Star of the Carpenters reveals the secret of their success | Music | Entertainment


Brother and sister duo: Richard and Karen Carpenter. (Image: GAB Archives / Redferns)

“Melody is the universal language,” Richard Carpenter tells me. “And Karen’s magical voice. It was timeless. She would have been a hit in any decade. She could make someone happy or melancholy depending on how she sang.

His inspired arrangements also mattered, of course. The duo’s incredible race began with (I Want To Be) Close To You in 1970 and has continued for eleven years. “But we weren’t teenage idols,” says Richard. “Visually, I wasn’t David Cassidy – I wasn’t that cute. Our demographic ranged from 5-6 year olds to mothers, fathers, grandmothers, grandfathers… that’s why we’ve sold so many albums.

Their audiences rarely shouted and were generally well behaved. “In New Orleans once, while I was singing, a girl came on stage after me. Our road manager grabbed her to pull her away and I said, “What are you doing? Leave her here! “

He laughs and adds, “It happened once with Karen too, but it was all very respectable.”

They sold the Royal Albert Hall in August 1971. “We were amazed,” says Richard, 75. “We had a hit and a half. Karen and I had been paying attention to the US Billboard charts, we had no idea we were going to be a hit in Britain and Japan. So, so fast… ”

And it only ended with the tragic death of her sister Karen from an anorexia-related heart attack in February 1983, less than a month away from her 33rd birthday.

The folkestone pair had a soft and distinct musical style. (Image: Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images)

The official new book, Carpenters: The Musical Legacy, has stories about their songs and Karen’s detailed itineraries of their tours, but doesn’t shy away from the darker side.

“I didn’t want it to be yet another authorized biography where a famous person never admits a single mistake,” explains Richard. “We weren’t perfect. You have to deal with Karen’s anorexia at the end of 1973, and you have to deal with my use of Quaaludes.

He formed his first combo, the light-jazz-oriented Richard Carpenter Trio in 1966, after the family moved from New Haven, Connecticut, to Downey, Los Angeles. He played the piano, Karen, then 16, played the drums, and Wes Jacobs played the double bass and tuba. They followed that up with rock band Spectrum, before being a brother-in-law duo in ’68.

“I was not a born jazz pianist and knew full well that I would never be a first class concert pianist, but I had other skills,” he says. “But Karen’s voice had real potential and by the age of 18 she pretty much had the sound.”

Choosing hits was Richard’s strong suit. “I could spot the winners,” he says. “It’s a talent I was born with. You cannot learn it. I was in the Top 40 at the age of three.

Carpenters with a Honda motorbike as an accessory on their UK tour.

Carpenters with a Honda motorbike as an accessory on their UK tour. (Image: Keystone / Hulton Archive / Getty Images)

Growing up, he realized he could hear a song and say if it would be ranked. “If it wasn’t, it surprised me until I realized it was because the arrangement wasn’t right.”

He spent hours experimenting in his friend Joe Osborn’s garage studio, dubbing his and Karen’s vocals to create a unique choral sound.

They were signed by the Herb Alpert A&M label. “Most of the guys at A&R were looking for the next Dylan or the next Beatles, but when Herb signed the Carpenters we had our own sound. And A & M’s philosophy was to let the actor do whatever he wanted.

Their first single was a cover of The Beatles’ Ticket To Ride. Richard slowed it down, changed the melody and tweaked the chords. Released in 1969, it wasn’t a hit, but it wasn’t a flop either. It was on and off the US charts for six months, eventually peaking at 54.

Early fans included Burt Bacharach. “We organized a benefit evening after the premiere of Hello Dolly, and we started off with an arrangement of I’ll Never Fall In Love Again by Burt. We didn’t know he was there! Next thing we know is he’s standing right in front of us under the stage!

Herb Albert gave Richard the sheet music for Close To You – written by Bacharach and Hal David – and Carpenter came up with the fluid arrangement.

Carpenters in front of the piano

The carpenters around 1970. (Image: Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images)

“It was in the box pending release, but Ticket To Ride didn’t stop. It paved the way for us because the DJs heard it and were aware of us. So Close To You was an overnight success when it was released on May 15, 1970. “

Six weeks later, it was number one. “Karen was 20 and I was 23. Our whole world has changed. I felt justified because our demo had been turned down by so many record companies. “

A&M needed a follow-up single. Richard had heard We’ve Only Just Begun as a jingle in a TV commercial. “There was no bridge, but I recognized the singer’s voice and got a full song demo. We needed a new arrangement, but we knew it was a success.

It has become the wedding song of a generation.

Speaking from his home in Westlake Village, Calif., Richard adds, “It’s been a great first year, but we were growing so fast that the venues weren’t as big as they should have been when we were there. got there. We didn’t have a road manager – we packed our own instruments and drove off in rental cars.

“We were coming to Idaho and Montana and it was very cold. We knew it was freezing from New Haven, but it was nothing like it, it was 40 degrees below zero.

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“We weren’t a stadium number. We could attract the same number of people as the Stones, but we would do it over five nights.

But touring and television appearances left him little time to write songs or choose and arrange new tracks. “Looking back, we should have toured in the summer and done Vegas and Tahoe the rest of the year. We were doing the best we could, but there was too much on me.

He picked the winners anyway – Richard heard Bette Midler sing I’ll Never Fall In Love Again on television, and Goodbye To Love mentioned in a 1940 Basil Rathbone film. The Carpenters have sold over 100 million records. … And attracted a stalker.

In 1973, a man showed up outside the family home in Downey in a GTO bombarded with “Jesus saves” stickers. He told their father Harold that Karen wanted to see him because all of his songs were meant for him.

After returning several times, the obsessive fan broke into the house, telling the police officers who arrested him that he was Karen’s fiancé.

The pressures of fame were complicated by an extremely hostile rock press. President Nixon describing the Carpenters as “young America at its best” hasn’t helped. It took decades before their music was appreciated for its remarkable combination of original arrangements and sublime multi-layered harmonies.

In 2018, Richard recorded the 18-track album Carpenters With The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra; next month he’s releasing an album of piano interpretations of their greatest hits.

“My job was to arrange them in a way that did them justice without additional orchestration – just the piano. Keep the song recognizable without trampling the melody.

“The human soul is anchored in the love of melody, whether a person can sing or not. Bing and Perry Como made singing so easy… the average guy in the shower thought he looked like Bing, but of course he didn’t… ”

Aside from the Disney musicals, he thinks that few good songs are written today. “It’s been fifty years since we signed, before that there was Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hammerstein, all those wonderful songs… It’s rare now that someone wants to sound like him, he tries to sound like somebody else.

“You need someone who can sing the right melody and then songs will be written for that person. One feeds the other.

  • * Richard Carpenter’s Songbook for Piano released on January 14th by Decca Records