The Carpenters were a 1970s vocal and instrumental duo, consisting of siblings Karen and Richard Carpenter. With their brand of melodic pop, they charted a score of hit recordings on the American Top 40, becoming leading exponents of the "soft rock" or adult contemporary genre and ranking among the foremost recording artists of the decade.
Born in New Haven, Connecticut, (Richard on October 15, 1946, and Karen on March 2, 1950), the Carpenter siblings moved with their parents to California in 1963 and settled in the Los Angeles suburb of Downey. Richard had developed his interest in music at an early age, becoming a piano prodigy. The move to southern California was intended in part to foster his budding musical career. Karen, meanwhile, did not manifest her musical talents until high school, when she joined the band and soon mastered the drums.
During the mid to late 1960s, the two attempted to launch a musical career but failed to gain a successful recording deal until the decade's end. In May 1966 Karen joined Richard in attending a late night session in the garage studio of L.A. bassist Joe Osborn, where Richard was to accompany an auditioning vocalist. Asked to sing, Karen performed and landed a short-lived recording contract as a solo artist with Osborn's flegling label Magic Lamp. The resulting single included two of Richard's compositions, "Looking for Love" and "I'll Be Yours", but the label soon folded, bringing this promising start to a close.
During this period, the pair, joined by bassist friend Wes Jacobs, formed the Richard Carpenter Trio, a jazz instrumental group. Winning the Hollywood Bowl "Battle of the Bands" in 1966, the trio was picked up by the RCA label. The label chose not to release their songs, however, and doubting their commercial potential, RCA soon dropped the trio. Richard and Karen next teamed with four other student musicians from California State University-Long Beach to form the sextet Spectrum. Although the new group landed club dates at such venues as the Whisky A Go-Go, no record deal was forthcoming. Nevertheless, the experience proved rewarding for the siblings, as Richard found a lyricist for his original compositions in fellow Spectrum member John Bettis.
After Spectrum folded, the Carpenters decided to continue as a duo, with Richard on keyboards, Karen on drums, and both contributing vocals. They sent out demo tapes and eventually attracted the attention of Herb Alpert, who signed the duo to his label, A&M Records, in 1969. Their initial LP, titled Offering, featured numerous selections that Richard had written or co-written during their Spectrum period. The most significant track on the album, though, was a ballad rendition of The Beatles' hit "Ticket to Ride", which soon became a minor hit for the Carpenters, and the LP was subsequently retitled Ticket to Ride with somewhat improved sales.
The Carpenters achieved their breakthrough in 1970 with the release of the Burt Bacharach-Hal David song, "(They Long to Be) Close to You", which rose to #1 and stayed atop the charts for four weeks. A follow-up recording, "We've Only Just Begun" (written by Paul Williams and Roger Nichols), reached #2 to become the duo's second major hit in the fall of 1970, and helped catapult the album featuring both hits (titled Close to You) to bestseller status.
A string of hit singles and albums followed, including "For All We Know", "Rainy Days and Mondays", and "Superstar" (all from the LP, Carpenters) in 1971; "Hurting Each Other", "It's Going to Take Some Time", and "Goodbye to Love" (from the LP, A Song for You) in 1972; "Sing" and "Yesterday Once More" (from the LP, Now and Then) in 1973. "Top of the World", an album selection on the Song for You LP, became a word of mouth hit and was re-recorded for single release in 1973, reaching number one on the Top 40 late that year. A greatest hits LP, titled The Singles: 1969-1973, topped the charts in the U.S. and the United Kingdom and became one of the bestselling albums of the decade, ultimately selling more than 7,000,000 copies in the U.S. alone.
During the first half of the 1970s, the Carpenters' music was a staple of Top 40 playlists. The duo produced a distinctive sound featuring Karen's expressive contralto on lead vocals, with both siblings contributing background vocals that were overdubbed to create densely layered harmonies. To his role as vocalist, keyboardist, and arranger, Richard added that of composer on numerous tracks. Several of his compositions with lyricist John Bettis became hit records, including "Goodbye to Love", "Yesterday Once More", and "Top of the World".
To promote their recordings, the Carpenters maintained a staggering schedule of concert tours and television appearances during this period. Among their numerous television credits were appearances on such popular series as American Bandstand, the Ed Sullivan Show, the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, and the Carol Burnett Show. In 1971 the duo appeared in a television special on the BBC-TV in the United Kingdom and were the featured performers in a summer replacement series, Make Your Own Kind of Music, which aired on NBC-TV in the U.S. In May 1973 the Carpenters accepted an invitation to perform at the White House for President Richard M. Nixon and visiting West German chancellor Willy Brandt.
The Carpenters' popularity often confounded critics. With their output focused on ballads and mid-tempo pop, the duo's music was often dismissed by critics as bland and "saccharine". The recording industry, however, bestowed awards on the duo, who won three Grammy Awards during their career (including Best New Artist, and Best Pop Performance by a Duo, Group, or Chorus, for "Close to You" in 1970; and Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group for the LP Carpenters in 1971). In 1973, the Carpenters were voted Best Band, Duo, or Group (Pop/Rock) at the first annual American Music Awards.
