A popular brother-and-sister team, the Carpenters sold millions of hit records in the early '70s. Richard started taking piano lessons at age 12 and studied classical piano at Yale before the family relocated to Downey, California, in 1963. Richard studied at USC and Cal State at Long Beach. He formed his first group in 1965, a jazz-pop instrumental trio that included younger sister Karen on drums and their friend Wes Jacobs (who later abandoned pop for a seat in the Detroit Symphony) on bass and tuba. The group won a battle of the bands at the Hollywood Bowl and subsequently signed with RCA. Four sides were recorded, but after label executives deemed them not commercially viable, they were never released. In late 1966 the trio broke up. Richard and Karen recruited four Cal State students into the vocal harmony-oriented band Spectrum. They played various Southern California venues to less than ecstatic response and disbanded.
The Carpenter siblings' densely layered, pop-oriented demo tapes eventually caught the attention of Herb Alpert, who signed them to A&M in 1969. They released their first album that November. Originally titled Offering, it was ignored until it was repackaged as Ticket to Ride, on the strength of the moderate success of their Beatles-cover single. Close to You's title track, a Burt Bacharach tune, sold more than a million copies and went to Number One in the U.S. and several other countries. Their hits continued: "We've Only Just Begun" (Number Two, 1970), "For All We Know" (Number Three, 1971; it won an Oscar for Best Song in 1970), "Rainy Days and Mondays" (Number Two, 1971), "Superstar" (Number Two, 1971; written by Leon Russell), "It's Going to Take Some Time" (Number 12, 1972), "Hurting Each Other" (Number Two, 1972), "Goodbye to Love" (Number Seven, 1972), "Sing" (Number Three, 1973), "Yesterday Once More" (Number Two, 1973), "Top of the World" (Number One, 1973), "Won't Last a Day Without You" (Number 11, 1974), "Please Mr. Postman" (Number One, 1975), and "Only Yesterday" (Number Four, 1975).
The 1973 LP The Singles 1969–1973 was a bestseller, and the Carpenters were three-time Grammy winners. They hosted a short-lived variety series, Make Your Own Kind of Music, on NBC in 1971. At the request of President Nixon, they performed at a White House state dinner honoring West German Chancellor Willy Brandt on May 1, 1973. They toured internationally through the mid-'70s. Their 1976 tour of Japan was, at the time, the biggest-grossing concert ever in that country. From 1976 to 1980 the pair hosted five ABC television specials. Through the late '70s the Carpenters were noticeably absent from the charts, but returned to the Top 20 in 1981 with "Touch Me When We're Dancing."
On February 4, 1983, Karen Carpenter died in her parents' home of cardiac arrest, resulting from her long struggle with anorexia nervosa. Her story was presented in the highly rated made-for-television movie The Karen Carpenter Story in 1988. The posthumous LP Lovelines drew critical notice for its inclusion of four tracks Karen had recorded for an unreleased 1980 solo album. Richard's solo effort, Time, featured duets with Dionne Warwick and Dusty Springfield yet failed to chart. The followup merely features easy-listening, instrumental revisions of various Carpenters songs.
With time, the duo's saccharine image has receded somewhat, and Karen Carpenter is acknowledged by women rock musicians, including Chrissie Hynde and Madonna, as a pioneer. Sonic Youth, Sheryl Crow, Matthew Sweet, Cracker, and the Cranberries were among the fourteen acts who contributed to the 1994 Carpenters tribute album If I Were a Carpenter. Around the same time that fall, the Karen and Richard Carpenter Performing Arts Center at Cal State University opened in Long Beach, California. Karen Carpenter's eponymous solo debut, recorded in 1979 and 1980 but unreleased until 1996, continued to keep her memory alive. The somewhat mature — but hardly edgy — album found her experimenting with disco and mildly suggestive lyrics.
This biography originally appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001).
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