The Carpenters Biography

This brother-and-sister duo, famous for their easy-on-the-ear pop, featured Richard Carpenter (15 October 1946, New Haven, Connecticut, USA; piano) and Karen Carpenter (b. 2 March 1950, New Haven, Connecticut, USA, d. 4 February 1983, Downey, California, USA; vocals, drums). During 1963, Richard appeared at various New Haven clubs and bars in an instrumental trio. After his family relocated to Los Angeles, he studied piano and backed his sister, who was signed to the small local label Magic Lamp in 1965. With assistance from Wes Jacobs (bass, tuba) and session bass player Joe Osborn, Karen recorded one single, ‘I’ll Be Yours’. Retaining Jacobs, the brother-and-sister team next formed a predominantly jazz/instrumental unit known as the Richard Carpenter Trio. After winning a battle of the bands contest at the Hollywood Bowl they were duly signed to RCA Records, but no material was issued. In 1967, Jacobs left the group to study music and Richard and Karen teamed up with a friend, John Bettis, in the short-lived Spectrum. The following year, A&M Records president Herb Alpert heard some demos that they had recorded and signed the brother-and-sister duo, now called the Carpenters.

In late 1969, their debut album Offering was issued, but failed to chart. A harmonic version of the Beatles’ ‘Ticket To Ride’ subsequently climbed to number 54 in the US singles charts early the following year, and this set their hit career in motion. A wonderful reading of Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s ‘Close To You’, complete with a superbly understated piano arrangement, took them to number 1 in the USA. The song was a massive hit all over the world and ushered in an era of chart domination by the wholesome duo. Towards the end of 1970, they were back at number 2 in the US singles chart with the Paul Williams /Roger Nichols composition, ‘We’ve Only Just Begun’. Once more, the track highlighted Karen’s crystal-clear diction, overladen with intricate harmonies and a faultless production. Throughout 1971, the duo consolidated their success with such Top 3 US hits as ‘For All We Know’, ‘Rainy Days And Mondays’ and ‘Superstar’/‘Bless The Beasts And Children’. They also received Grammy awards for Best New Artist and Best Vocal Performance, as well as launching their own television series, Make Your Own Kind Of Music.

Between 1972-73, the duo’s run of hits was unrelenting, with ‘Goodbye To Love’ (the remarkable guitar solo is played by Tony Palusao), ‘Sing’ and ‘Yesterday Once More’ all reaching the US Top 10, while the irresistibly melodic ‘Top Of The World’ climbed to number 1. All of these songs (with the exception of ‘Sing’) were composed by Richard Carpenter and his former bass player John Bettis. A cover version of the Marvelettes’ ‘Please Mr Postman’ brought the Carpenters back to number 1 in the summer of 1974, and that same year they played before President Richard Nixon at the White House. Although they continued to chart regularly with such smashes as ‘Only Yesterday’, there was a noticeable decline in their Top 40 performance during the second half of the 70s. Personal and health problems were also taking their toll. Richard became addicted to prescription drugs and eventually entered a clinic in 1978 to overcome his addiction. Karen, meanwhile, was suffering from anorexia nervosa, a condition from which she never recovered.

The latter part of the 70s found the duo tackling some unlikely material, including cover versions of Herman’s Hermits’ ‘There’s A Kind Of Hush’ and Klaatu’s ‘Calling Occupants Of Interplanetary Craft’. The latter fared particularly well in the UK, reaching number 10 and convincing many that the duo could adapt any song to their distinctive style. Anxious to improve her own standing as a singer, Karen subsequently completed a solo album during 1979 but it was destined to remain unreleased. Thereafter, she reunited with Richard for another Carpenters album, Made In America, and that same year the duo registered their final US Top 20 hit with ‘Touch Me When We’re Dancing’. The duo’s low profile during the early 80s coincided with Karen’s increasingly poor health and weak state. On 4 February 1983 she was discovered unconscious at her parents’ home in New Haven and died in hospital that morning of a cardiac arrest. The coroner’s report revealed the cause of death as ‘heartbeat irregularities brought on by chemical imbalances associated with anorexia nervosa’.

Following his sister’s death, Richard moved into production. In the meantime, various Carpenters compilations were issued as well as a posthumous studio album, Voice Of The Heart. Richard returned to recording with 1987’s Time, on which he sang lead, with guest appearances by such notable female vocalists as Dusty Springfield and Dionne Warwick. In late 1989, he supervised the remixing and release of an ambitious 12-CD anthology of the Carpenters’ recordings. During their heyday they were passed over by many critics as being too bland and ‘nice’. Following a reappraisal in the early 90s their standing in popular music is high.


Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.


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