The Carpenters are Still Cool

The Carpenters inventive artistry still attracts fans today nearly four decades after Karen Carpenter‘s death. Here’s why.

First the data: The Carpenters were one of the top recording acts of the 1970s. They produced three number-one singles and five number-two singles on the Billboard Hot 100. They virtually defined the Adult Contemporary genre with fifteen number-one hits and twelve top-10 singles on the AC charts. With over 90 million records sold worldwide, The Carpenters are one of the best-selling music artists of all timeRichard‘s mastery in the studio and the ubiquity of Karen’s voice on the air inspired a generation of artists from  kd lang to Madonna. Rolling Stone called Karen one of the greatest female vocalists of all time and ranked The Carpenters at No. 10 on the magazine’s list of the 20 Greatest Duos of All Time. Paul McCartney  said she was “the best female voice in the world: melodic, tuneful and distinctive.”

Ironically, Karen thought of herself as a drummer who could sing. Contrary to the dark veil surrounding her passing, she was an active part of the team, a strong contributor to the music she and Richard created together and could be a prankster who loved practical jokes.

The Carpenters maintained their popularity as rock morphed into disco with a distinctive sound some felt was corny. Perhaps a few, like their take on Herman’s Hermits “There’s a Kind of Hush” and the smash “Rainy Days and Mondays” were. But juxtapose those against their first single, a haunting take on The Beatles’ “Ticket to Ride” and the power ballad,”Goodbye to Love” and you begin to get a sense for the depth and breadth of The Carpenters’ cannon.

Here is my take on their success formula:

They weren’t afraid to innovate – When their first LP, “Offering” sold poorly, they rebranded it “Ticket to Ridewhen their brand started to take off. With a new cover and a new title the LP became a modest success.  The Carpenters also created concept albums like “Now & Then“and “Passage“, built on a theme that inspired other artists to follow suit.

They were laser focused on excellent execution – Richard Carpenter was legendary for his skill in at the mixing console and he would spend hours before live concerts tweaking the microphone levels and equalization to get the best sound for the acoustics of the venue. When stereo became ubiquitous, Richard created DJ 45s with totally distinct monaural mixes on one side that sounded great through a single car radio speaker. The stereo side carefully placed the instrumentation and voices in the sound field to give the listener the best that the new recording medium had to offer.

They knew their audience – Richard Carpenter didn’t like the “squeaky clean” image that  A&M Records promoted. But The Carpenters bowed to the Herb Alpert’s vision for the brand and it worked. In a documentary about the duo, Paul Williams agreed that they were often painted as too vanilla. “But what an exquisite flavor vanilla is,” he added.

The music they created still resonates today – Everyone has a favorite Carpenters tune. I can’t hear the beginning of “Goodbye to Love” without turning the radio up to full volume. And even the standards I played over and over at wedding receptions, like “(They Long to Be) Close to You” and “We’ve Only Just Begun” never attain the painful earworm status of Debby Boone’s “You Light Up My Life.”

Every life has its share of ups and downs. We won’t dwell on Karen and Richard’s challenges, except to say that Karen’s struggles with anorexia elevated her to role-model status for awareness of the disease. Struggling with bringing the issue out in the open, enamoured Karen to the LGBTQ community at a time when many were just beginning to wrestle with coming “out of the closet.”

Wikipedia: “A critical re-evaluation of the Carpenters occurred during the 1990s and 2000s with the making of several documentaries such as Close to You: Remembering The Carpenters (US), The Sayonara (Japan), and Only Yesterday: The Carpenters Story (UK). Despite contentions that their sound was “too soft” to fall under the definition of rock and roll, major campaigns and petitions exist toward inducting the Carpenters into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.”

We loved The Carpenters because we could identify with them. We admired their positive image. We empathized with their suffering. And their music became indelibly associated with turning points in our own lives. Unlike much of the disposable stuff that had a brief prime in “Power Rotation” on our favorite radio stations, we still listen to The Carpenters. They created a timeless sound that helped invent a musical genre and holds up just as well today as it did when we first heard it.


