While Karen Carpenter drew the more obvious acclaim as the angelic voice of the pop duo The Carpenters, her older brother Richard was equally integral as the group's arranger, pianist and one of its key songwriters, most notably on hits like "Top of the World," "Only Yesterday," "Yesterday Once More" and "Goodbye to Love," all of which he co-wrote with Jack Bettis. He began performing in instrumental groups as a teenager before forming the Carpenter Trio with his younger sister Karen on drums and vocals in the mid-1960s, which became the Carpenters at the end of the decade. Her sweet singing voice and his lush, romantic arrangements struggled to find an audience until 1970, when their simple, old-fashioned style of music struck a chord with older listeners who longed for the gentle pop of the 1950s. The Carpenters soon became a major act on both the pop and adult contemporary charts, but personal demons, most notably Karen's weight issues and Richard's dependence on Quaaludes, undermined their stratospheric rise. Karen's untimely death in 1983 brought the Carpenters to an abrupt end, but Richard remained steadfast in keeping the flame alive through numerous compilations and outtake albums. As an arranger, songwriter and archivist, Richard Carpenter enjoyed one of the most successful careers in contemporary pop music.
Born in New Haven, CT on Oct. 15, 1946, Richard Carpenter was introduced to music prior to attending school by his father, who worked for a container corporation while maintaining a substantial record collection in his off hours. The younger Carpenter soon began to play music himself; his initial instrument of choice was the accordion, but he soon switched to piano. By his teenaged years, he was studying piano at Yale while performing in an instrumental trio in the evenings. The family, which grew to include sister Karen on March 2, 1950, moved to Downey, CA in 1963. There, Richard began playing piano with his high school concert band at the request of its director, Bruce Gifford, who later added Carpenter to his own music combo, which played the club scene throughout Los Angeles. By 1965, Karen Carpenter soon showed an aptitude for drums, which spurred her brother to form the Carpenter Trio, a jazz combo with Richard on piano, Karen on drums and occasional vocals, and classmate Wes Jacobs on bass and tuba. The siblings signed a record contract with studio bassist Joe Osborn's label, Magic Lamp, in 1966, but the subsequent single, "Looking for Love/I'll Be Yours," which was written by Richard but credited as a Karen Carpenter solo effort, was a non-starter.
The sting of the single's failure was soon soothed by the trio's performance at a "battle of the bands" contest at the Hollywood Bowl. Their performance of "The Girl from Ipanema" and a Richard Carpenter original, "Iced Tea," not only won them the competition, but the admiration of Neely Plumb, the West Coast pop music manager for RCA Records. He arranged a recording session for the trio, which produced 11 songs, including an early, jazzy version of "Flat Baroque," which the Carpenters would later re-record and earn a Grammy for Best Instrumental Arrangement with Vocals in 1972. Unfortunately, the Carpenter Trio had arrived at the dawn of the psychedelic rock movement, which rendered their jazz-driven instrumental pop obsolete. RCA bought out their contract, and the Trio went their separate ways. Richard Carpenter would subsequently find work with a friend, John Bettis, playing turn-of-the-century tunes at Coke Corner on Disneyland's Main Street. Their frequent deviation from the approved set list led to their dismissal after just four months, but Bettis and Carpenter would quickly rebound with Spectrum, a pop vocal sextet that also featured Karen. Though Bettis and Carpenter's original music drew inspiration from other harmony-driven acts like The Beach Boys and The Association, their timing was once again out of step with the current music scene. Undaunted, the Carpenters reunited with Joe Osborn to record a trio of songs that meshed Karen's ethereal voice with his arrangements.
In 1968, the Carpenters won a televised music competition, which brought them to the attention John and Tom Bahler, who led a group called the Love Generation. The Bahlers hired the Carpenters to augment their sound on an advertising campaign for Ford Motors. For their efforts, the siblings received $50,000, as well as their own individual Mustangs. However, greater success continued to elude them until 1969, when their recordings made their way to Herb Alpert at A&M Records. Alpert was immediately taken by Karen Carpenter's voice, which reminded him of pop singers of his youth like Patti Page, so wasted no time signing them to a contract with his label. Their first album, Offering (1969), drew praise for Richard's arrangement of the Beatles' "Ticket to Ride," but failed to generate substantive sales. Songwriter Burt Bacharach was among the listeners taken by the Carpenters' version of the Fab Four's song, and invited them to join him on live dates in 1970. He also gave them a song called "(They Long to Be) Close to You," which had been intended for Dionne Warwick. Richard's intricate arrangements and Karen's vocals helped to make the song a huge hit, reaching No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100.
