Born in New Haven, Connecticut (Richard in1946, and Karen in 1950), both children loved music throughout their childhood and teenage years, although Richard's interest went way deeper than his sister's. In 1963 the whole family moved to Los Angeles and when Richard enrolled at California State College at Long Beach he met John Bettis who would become his songwriting partner. Meanwhile Karen - in high school - began playing the drums, and not just averagely; she showed real talent for her chosen instrument.
Richard started a trio and worked with bass player Joe Osborn who also had his own independent record label. One day in 1966 while auditioning for a trumpet player Karen was tagging along with her big brother and ended up singing a song or two that convinced Osborn to sign her to his label. She recorded two of Richard's songs but they did not sell well. Demo tapes were sent out, Richard and Karen briefly had a band they called Spectrum and finally in 1969 Herb Alpert - the A in A & M Records - signed the band, attracted by their unique sound.
Working in the studio with no real direction the Carpenters produced their debut album, Offering, which included their cover of, 'Ticket to Ride'. The Beatles song became a minor hit on the Billboard chart and the album was retitled and reissued as Ticket To Ride. It is one of the most underrated debut albums by a major artist, in any genre of music, including as it does a great version of Buffalo Springfield's 'Nowadays Clancy Can't Even Sing'.
In 1970, the Carpenters version of the Burt Bacharach song '(They Long to Be) Close to You' made No. 1 in America in July and stayed on top of the Billboard Hot 100 for a month. They followed it with 'We've Only Just Begun', written by Paul Williams and Roger Nichols, which Richard had seen on a TV commercial for a bank. It made No.2 on the charts and was also the opening track from the album, Close To You, which also made No. 2 on the Billboard album chart.
For a Christmas release they put out, 'Merry Christmas Darling', a song written by Richard and his University friend, Frank Pooler. It appears along with a host of other Carpenters Christmas themed recordings on The Carpenters: Christmas Collection.
Their self-titled album, Carpenters, is for many the pinnacle of their achievements, including as it does, a fabulous medley of Bacharach songs, their 1971 hits 'For All We Know' 'Rainy Days and Mondays' and the exquisite, 'Superstar', written by Bonnie Bramlett and Leon Russell. It shows Richard Carpenter's brilliant ear for a song and is arguably one of Karen's greatest ever-vocal renditions - brilliantly supported by Richard's arrangement. It's made even more remarkable as it was Karen's first and only take that's used on the record.<
In 1972 A Song For You showed the consistency of their recordings, with not a bad track in earshot. The title song, another Leon Russell song, along with the beautiful, 'Goodbye to Love' - a Carpenter/Bettis original with an outstanding guitar solo by Tony Peluso, which British DJ legend John Peel declared to be one of his favourites - are standouts. It includes gems like 'Road Ode' and the Carpenter/Bettis original, 'Crystal Lullaby'. 'Road Ode' in particular shows just what a fine vocalist Karen was; her ability to go from soft and sultry to hard edged is amazing. 'Top of the World' was originally intended as an album cut, but in December 1973 it became the band's second Billboard No.1.
Their 1973 release, Now & Then, includes the brilliant uber-medley, 'Yesterday Once More'. It is a side-long tribute to American radio stations that played "oldies, but goodies." The single became their biggest hit in the UK, reaching No.2 for two weeks. The following year their remake of Hank Williams's 'Jambalaya (On the Bayou)' did well around the world. Two years later, their cover of The Marvelettes' Motown classic, 'Please Mr. Postman' made No.1 on the Billboard chart; it is on their album, Horizon. It also features 'Only Yesterday', a Bettis/Carpenter song that went Top 5 in the US and No.7 in the UK, along with covers of The Eagles' 'Desperado' and Neil Sedaka's 'Solitaire'. A hidden gem? 'I Can Dream Can't I?', a 1940s song that had been a big hit for The Andrews Sisters.
