during this period were “Rainy Days and Mondays,” “Superstar,” “Sing,” “Yesterday Once More,” and “Top of the World.” Their compilation album, The Singles 1969-1973, was on the U.S. album charts for 115 weeks. By the late 1990s, the Carpenters had demonstrated that their success was more than fleeting, with worldwide sales topping 100 million units.

The Carpenters bucked 1970s pop music trends by conveying a wholesome, middle-class image, and were even mocked by the pop music establishment, who viewed their songs as insipid and their popularity as fleeting. Music critic Rob Hoerburger (New York Times, Nov. 3, 1991) wrote “They always dressed as if they were going to church, and they sang sticky songs about love (but never sex). Worst of all, parents loved their music.” During their heyday, rock critics described their music as “treacle,” “drippy easy listening,” “schlock music,” and their personalities as “squeaky,” “smiley,” and “saccharine.” Fortunately for their record company, A&M, and their in-house mentor, Herb Alpert, the listening public purchased their records by the millions and their concerts sold out consistently. Their popularity was not confined to the United States. They also had strong fan bases in Great Britain and Japan, and they were also popular in many other European and Asian countries. In 1973, they were honored by then-President Richard Nixon by being asked to perform at a state visit by West German Chancellor Willy Brandt.

The Carpenters enjoyed their greatest success between 1970 and 1975. After that time, the duo was beset by serious health problems. Richard spent several years addicted to the sedative Quaalude, and recovery took another several years. Karen, meanwhile, battled anorexia nervosa, a psychophysiological disorder whose cluster of symptoms begins usually with a fear of being overweight and continues with severe weight loss due to self-starvation. She fought this disease for years, with her “normal” weight of 120 pounds (she was 5 4 tall) dropping to 79 pounds several times between 1975 (when she collapsed onstage in Las Vegas while singing “Top of the World”), and her death in 1983. Though few were aware of anorexia nervosa as a disease during the 1970s, Carpenter’s death from the disorder drew a great deal of attention to the disease. Indeed, she may be as important a figure in American popular culture because of the way she died as because of the way she achieved fame. After her death anorexia nervosa became well-known to the American public, and many sought help for themselves or their (often) teenage daughters after reading or hearing media accounts of her symptoms and the cause of her death.

The Carpenters experienced a new surge of popularity in the late 1980s and 1990s as their catalog was re-released on compact disk, most notably the four-disk set From the Top. In 1994, a compilation of their songs entitled If I Were a Carpenter, performed by some of the most popular “alternative” music groups, became a top-selling record. Many of these rock stars, including Sonic Youth, Cracker, and the Cranberries, said that they had been strongly influenced by the Carpenters’ sound. Jeff McDonald of Redd Kross, one of the bands featured on the CD, echoed the beliefs of many musicians and critics who had reassessed their music almost twenty years after their peak popularity. “I’d always been a huge fan of the Carpenters, and an admirer of their songs. The quality of their songs was so wonderful, they were lyrically very sophisticated, not this teenybop fare … Most bands just want to write perfect pop songs. And these are perfect pop songs.”

Richard Carpenter’s music career continued on a considerably reduced basis after his sister’s death, although he continues to tour and produce. Most notably, he produced his sister’s last solo album, Karen Carpenter, released in 1996, and his own album, Pianist–Arranger–Composer -Conductor, came out in 1998.

Bibliography for ” The Carpenters”

Jeff Merron “ The Carpenters“. St. James Encyclopedia of Pop Culture. 20020129.

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