“I can take all the madness the world has to give but I won’t last a day without you”
~ Paul Williams & Roger Nichols, composers of
Carpenters‘ hit single I Won’t Last A Day Without You
Karen Carpenter would have been 63 today had she not died of heart failure as a result of complications from anorexia nervosa at the tender age of 32.
Together with her brother Richard, they became Carpenters that went on to record hit after hit and sold more than 60 million albums around the world in the 1970s until Karen’s tragic death in 1983.
Gone too soon, and the world mourned the loss of an immensely talented soul that brought smiles and happiness to so many.
Growing up in the 70s, I recall most of my friends were listening to the music of Led Zeppelin, Earth Wind & Fire, Pink Floyd, Beatles and Rolling Stones. But I was truly captivated by Karen’s voice and have fond memories of my childhood playing their tunes on the piano.
I Won’t Last A Day Without You remains one of my all-time favourites, among so many hits that I enjoyed through the years.
I Won’t Last A Day Without You
(Listening tip: Use a set of good headphone)
Karen’s endearing voice that sang so many hauntingly beautiful melodies eventually captured the imagination of critics and won Carpenters fame and fortune. More than thirty years after she left us, the music legacy of Carpenters live on in the hearts of millions around the world.
However, their road to the top was not an easy one.
They had the talent needed to succeed but it took determination, perseverance and a deep sense of belief in themselves. And luck was on their side.
This is the story of Carpenters …
Karen Carpenter and CARPENTERS ~ The Journey to Stardom
By Ray Coleman
Excellence and success on a grand scale are not easy goals in any sphere of the arts.
In popular music, perhaps the most treacherous department of the entertainment industry, thousands of pretenders to the throne of importance make the fatal mistake of believing that sudden fame (a hit record or two, a good concert) elevates them to the hall of fame.
True artists know otherwise: that longevity can only be expected from offering originality and artistry, by refusing to compromise or bend to changing fashions, and by providing the public with something unique.
Judged by those difficult criteria, the CARPENTERS occupy a very special place on the landscape of popular music.
For when they arrived in 1970, the general climate was unwelcoming and the trend-conscious tastemakers were cynical in their condemnation – What was this? A girl singer out front, her brother as musical director, and melodic, articulate songs of love and relationships?
The triumph was Richard and Karen’s, but a deeper one too. For when they scored their first recording success with Close To You, the sea-change which is experienced by popular music about every decade was profound: the revolution wrought by the Beatles, Rolling Stones and hundreds of others in the 1960’s was being replaced by the cerebral work of David Bowie, Santana, Blind Faith, Joni Mitchell, and Simon & Garfunkel. The phrase “pop music” was changing into the generic description of “rock”. The Carpenters’ arrival with pop music, therefore, was into a world of music almost hostile to what they had perfected.
Fortunately, the public verdict counts most. After initial success, the hits began pouring out: We’ve Only Just Begun, For All We Know, Superstar, Rainy Days And Mondays, Goodbye To Love, Top Of The World, Only Yesterday and many more.
The route to that majestic track record was punctuated by the three ingredients essential to most stories of artistic success: talent, commitment and luck.
Richard and Karen Carpenter were born in New Haven, Connecticut but spent their formative years in the Los Angeles suburb of Downey.
After beginning at the piano at the age of twelve, Richard was studying the instrument at Yale University four years later. In 1963, when the Carpenter family relocated to California, Richard continued his musical education at the Cal State University at Long Beach.
Meanwhile, Karen, four years younger and at high school, developed an interest in the drums, partly mischievously, since it was not a traditional instrument for a female in those pre-liberated years.
She started out as both the group’s drummer and lead singer, and she originally sang all her vocals from behind the drum set.
Eventually, she was persuaded to stand at the microphone to sing the band’s hits while another musician played the drums.
According to her brother Richard in an interview, Karen always considered herself a “drummer who sang“. She started playing the drums in 1964 and was always enthusiastic about the drums and taught herself how to play complicated drum lines with “exotic time signatures,” according to Richard Carpenter.
But Karen’s mother was not keen on the idea of her daughter playing the drums.
“The drums are not my idea of an instrument suitable for a young lady” her mother sternly tells her.
“But why not?” Karen replies.
“Well, how many famous women drummers do you know?” her mother asks.
“So, I’ll be the first!” Karen says.
And within a very short time, she became a proficient drummer wooing audiences with her impressive skills. (Check out Karen’s awesome drumming skills in this video here).
With the determination that was to become a hallmark of her life, she mastered the basics of the drums and after a few weeks of tuition, and she, Richard and bass-playing friend Wes Jacobs, formed the first of what would be three Carpenter line-ups. This was a jazz instrumental trio which won first prize in the Hollywood Bowl Battle Of The Bands in 1966.
Richard, however, felt that more focus was needed for his and Karen’s evolving music, and with the jazz trio disbanded, they formed SPECTRUM, comprised of four additional members, all fellow university students. The idea was to perform original compositions with intricate, ambitious musical arrangements.