In 1976 their follow-up, A Kind of Hush, was something of a disappointment, due in part to changing musical tastes on Top 40 radio. The biggest hit on the album is a cover of Herman's Hermits' 'There's a Kind of Hush', which peaked at No. 12 on theBillboard Hot 100. The follow up was, 'I Need to Be in Love', which failed to make the Top 20, but it is a stellar song and vocal from Karen. With the disco explosion dominating the airwaves the Carpenters came up with Passage, an album of varied musical styles, which includes a fantastic cover of Michael Franks's, 'B'wana She No Home' along with an ambitious recording of 'On the Balcony of the Casa Rosada/Don't Cry for Me Argentina' from Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's Evita. Perhaps most ambitious of all is their cover of Klaatu's, 'Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft' - seven minutes of brilliance.
During a hiatus in the duo's career in 1979 and 1980, Karen Carpenter recorded a solo album with Phil Ramone. It did not get released until 1996 but is very much up to the standard of all her records with her brother. It is a mix of ballads and up tempo numbers and includes the delicious, 'Make Believe It's The First Time', as good a song about rekindling love as you'll ever come across. There's also Rob Mounsey's lovely, 'Guess I Just Lost My Head' with Karen providing her own, perfect, backing vocals.In 1981 the Carpenters released their final album as a duo recorded during Karen's lifetime, Made In America. Since Karen's passing, Richard has said it was both his and Karen's favourite album that they made together. It includes their final top 20 single, 'Touch Me When We're Dancing', which reached No. 16 on the Hot 100. Ironically it may be the weakest track on the album. Among the standout tracks are Burt Bacharach and Carole Bayer Sager's, 'Somebody's Been Lyin'.
In 1981 the Carpenters released their final album as a duo recorded during Karen's lifetime, Made In America. Since Karen's passing, Richard has said it was both his and Karen's favourite album that they made together. It includes their final top 20 single, 'Touch Me When We're Dancing', which reached No. 16 on the Hot 100. Ironically it may be the weakest track on the album. Among the standout tracks are Burt Bacharach and Carole Bayer Sager's, 'Somebody's Been Lyin'.
After Karen's tragic death Richard released the appropriately titled, Voice Of The Heart, which included recordings from Karen's last few sessions. It too features 'Make Believe It's Your First Time', Paul Williams' 'Ordinary Fool' and closes with a Bettis/Carpenter song called, 'Look To Your Dreams' - couldn't be more appropriate.
In 1989 Richard decided to issue an album of unreleased studio recordings that he and Karen had worked on together as well as a smattering of tracks from her, as then, unreleased solo album. Lovelines is not as cohesive as earlier albums, for obvious reasons, but there are some fabulous tracks included on it; among them: 'Where Do I Go from Here', a song from a Barry Manilow album a decade earlier, the Nat King Cole classic, 'When I Fall In Love', which includes the original verse, 'The Uninvited Guest' and 'Kiss Me the Way You Did Last Night' - both outtakes from Made In America. Best track of all? 'You're The One' - Karen is one of those singers that has the ability to send shivers, and she does on this.
What made the Carpenters so great? It's easy to say on one level; Karen's voice really was from the heart, a heart that was broken several times, who, like Ella Fitzgerald, never really found the love she craved. But, just as important was the musicianship of Richard Carpenter who could sing, play, arrange, orchestrate and had the ability to take a song and turn it into a hit. If you want to hear what made them so popular then check out, Carpenters: Singles 1969-1981, but we strongly advise that you give the albums a spin, they are full of great pop at its very best.