The Carpenters soon followed this with "We've Only Just Begun," a song initially penned by Paul Williams and Roger Nichols for a Crocker Bank commercial. It shot to No. 2 on the singles chart and helped the Carpenters win two Grammys, including Best New Artist and Best Contemporary Vocal Performance for "Close to You." By the following year, the siblings had scored four more Top 10 hits, including the Williams-Nichols composition "Rainy Days and Mondays," and "For All We Know," from the 1971 film "Lovers and Other Strangers," which won the Oscar for Best Song. That same year, the Carpenters made their debut as hosts of their own short-lived television variety show, "Make Your Own Kind of Music" (NBC, 1971), which ran for eight weeks in the summer of 1971. Later that same year, the pair scored a No. 2 hit with a cover of the Bonnie Bramlett/Leon Russell song "Superstar," which drew attention for Richard's alteration of the lyric "I can hardly wait/to sleep with you again" to "I can hardly wait/to be with you again," which underscored the group's mainstream appeal. The Carpenters' 1972 album A Song for You continued their incredible streak of success, with nearly all of its songs reaching the top of the Adult Contemporary charts. In addition, "Top of the World," penned by Richard and Jon Bettis, gave them a No. 1 pop single. Their follow-up record, Now & Then (1973), featured a No. 3 cover of Joe Raposo's "Sing," which had been made popular on the children's series "Sesame Street" (PBS, 1969- ), and a nostalgic medley of '50s and '60s pop hits. Later that same year, the Carpenters were guests of Richard Nixon at the White House.
At the height of their unparalleled popularity, Karen Carpenter began to develop an unhealthy obsession with her weight and body image. Constant binging and rigorous exercise routines led to anorexia nervosa, which sent her weight plummeting to below 100 pounds. She was soon physically unable to meet the demands of their touring and recording schedules, forcing the cancellation of sold-out tours in the U.K. and Japan in 1975. During this period - already worried about his sister - Richard Carpenter also began struggling with an addiction to Quaaludes, which hampered the quality of their recordings. The lackluster production led to a decline in popularity, as evidenced by the inability of their seventh album, A Kind of Hush (1976), to break the Top 30 on the Billboard 200. The Carpenters rebounded with their first television variety special, aptly titled "The Carpenters' Very First Television Special" (ABC, 1976), which scored exceptionally high ratings. Four additional specials aired on the network between 1977 and 1980, but Richard grew to dislike these productions, citing their canned laughter and embarrassing premises - "The Carpenters Space Encounters" (ABC, 1978) featured John Davidson and Suzanne Somers as jumpsuit-clad aliens who participate in a disco medley - as a major stumbling block in his attempts to update their image from a square, whitebread pop act to legitimate musicians.
Unfortunately, there was little time to address the issue, what with make-up dates for the European and Japanese tour, and a new album, Passage (1977), which generated Top 40 hits with "All You Get From Love is a Love Song" and the uncharacteristic "Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft." A holiday record, Christmas Portrait (1978), soon followed, but Richard Carpenter's growing drug problems made it difficult for him to participate in the recording beyond selecting the songs, leaving the arrangements to studio veterans Peter Knight and Billy May. The album was their last studio album to reach platinum sales status during Karen's lifetime. By late 1978, both Richard and Karen had entered facilities to deal with their respective health issues. Richard Carpenter completed a eight-week drug rehabilitation program before taking a sabbatical from work for the remainder of the year. Karen was also hospitalized for exhaustion and low weight, but emerged from the hospital to begin work on a solo album. Despite her brother's reservations about the toll it would take on her already compromised health, Karen began traveling regularly to New York for rigorous recording sessions with producer Phil Ramone. However, the album's song lyrics, which took a decidedly more mature tone than her work with the Carpenters, was met with a negative response by A&M, which soon shelved the project.
After giving their final live performance on Dec. 3, 1978, the Carpenters were back in the studio in 1980 for Made in America, which produced their final Top 20 single, "Touch Me When I'm Dancing." In 1982, Karen moved to New York to begin intensive therapy for her weight issues. Despite the new program, she continued to lose weight, and agreed to a procedure called hyper alimentation, which quickly added some 25 pounds to her frame. But the radical changes to her system left Carpenter weakened, and she succumbed to a fatal heart attack on Feb. 4, 1983 while at their parents' home. A grief-stricken Richard Carpenter would keep the band's legacy alive by releasing four albums between 1983 and 2001, all comprised of outtakes and unreleased tracks, as well as numerous compilation albums. His own solo debut, Time (1987), generated a Top 20 hit on the Adult Contemporary charts with "Something In Your Eyes," which featured British soul legend Dusty Springfield on vocals. A second album, Pianist, Arranger, Composer, Conductor (1998), underscored his contributions to the Carpenters' sound by including reworked instrumental versions of their most popular songs. He also produced two documentaries about their work, the PBS production " Close to You: Remembering the Carpenters" (1997) and "Only Yesterday: The Carpenters Story" (BBC One, 2007)
By Paul Gaita