The Missing Music: Karen Carpenter   Leave a comment

September 23, 2011

Part 6: Karen Carpenter: The Voice

This is the sixth of ten posts about ten important women in the recording industry, each of whom died long before their time. If you haven’t already read through the introduction to this series, please follow this link to the “introduction“, and then go on to any of the individual posts.

Karen Carpenter (1950-1983)

My introduction to Karen Carpenter was during my first job in the record business, representing a variety of labels, with RCA Records being the most significant of them. One day in 1970 one of the young women who worked in the same office stopped me in the hall and asked me “when are you guys going to sign someone like the Carpenters?” It wasn’t like I was oblivious to them. I had heard their first album Offering (1969) about the same time I left radio and entered the music business. And to be honest, I really liked their cover of the Lennon-McCartney song “Ticket To Ride”. But a year later they released their second album, Close To You, and that was the music my co-worker was asking about. Karen, with her brother Richard, was one-half of the sister-brother recording duo, Carpenters. Note the lack of the article “the” before their name. That was not an omission on my part but a reflection of their choice to use their family name without any embellishment. I point this out for two reasons. First, because it seemed odd to some, and radio stations forever referred to them as the Carpenters, probably to the everlasting annoyance of Richard and Karen. Second, it was emblematic of the detail that Richard put into everything they did. Close To You contained a number of tracks anyone would be happy representing. For example, they did a nice job on the Tim Hardin classic “Reason To Believe”. But the bread and butter tracks for this album were the title track “(They Long To Be) Close To You” and “We’ve Only Just Begun”. The former was a Burt Bacharach/Hal David composition that while not written for Carpenters, felt like it had been handcrafted for them.  The latter track was a song that those living in Southern California, or visiting on a regular basis, would have heard on the radio long before the duo recorded it. Written by Paul Williams, I believe it was originally used by Crocker Bank for their radio commercials. In these two tracks one can see exactly the sound that Capenters were going for. And quickly achieved.

Subsequent albums and singles proved that the sound they created had legs; their music endured and evolved, although never straying too far from what was Richard and Karen’s core. The 1971 album Carpenters included three tracks that achieved major radio play: “For All We Know”, “Rainy Days and Mondays”, and “Superstar”. Like “Ticket To Ride”,  their ability to cover a song like “Superstar”, shows remarkable confidence, particularly if you listen to the version by the song’s author, Leon Russell.

In 1972 they released A Song For You which included the title track (another Leon Russell tune,) and then there was a gem that the public gets far more credit for making a hit than the label: “Top of the World”. Anyone one who saw them on tour and heard this song, and so many others who heard the track on the album believed that this was a hit;  it’s fair to say that “Top of the World” became the “populist” choice for a single. I recall talking to retailers and radio stations and hearing them ask over and over, “when are you guys gonna release ‘Top of the World’ as a single?” It eventually was released and indeed, became a hit. Beyond the country-flavored “Top of the World”, radio stations and listeners found track after track to play and request: “I Won’t Last A Day Without You”, “Hurting Each Other”, “It’s Going To Take Some Time”, and “Bless the Beasts and the Children”. But many of us were pleasantly surprised to hear a song called “Goodbye To Love”. For those who never heard the recording, if one reads the title and knows it is a Carpenters’ recording, they could anticipate it as a ballad or mid-tempo recording, maybe even a bit schmaltzy. And most would take note of (and many of us were surprised by) the contrasting fuzz-tone guitar solo that, beyond Karen’s voice and Richard’s arrangement, is the signature moment in the recording.

The album Now & Then brought multiple shots at radio. Another Leon Russell cover, “This Masquerade”. And the Richard Carpenter/John Bettis composition “Yesterday Once More”, written for the album and fitting perfectly into a time when America was beginning a love affair with the music of the 1950s and 60s. “Sing”, a Sesame Street song with Disney-esque qualities that after radio embraced it, many people commented “I can’t get that song out of my head”. Sort of like taking your young daughter to Disneyland and spending the next month gettin “It’s A Small World” out of your head.

Through the balance of the 1970s Carpenters were on the charts but the apex of their chart-topping success was now in the rear-view mirror. There were titles on the album charts driven by hit singles like “Only Yesterday”, “Kind of Hush”, “Solitaire”, “Please Mr. Postman”, “Calling Occupants Of Interplanetary Crafts” (actually one of my favorite Carpenters’ productions), and the duo’s last visit to the top-20, “Touch Me When We’re Dancing”.

For more than ten years I enjoyed working with them. They were almost everything you want in recording artists and performers: committed to their career, with a clear vision of their music, in possession of natural talent, and able to articulate when they were happy and when they believed the label had come up short in some way. I remember Karen and Richard calling me from the A&M Studios where they were recording. My office was no more than 150-200 feet from the studios on the A&M Lot on North LaBrea in Hollywood. I knew they were here doing some studio work but had no idea why they were calling me. Karen wanted me to know that they had visited a number of stores in the Los Angeles area, and she felt that some of their catalog albums (their older releases) were in short supply. It was gentle nudge directly from the artist. One could get defensive and debate the issue of “how much is enough”, or choose to receive their call as constructive. Given their proven success, and the importance of their music to the label, I made some calls and, where we found problems we solved them and where there weren’t problems we moved on. I never viewed the calls as inappropriate. Instead I only needed to consider their position: if I were the artist, and I came across what I perceived as problems, would I be silent or attempt to solve the problem? Besides, when I picked up the phone and heard that voice, or saw them in the studio or around the A&M offices, they could be as disarming as anyone.

In my time at A&M (and at other labels,) you start to know when the magic or the formula is no longer working. It’s harder to get airplay, retailers and wholesalers reduce the quantity of albums or singles ordered, appearances on the charts decline, and so on. With Carpenters, the signs were there. A desire to record Karen as a solo artist, a move I believe was long-hoped for by the label, didn’t pan out. As the 1970s turned into the 1980s Karen’s visibility on the A&M Lot became virtually non-existent. Most of us had no information of what was really going with her, but silence wasn’t golden. The short history is that we all discovered that Karen had been suffering from, and was being treated for, anorexia nervosa. At one point in the early 1980s her weight was down to 80 pounds. Although she gained some weight, it’s likely the damage had been done. On February 4, 1983, her heart must have had all it could take and gave out. Karen was dead. And with her passing, the voice, as many of us referred to her, was silent. Since then it appears that Richard has worked diligently to maintain her earlier releases and her unreleased material so that today, almost thirty years later, her music is there for people to rediscover, or discover for the first time. For Karen’s and all of the Carpenters’ music, we can still find a CD, or we’re able to digitally download a track. Then, it’s yesterday once more.

Prior: Minnie Riperton

Next: Laura Branigan

David Steffen

© David Steffen 2011


Posted September 24, 2011 by Jazzdavid in Music History, Obituary, Popular Music, Uncategorized

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