Words: Richard Havers
The duo's best album, and the place to start beyond the hits compilations. Up to the release of A Song for You, the Carpenters' success had seemed an awesome if somewhat fluky phenomenon, built on prodigious talent, some beautifully crafted pop sensibilities, and a very fortunate choice of singles -- their albums Close to You and Carpenters, though they were top-sellers, both seemed just a bit thrown together. Then came A Song for You, a seemingly unified concept album written and recorded during a frantic period of concert activity, and brimming with lovely musical ideas even more lovingly executed, laced with good humor, and enough hits of its own to have established any artist's career on its own. And even in between the hits, the album was built on material that could have made a whole career for anyone. The duo's version of a then-new Carole King song, "It's Going to Take Some Time," not only became a hit single but helped them in the "cool" department, Carole King being about the hottest musical personality there was at that particular time. One song, "Top of the World," which Richard Carpenter had only visualized as album track, became an unexpected hit single and one of the most popular songs of the decade. And where the Close to You LP had included some beautiful album tracks ("Crescent Noon," " "Maybe It's You"), A Song for You was dripping with masterpieces, including "Crystal Lullaby" and "Road Ode"; Richard Carpenter's "Piano Picker," a confessional piece sung by the composer, also marked the high point of his solo vocal contributions to the duo's music. Even the two cuts that reach back into the past -- the soft jazz instrumental "Flat Baroque," a 1966-vintage Richard Carpenter composition that he resurrected for this release, and "Bless the Beasts and the Children," the B-side of "Superstar" from more than a year earlier (written for a Stanley Kramer movie) -- slot in perfectly among the new songs. The high point of their recording career, A Song for You marked the last time that their music (and the only occasion that one of their albums) would be accepted in the rock world on its own terms, without the duo's squeaky-clean image and sound, and middle-class dorkiness becoming a drag on their sales and image. A Song for You has been released several times on CD, the best of which by far is the 1999 A&M remastering with new notes and full lyrics.
Words - Bruce Eder
Hurriedly put together in the wake of the success of the title song, and containing the follow-up hit "We've Only Just Begun," Close to You is a surprisingly strong album, and not just for those hits. Richard Carpenter's originals "Maybe It's You" and "Crescent Noon" are superb showcases for Karen Carpenter's developing talent, the latter a superbly atmospheric, hauntingly beautiful art song of the kind that Judy Collins was doing well at the time, and gorgeously arranged. There's also a Swingle Singers-style number, "Mr. Guder," showing off their paired vocal talents and more of Richard's arranging talents. Karen's singing on "Reason to Believe" isn't so much somber as it is passionate, as she emphasizes the melancholy component in the song more than most versions. Their version of "Help" lacks the inventiveness of "Ticket to Ride," although it has some pleasing vocal flourishes. The finale, "Another Song," tries hard for a serious rock sound, especially in Karen's animated drumming, but it's her voice that stands out. Released amid the political turmoil of 1970, in the wake of the Cambodian incursion, Kent State, and the conservative backlash against the antiwar forces, there was no way that the rock press or the most politically active listeners were going to appreciate this record, but the fact that it had two huge hit singles and earned a gold record award raised their ire against the Carpenters, a problem that would dog the duo for most of its career. But the public bought, and kept on buying.
Words - Bruce Eder
Now & Then is the fifth album from The Carpenters, released on May 16, 1973. In Cash Box Year-End Charts of 1973, Now & Then appeared at number 20. The title for the album was suggested by Richard and Karen's mother, Agnes Carpenter.
As an outgrowth of the Rick Nelson Garden Party incident, an oldies revival occurred in pop music around 1973, so Side "B" of the album featured an oldies medley. The medley starts with the Carpenters' original song "Yesterday Once More". Tony Peluso, the Carpenters' electric guitarist, is heard as a radio DJ throughout the medley, which includes such songs as "The End of the World", "Dead Man's Curve", "Johnny Angel", and "One Fine Day". Peluso would also be heard as a DJ was on the Carpenters' "Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft" recording in 1977.
Carpenters is the third studio album by Carpenters. Released on May 14, 1971, the album was successful, reaching #2 on the Billboard 200 chart and #12 in the UK. With the hit songs "For All We Know", "Rainy Days and Mondays" and "Superstar", Carpenters solidified Karen Carpenter's reputation as one of the most accomplished vocalists of the 20th century.