But while the result was an advance, Richard believed a tighter focus was needed. He and his sister finally decided a year later that the correct route was to utilise her growing strength as a singer, with the anchor of Richard’s talent at the keyboards and as an embryonic arranger. SPECTRUM had, in any case, met a poor response from club owners, hard rock fans and most record companies.
Thus was born, in the garage studio of a friend, top bass player Joe Osborn, a tape of the Carpenters’ ambitious new sound which found its way to the man who would play a pivotal role in their story. Herb Alpert, the “A” in A & M Records, was a rare breed in record company executives. A trumpeter weaned on jazz, his tastes were eclectic enough to fly against all the trends of the late 1960’s, realize that the Carpenters’ sound, timeless and based on musicianship, needed support to allow it to be nurtured. Alpert was also, fortunately, a patient man.
The Carpenters’ debut album was not an immediate success and the record company chief was scorned for his faith. “They are unfashionable”, said the cynics. But the more Alpert saw of them in the studio, the more convinced he became that his investment would pay dividends if they were given the time.
Karen’s voice was one of golden honey. Richard’s flair and attention to detail as the Carpenters’ musical director was quite unique in the area of music into which the duo were advancing.
The melodies he began to write, allied to some intoxicating lyrics by his old friend John Bettis, were haunting, and struck the perfect resonance for the voice of his sister. And so began the string of successes which, applauded in concert halls and TV screens around the world, would result in some 30 million record sales in their first five years, and a body of work that would stand the test of time.
With Karen’s voice and Richard’s expertise, the Carpenters’ sound might have been so scientifically planned that it could have excluded the human element. Richard’s study of and understanding of the fundamentals of popular music paid great attention to what he described as “the chill factor” – the spine-tingling sensation that comes from the effect of a song, whether it be an instrumental solo such as Tony Peluso‘s guitar break in Goodbye To Love, or the emotions in Karen’s voice as she sings the pained love song, For All We Know.
Richard believes that a good pop song needs an ethereal quality of profound impact to clinch public response.
It was hard to argue with that yet with fourteen consecutive top twelve records in their first five years, the Carpenters were still the butt of critics who insisted they were in a rut, bogged down with ballads, and playing too safe.
The accusations of blandness irritated them because they were justly proud of their commercial success, of targeting their singles correctly at public taste, and of their understanding of what constitute a hit sound. The mistake made by their critics was to judge the Carpenters alongside hard rock ‘n’ roll during a decade in which vast armies of hard rock and heavy metal bands were making such an impact on teenage audiences.
The great “crime” of the Carpenters was to come along with a sound, and a collection of songs, that could not fit neatly into a compartment. It was neither rock ‘n’ roll, nor “easy listening”, that deprecating euphemism for elevator or hotel lounge background music. What the Carpenters offered was solid tunefulness with powerful lyrics.
Karen’s early favourites Patti Page and Mary Ford shone through in her perfect pitch and her admiration for the stylishness of Barbra Streisand, Ella Fitzgerald, Dusty Springfield and Matt Munro was part of her conversation.
Richard’s immense knowledge of rock ‘n’roll, and enjoyment of the Beatles, Beach Boys, Elton John, Paul Simon and right through to Steely Dan and the Doors, did not mean he would automatically drift down that route when planning the Carpenters’ musical strategy.
The policy he adopted was to bring out Karen’s voice against a backdrop of carefully explored instrumental textures. Integration was essential; nothing aggressive or thrusting, but retaining the impact he always looked for in his huge and varied record archive.
Those of us who were fortunate enough to see the Carpenters on stage were always impressed with the perfect recreation of their recorded quality, plus their commitment to visual presentation.
One criticism of the Carpenters that irritated them was they were, as Karen’s related the jibes, “squeaky clean, Mom’s apple pie, whiter-than-white”. Those descriptions hurt because they were untrue. Yes, Richard agreed, they were born into middle-class family, but their outlook was totally classless and they resented being pigeon-holed by observers who were having difficulty knocking their music. Instead, they set out to kick against Richard and Karen’s non-controversial image. “Judge the music and the records”, they told the critics. “As for us, we’re normal people, not preaching about lifestyle or attitudes, but wanting to make a good sound on record and perform well in concert.”
In the early Seventies, as disco and posturing threatened to succeed artistry, style and musicianship, the Carpenters provided a beacon of craftsmanship that returned popular music to its roots, somewhere in the big band era that spawned such legendary performers like Sarah Vaughan, Ella Firzgerald, Peggy Lee and Kay Starr.
For artists such as these, the song was the key to their work. And consummate musicianship was the foundation, the springboard, from which their vocals emerged.
When the Carpenters were dissected, some said their sound was very simple, not complex, and consequently not easy to analyse.
It should have been obvious that a large part of the strength and appeal of the Carpenters lay in that very fact: it looked and sounded so uncomplicated, so direct, so accessible and so easy.
The best works of art always do.
Karen’s Theme is a song composed by Richard Carpenter and dedicated to his sister after her passing.
Recommended Wikipedia links for more information about Carpenters:
So dear readers, did you have a favourite musician or band when you were growing up?