As the Carpenters, Richard and his sister Karen were one of the most successful pop duos of all time. Now 75, he looks back at their career, celebrity fans and Karen's devastating passing
GROWING UP IN CONNECTICUT, I would listen to all the 78s my parents bought for me to play on my Bing Crosby Junior Juke record player. It looked like a miniature version of the old Wurlitzer jukeboxes and I especially remember playing Spike Jones and The City Slickers over and over. They were vinyl 78s rather than the usual shellac, although my dad had a huge library of the latter.
DAD OPERATED A FIVE-COLOUR PRINTING PRESS. It was so big that you had to climb up to get to its second storey. And Mum was a homemaker. They were great parents. They were honest as the day is long, they were hard-workers and generous to a fault. I inherited my love of music from Dad and his record collection, and Mum had a nice alto voice and would sing along to the radio in the kitchen.
I WAS FOUR WHEN MY SISTER KAREN CAME ALONG and I wasn’t too happy about it at first. I guess I’d gotten used to my little existence in my cocoon, then along comes this new baby to disrupt things. But as we grew older Karen and I became fast friends and we enjoyed all the same things—the same music, the same type of comedy, everything. We got along wonderfully.
I STARTED PLAYING PIANO AT A YOUNG AGE, studying technique and the classics with one teacher and learning to read chords and arranging them with another teacher. By the time I was 16 I was quite proficient and could play by ear so if someone asked me to play, say, “My Melancholy Baby” I could. I looked and played a little beyond my years—I had glasses and my hair was slicked back—and I taught piano as well as earning extra dough by playing dives at weekends with a couple of older friends.
WHEN I STARTED WRITING MY OWN SONGS I’d ask Karen, who was already a gifted drummer, to sing them and at first she sang in an upper register, like a falsetto. It was in-tune but there was nothing special about it. Then when she was around 15 the lower voice—the voice—started to show itself. By the time she was 17 it was fully there and had she had a recording contract, a producer and the right song she’d have had a hit record right then.
"When I started writing my own songs I’d ask Karen, who was already a gifted drummer, to sing them and at first she sang in an upper register, like a falsetto"
WE FORMED THE RICHARD CARPENTER TRIO IN 1965 with Karen on the drums, myself on piano and my college friend Wes Jacobs on tuba and bass. The next year we won the Hollywood Bowl Battle of the Bands and got to record three songs, then we added a few more people to the line-up and became Spectrum followed by Summerchimes but it never sounded quite the way I wanted. Then I got the idea that Karen and I could overdub all the parts and that’s how Carpenters was formed as just the two of us.
HERB ALPERT SIGNED US TO A&M RECORDS after hearing our demo tape in 1969 and he said ‘Let’s hope we have some hits’. Our first album Offering wasn’t a hit at all but A&M was famous for letting all acts on the label have artistic freedom and Herb gave us carte blanche.
When we recorded Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “(They Long To Be) Close To You” it went to number one in the States and luckily we were able to follow it up with other hits. I also received the greatest compliment when Burt Bacharach said in an interview of my arrangement ‘Richard Carpenter not only got it ten times better than I did, he got it 11 times better than I did’.
IT’S NOT TRUE THAT WE WERE TOLD not to do anything to tarnish our clean-cut image. The label was going through a bad time in the late-60s and they were looking for something a bit harder-edged but weren’t having much luck. Then we came along and gave A&M a major shot in the arm but a lot of people there—although not Herb—wanted to see the back of us. We were golden geese but they wanted something with edge and we didn’t have edge except in the sales department.
MEETING PRESIDENT NIXON WAS A GREAT HONOUR. We were on a summer tour in 1972 and appearing just outside Washington when we got a message that the President would like us to drop in and say hello. We were on the road and I hadn’t packed a suit and tie but they were like ‘Just come as you are’.
So we did, he was very pleasant, we took a picture or two, and that was it until a year later when we were asked to play for West German Chancellor Willy Brandt at a state dinner. We were in the East Room of the White House, which is enormous, and the acoustics were incredible—so much so that we had to play as quietly as possible.
"We were on a summer tour in 1972 and appearing just outside Washington when we got a message that the President would like us to drop in and say hello"
VICTOR BORGE WAS A DREAM GUEST ON OUR FIRST TELEVISION SPECIAL. He was such a delightful guy and really talented. Another career highlight was opening for the comedian Don Adams of Get Smart fame in Las Vegas, after which we headlined Vegas ourselves. And we got to meet so many amazing people over the years, like Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, too many to name in fact.
I BECAME ADDICTED TO QUAALUDES without knowing they were a party drug. I had been taking them for what they were intended, namely as a sleeping pill, but they eventually took their toll and I had to check into rehab. Looking back at it now I was ahead of the curve because that was in 1979 before rehab was considered part of an artist’s resume. For the first several weeks it was really difficult but I made friends in there and by the end of the six-week programme we were having a great time.
LOSING KAREN WAS ABSOLUTELY DEVASTATING. [She died in 1983 after a battle with anorexia.] I got through it as best as I could, by keeping myself busy working on some tracks which we hadn’t finished but where we had her vocals. Her scratch vocals were every bit as the masters so I was able to release new Carpenters music and work on various compilations to keep her legacy alive. It’s remarkable because our records continue to sell around the world in great numbers.
MY WEDDING DAY WAS MARVELLOUS EXCEPT FOR THE HEAT. Mary and myself got married in 1984 in the church I’d been a part-time organist in Downey, South East LA, when I was 16. I played at a number of weddings for easy money and even though I’m not in the least bit religious when time came for Mary and me to get married it seemed like a nice place to do it. The trouble is, back then at least it didn’t have air conditioning and our ceremony was in May in the middle of a heatwave. It was hot as blazes and when you look at the video all the guests are waving fans to try and keep cool.
"Losing Karen was absolutely devastating"
BEING TOLD BY EVERYONE FROM THE TEMPTATIONS TO ALICE COOPER that they were Carpenters fans is both thrilling and surprising. Frank Zappa was another surprise fan. It’s funny but because of our image from the 70s onwards it was almost like it had to be put in a paper bag, you know? Like they loved the music but they were afraid to say anything so they bought the records and hid them in a paper bag. But after fiftysomething years I guess it’s OK to like us now.
WRITING A BOOK ABOUT HAS BEEN A NICE TRIP DOWN MEMORY LANE. It’s tilted to be more about the music than a regular biography, even though the chaps who co-wrote it with me (Mike Cidoni Lennox and Chris May) know more about our achievements than I do. My parents and I saved everything we could that had to do with the Carpenters and 20 years ago I filed it all away, thinking ‘Why am I doing this? It’s never going to be needed’. Then the idea for the book came up and I had all sorts of stuff that they could pull out and use.
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