It has been said that the strength of these recordings is what caused Richard Carpenter to ask his sister to front the band for their live performances instead of playing behind the drums. Amongst many fans, the album has simply been referred to as "The Tan Album", because the original LP cover, complete with overlapping flap, looked like an oversized tan envelope, and is presumably a play on The Beatles' so-called White Album. In Cash Box's Top 100 Albums of 1971, Carpenters peaked at #8. This is the first album to feature the familiar Carpenters logo.
lead vocals are by Karen, except on the tracks, "Druscilla Penny" and "Saturday", and the "Walk on By" segment of the Bacharach/David Medley, where Richard Carpenter sings lead vocal, with Karen in the background.
The Carpenters' final album, Made in America, released after their two-year break from work, a period in which Karen Carpenter attempted a solo album and when Richard was incapacitated due to a drug problem, is very much a comeback effort, with a fair amount of energy on most of it, newly radiant arrangements ("The Wedding Song," etc.), one cute oldie cover ("Beechwood 4-5789," which was made into a video), and the best new songs they'd had since the mid-'70s ("Those Good Old Dreams," "Touch Me When We're Dancing"). The latter song, in particular, marked a breakthrough to a new sound and a new sensuality in Karen's image as a singer, and could have led to a new beginning for all concerned, and the album as a whole was more energetic and memorable than anything they'd done since A Song for You. Unfortunately, the singer was already suffering from worsening effects of the psychological disorder that would kill her less than two years after the release of this album -- "The Wedding Song," in particular, seems now like an unintentionally poignant bookend on the other end of her life and career from "We've Only Just Begun."
Words - Bruce Eder
The Carpenters' first long-player, cut in 1969 (and originally released as Offering) amid the breakdown of America's postwar social contract, the Vietnam War's soaring to a crescendo of bloodshed, the coming apart of the Beatles, and the final flowering (and wilting) of the youth rebellion of the prior four years. And in the middle of all of that, Karen and Richard Carpenter issued a finely crafted record that moved effortlessly between Spanky & Our Gang-style pop/rock ("Your Wonderful Parade") and art-song. In some ways, Ticket to Ride is The Carpenters' most interesting album, for it contains a range of interests and sounds that were modified or abandoned on subsequent albums. The lushly orchestrated "Someday" is a brilliant showcase for Richard's arranging skills and the most dramatic side of Karen's voice -- it points the way toward songs like "Crescent Noon" on the next album, and although that highly dramatic sound proved a blind alley, it did result in some ravishing performances by the duo. "All I Can Do" is the most solid reminder of their origins as part of a light jazz trio called Spectrum, a pleasing vocal workout that might've been well covered by the Manhattan Transfer. Their version of "Get Together" is about as convincing as a version by the Cowsills would've been, but it's balanced by Richard's slow ballad arrangement of "Ticket to Ride," an unexpected and beguiling (if too upbeat) cover of Neil Young's "Nowadays Clancy Can't Even Sing," and a couple of superb originals, "Eve" and "All of My Life."
Words - Bruce Eder
The Carpenters were one of the more ubiquitous and successful acts of the early and mid-'70s. Songs like "Close to You" and "Rainy Days and Mondays" make the shortlist of pop classics of the '70s. Unfortunately, their 1973 retrospective, 1969-1973, might have wrapped up their commercial careers too soon. This 1975 effort seems to be willing to explore sad emotions with the blithe songs appearing almost as an afterthought. Although it would sound the death knell for many efforts, with Karen Carpenter's pitch-perfect and sorrowful voice, it's actually a nice fit, and an emphasis on the duo's subtext. The beautifully arranged "Aurora" sets the album's ambience. "Eventide," a continuation of the melody and theme, shows up later in the album. The covers, "Desperado" and "Please Mr. Postman," have the duo adding nothing new to the tracks. A more convincing take on the standard "I Can Dream, Can't I?" was co-arranged and orchestrated by the legendary Billy May. The track, despite the depressing horn and backing vocal arrangement, has Carpenter's empathy and tone ringing clear. Another cover, "Solitaire" written by Neil Sedaka and Phil Cody, is melodramatic but a great match for Carpenter's voice. The originals, including "(I'm Caught Between) Goodbye and I Love You," are competent but not magical, and that fact diminishes the effort. Although some might be put off by the sorrow-or-bust ethos of this, Horizon gains its strength from strong production values and, of course, Karen Carpenter's singular gifts as an interpreter.