Today in History:

1882 Queen Victoria narrowly escapes assassination when Roderick Maclean shoots at her while boarding a train in Windsor.
1922 WLW-AM in Cincinnati OH begins radio transmissions.
1933 “King Kong” film directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, starring Fay Wray premieres at Radio City Music Hall and RKO Roxy in NYC.
1955 Bo Diddley records ‘Bo Diddley’ and ‘I’m A Man.’
1956 “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” single cover released by Elvis Presley.
1964 Vee-Jay Records in Chicago creates the Tollie label and releases ‘Twist And Shout‘ by The Beatles.
1964 The Beatles begin filming “A Hard Day’s Night“, George Harrison meets Patti Boyd.
1965 One of the most popular musical films of all time, “The Sound of Music“, starring Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer, is released (Academy Awards Best Picture 1966).
1967 9th Grammy Awards: “Strangers in the Night” by Frank Sinatra wins best record, “Michele” by The Beatles best song.
1968 Blue Cheer give birth to heavy metal when their interpretation of “Summertime Blues” is released. The single peaks at No. 14.
1970 American Airlines‘ 1st flight of a Boeing 747.
1974 1st class postage raised to 10 cents from 8 cents.
1974 Grand jury concludes US President Richard Nixon is involved in Watergate cover-up.
1976 Walt Disney World logs its 50 millionth guest.
1977 Bette Davis is 1st woman to receive American Film Institute’s Life Achievement Award.
1989 Madonna‘s “Like a Prayer” premieres on worldwide Pepsi commercial.
1993 Actress Claudette Colbert suffers a stroke at 89.
1994 Miami begins a Latin walk of fame, 1st star for Gloria Estefan.
2008 Canadian blues rocker Jeff Healey dies of cancer at age 41 in Toronto, Canada.

Today’s Birthdays:

Dr. Seuss

1904: Dr. Seuss, (d. 1991)
1917: Desi Arnaz, Cuba (Ricky Ricardo) (d. 1986)
1919: Jennifer Jones [Phyllis Isley], American actress (Farewell to Arms), born in Tulsa, Oklahoma (d. 2009)
1931: Tom Wolfe, journalist (Right Stuff) (d. 2018)
1935: Porky Pig, Warner Bros. cartoon character created by Friz Freleng and Frank Tashlin (Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies series), first debuts in ‘I Haven’t Got a Hat’
1942: Lou Reed, American rock vocalist and guitarist (Velvet Underground), born in NYC, New York (d. 2013)
1948: Larry Carlton, rock composer (Against All Odds, Who’s the Boss)
1949: Gates McFadden, American actress (Beverly Crusher-Star Trek Next Generation), born in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio
1950: Karen Carpenter, American vocalist and drummer (We Only Just Begun), born in New Haven, Connecticut (d. 1983)
1952: Laraine Newman, comedienne/actress (Saturday Night Live), born in Los Angeles, California
1955: Jay Osmond, American singer and drummer (Osmond Brothers, Donnie & Marie), born in Ogden, Utah
1956: John Cowsill, rock drummer (The Cowsills – We Can Fly), born in Newport, Rhode Island
1956: Mark Evans, Australian rock bassist (AC/DC), born in Melbourne, Victoria
1962: Jon Bon Jovi, Sayreville NJ, rocker (Bon Jovi-Give Love a Bad Name)
1968: Daniel Craig, English actor (James Bond films), born in Chester, England
1980: Rebel Wilson, Australian actress and producer (Pitch Perfect, Bridesmaids), born in Sydney, Australia

A Quote Worth Re-quoting: “At their most inspired, Carpenters seem a world unto themselves, immune to the hip upheavals around them, pursuing a sound of poignant sweetness, tinged with yearning. It’s a kind of music that’s never been duplicated and remains a pleasure to hear.” – All Music Guide

One for the Road: Yup, I had to celebrate Karen Carpenter’s birthday with my all time Carpenter’s fave. Richard Carpenter heard the song referred to in the 1940 Bing Crosby film Rhythm on the River. “You never hear it in the movie, they just keep referring to it,” he said. Guitarist Tony Peluso provides the iconic solo between versus and during the fade. “Goodbye to Love’s” co-writer, John Bettis told biographer John Tolber, he cried when he first heard the recording because he had never heard an electric guitar sound like that. Tony Peluso, Bettis said, “had a certain almost cello sounding guitar growl that worked against the wonderful melancholia of that song”. He went on to say the “way it growls at you, especially at the end” was unbelievable. I think you’ll agree!

Thanks for listening!

Scott Westerman
Host and Producer – Rock and Roll Revisited
Author: Motor City Music – Keener 13 and the Soundtrack of Detroit