As a brother and sister duo, The Carpenters enjoyed a prolific and successful career in the music industry from 1969 to 1983, releasing 46 singles, 12 studio albums, 13 compilation albums and two live albums during their 14-year career.
Their greatest hits went four-times platinum and achieved total sales of more than 100 million records worldwide – making them the seventh top-selling artist in the world in the 1970s and the third-best selling artist on the Japanese market, behind only the Beatles and Mariah Carey.
Richard and Karen Carpenter were born in New Haven, Connecticut. Richard was a quiet child who spent a lot of his time in solitude, listening to music and learning to play the piano. His sister was outgoing and sporty, although she too enjoyed music.
By the age of 14 and already an accomplished pianist, Richard expressed a desire to play professionally, so he was sent to lessons at the Yale School of Music – he was largely self-taught. The family moved to Downey in Los Angeles in 1963 and Richard became the organist for the local Methodist Church.
His repertoire included popular hits by artists such as the Beatles, though rearranged in a more church-like style! He enrolled at California State College in 1964 and met John Bettis (his future song writing partner), long-time friend Wesley Jacobs (who played the tuba and stand-up bass), and Frank Pooler.
Karen enrolled at Downey High School in the fall of 1964 and found she liked to play the drums. Her parents bought her a Ludwig drum kit and she began to learn more complex drumming techniques. She began to take lessons and learned how to read music.
The siblings joined the band for a local theatre production of the musical Guys and Dolls in 1965 – the first time they played in public together. They formed their own band called the Richard Carpenter Trio later that year, with Richard on vocals and piano, Karen on drums and Richard’s college friend, Wesley Jacobs, on tuba and bass.
Karen started taking singing lessons with Richard’s friend Frank Pooler, who described her as a “born pop singer”. In 1966, she and Richard joined a session in the studio of Los Angeles bass player Joe Osborn – a famous session musician from the 1960s to the 1980s. Osborn asked Karen to sing and he was impressed by her abilities.
He signed Karen to his record label, Magic Lamp Records, and Richard to Lightup Music, which was the publishing arm of his business. He released two of Richard’s compositions, which were backed by the Richard Carpenter Trio with Karen on vocals – I’ll Be Yours and Looking for Love.
The trio entered the Battle of the Bands competition in June 1966 at the Hollywood Bowl, and after winning, they were signed by RCA Records.
Road to success
Unfortunately, after releasing cover versions, including Frank Sinatra’s Strangers in the Night, they weren’t a huge commercial success and were dropped by their record label. The trio disbanded after Jacobs was invited to join the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.
Richard and Karen formed new band, Spectrum, with musicians from Long Beach State. They sent demo tapes to a number of record labels, but their middle-of-the-road sound wasn’t popular, as it was too different from the rock and psychedelic music being played in clubs at the time.
Spectrum split in 1968 and Richard and Karen became a duo called simply The Carpenters. Finally, their demo tapes paid off and they were offered a record deal by A&M Records on 22nd April 1969, when Richard was 23 and Karen was 19.
Their first major hit was a cover version of a Burt Bacharach song, (They Long to Be) Close to You. It had been recorded with minor success by Richard Chamberlain in 1963 and Dionne Warwick in 1964. When the Carpenters released it in 1970, it hit the number one spot and remained there for four weeks.
This was the start of their relentless climb to the top, thanks to recording a stream of hit singles, including We’ve Only Just Begun which reached number two in September 1970, Goodbye to Love in 1972, Top of the World in 1973, Yesterday Once More the same year (their eighth number one hit) and Please Mr Postman in 1974.
Their meteoric rise to success earned them an invitation to the White House to meet President Richard Nixon in 1973, where they were asked to play a concert to honour West German Chancellor, Willy Brandt.
The duo won three Grammy Awards and hosted their own TV variety series, Make Your Own Kind of Music, which was aired on NBC. Their tour of Japan in 1976 was the biggest-grossing concert in Japanese history at the time. Releasing hit after hit, on both album and single, The Carpenters attracted a worldwide following.
Sadly, Karen battled anorexia nervosa for many years. She denied her condition at first, but by 1979, when Richard took a year out due to his own ill health, he was sure Karen had anorexia – although she claimed her weight loss was due to colitis. She wouldn’t seek professional help and while Richard was ill, she pursued solo singing projects.
She finally agreed to have anorexia therapy after being in denial, and in 1982 she was treated by New York psychotherapist Steven Levenkron. The Carpenters recorded what was to be their final song, Now, in April 1982. Her singing voice was as beautiful as ever.
In 1983, Karen died at the tender age of 32 from heart failure, caused by the complications surrounding her anorexia. Dieting since high school, when her weight was around 10 stone, by 1975 she weighed just 6st 7lb. Many of her fans expressed their concerns.
Even after the singer’s untimely death, The Carpenters’ songs continued to enjoy commercial success, and many are still being re-released to this day. Their recordings will ensure Karen’s beautiful singing voice will live forever.
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