The Carpenters (or simply Carpenters) were a sibling duo composed of musician-songwriter Richard and his sister Karen. They were known for the light melodies, thoroughly clean arrangements and, of course, Karen’s calm, clear low voice. The duo achieved fame and a string of pop and adult contemporary chart successes from the early to mid-70s music era. Such hits included “Close To You,” “We’ve Only Just Begun,” “For All We Know,” “Rainy Days and Mondays,” “Superstar,” “Hurting Each Other,” “Goodbye To Love,” “Sing,” “Yesterday Once More,” “Top Of The World,” “I Won’t Last A Day Without You,” “Please Mr. Postman,” “Only Yesterday,” and so many more. These songs are among the best-loved among oldies music and lovers of romantic songs alike. Their commercial fortunes began to dwindle as Karen’s health was affected for years by anorexia nervosa, which would ultimately claim her life in 1983.
Early beginnings and struggles
During their time on the music scene, the Carpenters (or more known as simply Carpenters) were unique in that their lush but light, mellow and clean pop melodies proved to be an antithesis to the excessive, garish rock and pop and the popular disco genre. And most of all, singer Karen Carpenter’s beautifully low contralto voice also made the Carpenters distinctive but at the same time easily identifiable.
Siblings Richard and Karen Carpenter were both born in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1946 and 1950 respectively. In 1963, the siblings and their family moved to Los Angeles, California, finally settling in the Downey suburb. Richard played piano at an early age, while Karen took a liking to the drums and began playing with them when she was in high school.
In just a few years, Karen was able to play the drums professionally and Richard’s piano techniques had been honed. The Carpenter siblings, along with friend bass/tuba player Wes Jacobs, formed a jazz act called The Richard Carpenter Trio in 1965.
Karen (along with Richard and Jacobs as her backup band) signed a solo recording contract with a fledgling label Magic Lamp Records, and releasing a couple of singles penned by her brother. These singles sank without a trace, and the label soon folded.
In 1967, Richard and Karen Carpenter formed another group Spectrum, along with other musicians. One of these musicians was John Bettis, Richard’s college friend who would work with the Carpenters until Karen’s death in 1983. Spectrum was also a short-lived act, splitting a year later.
In 1969 the brother-and-sister act signed another deal with A&M Records simply under the name Carpenters. That same year they released their debut album Offering, which was later re-titled Ticket To Ride because it featured their ballad rendition of the Beatles tune. The album’s single “Ticket to Ride” became only a minor hit.
Breakthrough success and fame
However, the duo’s fortunes changed by the time they released their sophomore effort Close To You in 1970. The title track, a Burt Bacharach-Hal David composition, shot to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100. “Close To You” marked the start of the duo’s string of adult contemporary chart-toppers. Eventually, the single became a worldwide hit, and the song’s success enabled the Carpenters to win a Grammy Award for Best New Artist in 1971.
Their initial success was the beginning of the brother-and-sister act’s exceptionally formidable chart presence over the next five years. After “Close To You,” the Carpenters scored 11 other Top 10 pop hits:
“We’ve Only Just Begun” (#2 pop, #1 adult contemporary)
“For All We Know” (#3 pop, #1 adult contemporary)
“Rainy Days and Mondays” (#2 pop, #1 adult contemporary)
“Superstar” (#2 pop, #1 adult contemporary)
“Hurting Each Other” (#2 pop, #1 adult contemporary)
“Goodbye To Love,” (#7 pop, #2 adult contemporary)
“Sing” (#3 pop, #1 adult contemporary)
“Yesterday Once More” (#2 pop, #1 adult contemporary)
“Top Of The World” (#1 pop, #2 adult contemporary)
“Please Mr. Postman” (#1 pop, #1 adult contemporary)
“Only Yesterday” (#4 pop, #1 adult contemporary)
Later years as a duo, and after Karen’s passing
During their career, the Carpenters scored a total of twelve Top 10 hits on the Hot 100, two of them being #1’s; and an impressive fifteen #1 hits on the adult contemporary chart. This demonstrated their success on the easy listening/soft rock domain. The Carpenters (supposedly) cultivated a so-called “squeaky-clean” image, and despite criticism towards their music as “saccharine,” this didn’t prevent the Carpenters from winning a lot of awards and selling over 100 million records worldwide.
Towards the end of the 1970s, their chart performance began to decline. Part of the reason for this was the siblings’ own personal and especially health battles. Richard became severely addicted to prescription drugs, especially to Quaaludes; however, he later underwent a successful rehabilitation. Karen, on the other hand, had a far more serious health problem. She had been battling with anorexia nervosa for most of her life, and sadly she would be never able to overcome it. She also attempted to launch a solo career, but it never came into fruition.
In the ushering of the new decade, the Carpenters released Made in America in 1981; it was to be the last album with Karen still alive. Made in America made a commercial comeback of sorts, with its single “Touch Me When We’re Dancing” creeping into the Top 20 pop at #16. It was also to be the duo’s last #1 adult contemporary hit.
Things could have been bright again for the Carpenters. However, Karen’s health continued to deteriorate. She passed away on February 4, 1983, from a heart failure caused by her anorexia nervosa.
After Karen’s death, her brother Richard Carpenter continued doing production work, including assembling on the Carpenters’ previously unreleased material and numerous compilation releases. He also produced the 1989 made-for-TV bio movie The Karen Carpenter Story (for which he provided the musical score as well), and the documentaries Close To You: Remembering the Carpenters in 1997 and Only Yesterday: The Carpenters in 2007. The Carpenters have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.