The Carpenters scaled the charts with a remake of the Marvelettes' hit "Please Mr. Postman" in early 1975 and scored a final top five hit with the Carpenter-Bettis song "Only Yesterday" later that year. Both singles appeared on the LP Horizon, which also included covers of the Eagles' "Desperado" and Neil Sedaka's "Solitaire", which became a moderate hit for the duo that year. The LPs Horizon and A Kind of Hush, released in 1975 and 1976 respectively, achieved "gold" status but failed to peak as high as previous efforts. Their singles releases in 1976 likewise followed a pattern of diminishing returns. The duo's highest charting single that year was a cover of Herman's Hermits' "There's a Kind of Hush", which peaked at number 12. The follow-up single, the Carpenter-Bettis song "I Need to Be in Love" charted no higher than 25, while the novelty song "Goofus" failed to reach the Top 40 entirely.
Their more experimental album, Passage, released in 1977, marked an attempt to broaden their appeal by venturing into other musical genres. The LP featured an unlikely mix of Latin rock, calypso, and pop, and included the Top 40 hit "All You Get From Love is a Love Song". The most notable tracks included cover versions of "Don't Cry For Me, Argentina" (from the rock opera Evita), and Klaatu's "Calling Occupants Of Interplanetary Craft", both complete with choral and orchestral accompaniment. Although the single release of "Calling Occupants" became a top ten hit in the U.K., it stalled at number 32 on the U.S. charts, and the album failed to cross the gold threshold of 500,000 copies sold in the States.
Despite their disappointing performance on domestic charts, the Carpenters continued to enjoy enormous popularity. A second Singles album (covering the years 1974-1978) was released in the U.K., while in the States, their 1978 holiday album, A Christmas Portrait, proved an exception to their faltering career at home and became a seasonal favorite. (A second Christmas collection, An Old Fashioned Christmas, was released in 1984 after Karen's death.) Their television specials also garnered solid ratings and kept them before the public eye during the late 1970s.
By the mid-1970s, extensive touring and lengthy recording sessions had begun to take their toll on the duo and contributed to their professional difficulties during the latter half of the decade. Karen dieted obsessively and developed the disorder anorexia nervosa, which first manifested itself in 1975, when an exhausted and emaciated Karen was forced to cancel concert tours in the U.K. and Japan. Richard, meanwhile, developed an addiction to Quaaludes, which began to affect his performance in the late 1970s and led to the end of the duo's live concert appearances in 1978.
Richard sought treatment for his addiction at a Topeka, Kansas, facility in early 1979. Karen, meanwhile, decided to pursue a solo album project with renowned producer Phil Ramone in New York. Her choice of more adult-oriented and dance-tempo material represented an effort to retool their image. The resulting product, however, met a tepid response from Richard and A&M executives in early 1980, and Karen wavered in her dedication to the project. Ultimately, she abandoned the solo effort in favor of launching a new LP with her brother, now fully recovered from his addiction. (The solo LP remained unreleased until 1996.) Their LP Made in America, released in 1981, spawned a final top 20 hit single, "Touch Me When We're Dancing".
Personal troubles, however, dimmed the prospects of this modest return to the charts, as Karen suffered a failed marriage and the ongoing effects of her anorexia. In 1982, Karen sought therapy with noted psychotherapist Steven Levenkron in New York City for her disorder and returned to California later that year determined to regain her professional career. The years of dieting and abuse proved too much strain on her heart, however, and on February 4, 1983, Karen suffered cardiac arrest at her parents' home in Downey and was pronounced dead at Downey Memorial Hospital.
Following Karen's death, Richard Carpenter has continued to produce recordings of the duo's music, including several albums of previously unreleased material and numerous compilation albums. His dedication to protecting the Carpenters' image and recording legacy has sparked criticism from some quarters, as Richard has insisted on substantial project oversight as the price for his cooperation in any documentary or drama focusing on them. In 1987 he intervened to limit the distribution of the short film Superstar - The Karen Carpenter Story (using Barbie dolls to relate a perspective on Karen's untimely death). Although numerous critics found Karen's portrayal to be sympathetic, the film depicted the Carpenter family in an unflattering light, and Richard prevailed in pulling the film from distribution on the basis that Carpenters tracks were used on the soundtrack without permission.
A 1989 TV movie, produced with his cooperation, gained favorable notices and reached a wide audience. A critical reevaluation of the Carpenters' musical output followed during the 1990s, as interest in and appreciation for the duo's recorded work increased. A 1994 biography, The Carpenters: The Untold Story, by respected music journalist and biographer Ray Coleman, covered the arc of the duo's career and personal lives. A tribute album by contemporary artists also appeared that year and provided an alternative rock interpretation of numerous Carpenters hits.
Several of their songs have achieved the status of popular standards. In particular, "Close To You" is frequently sung in karaoke bars, while the duo's signature tune, "We've Only Just Begun", continues to be performed at weddings and receptions. Both recordings have been honored with Grammy Hall of Fame awards for recordings of lasting quality or historical significance: "We've Only Just Begun" was inducted in 1998, while "Close to You" followed in 2000.