Words - Jason Elias
Passage is surprisingly ambitious, almost experimental by the standards of the Carpenters -- there are no Richard Carpenter-authored songs, a first for the duo, and what is here seems an almost conscious effort to sound different from their prior work. That includes the ornate versions of "Don't Cry for Me Argentina" and "Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft," both arranged by Peter Knight (best known for his work with the Moody Blues on Days of Future Passed). The Evita song, which comes complete with its surrounding musical material, is so much more elaborate than anything else on the album that it seems completely out of place. Richard evidently had what he felt were good reasons for choosing to record Klaatu's piece of space rock ersatz, and it is hard not to luxuriate in Karen Carpenter's enunciation of the lyrics, but overall "Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft" is one of those '70s records that is truly embarrassing to be caught listening to today, a pop culture Jimmy Carter-era artifact on a par with pet rocks. The album also has its unusually playful side, represented by the country number "Sweet, Sweet Smile" and the Calypso piece "Man Smart, Woman Smarter," although the latter doesn't work at all and neither track would ever find a place even on a "volume three" of the best of the Carpenters. Much more memorable was "All You Get from Love Is a Love Song," which also had more of a beat than one was accustomed to in the duo's music, and the dark, melancholy-tinged "Two Sides." The effort was admirable even if most of the results aren't memorable or essential.
Words - Bruce Eder
As Time Goes By is a collection of songs taken from demos, live shows, and television performances recorded by the Carpenters between 1967 and 1980. In his liner notes Richard Carpenter says this is a record for hardcore Carpenters fans only and he is right. The songs from the various TV specials the duo recorded are cute, mostly versions of standards like "I Got Rhythm," versions of the hits of the day, and Richard Carpenter instrumentals. Apart from the pretty take on the Wildweeds' country-rock-influenced "And When He Smiles," a song that should have been a hit for them if they had officially released it, the best of the lot is the duet on a medley of standards by Karen Carpenter and Ella Fitzgerald from 1980. While Ella is near the end of the road vocally, it is interesting to have two of the most precise singers ever trading verse back and forth. The "Carpenters/Como Medley" is also fun but much cheesier. The disc also includes a couple of songs that were previously unreleased ("Leave Yesterday Behind," a sweetly sung ballad recorded for a TV movie of the same name, and "The Rainbow Connection," which features a typically charming vocal from Karen as well as their versions of "California Dreamin'" and "Nowhere Man" from the original demos that got the band its record deal). The only problem with the outtakes and rarities here are that Carpenter felt the need to go in and fix, sweeten, or totally refurnish the songs. Perhaps he just has too much free time, perhaps he is an obsessive tinkerer. Whatever the excuse, the archival value of the songs has been tampered with and that makes the songs less valuable somehow. If indeed this set is designed with Carpenters diehards in mind, wouldn't they have liked to hear the original version of "Nowhere Man," the one-track mono version? Richard proudly boasts that he transferred the acetate disc to a 48-track, leaving him "47 tracks with which to play." Fine and dandy, but why not put the original on the disc and then follow it with the new version for comparison's sake? Or just listen to your new version at home and let the fans get a chance to hear an extremely rare and no doubt very interesting piece of Carpenters history? As for the tracks like "The Rainbow Connection" and the "Superstar/Rainy Days and Mondays" medley, Richard drenches his sister's vocals with strings and background singers when he should have left them alone. Maybe he just doesn't understand that people don't really care about his arrangements. What they care most about are his sister's vocals. As it is, he has done Karen and Carpenters fans a big disservice by tampering with artifacts that could have made for a very interesting disc. It still might be worthwhile to have for the material from the television specials and to hear Karen's voice again, however.
Words - Tim Sendra