The Carpenters: Up From Downey

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Sometimes I feel like a . . . robot.

Richard Carpenter is technically handsome but really much more interesting looking than that easy term implies. His face reflects his sarcasm, talent, arrogance and pride; his mere good looks are a product of careful grooming. He is a creature of his own design. As assiduously as he has done everything else, Richard transformed himself from a gangly, short-haired, hornrimmed music student into a chubby fellow with Prince Valiant bangs, then into a thin young millionaire with a certain poise and a Sebring cut.

Richard never stops working. It is he who is the driving force behind the Carpenters. It is he who selects the material, arranges it, makes most important decisions and in general keeps the ball in the air. If he is not actively making music, he is thinking about it. His preoccupation extends from the most obvious attention to his own group's performance, through a general and encyclopedic awareness of current pop product, down to the tiniest particular factors bearing on actual sound: that the turntable at L.A. radio station KIIS is a mite slow, for instance, and that KLOS's is a bit fast. Recent cuts he likes include "Puzzle People" ("a perfect track!"), Paul Simon's ballads ("great strings, great everything") and "Jet." Among the pop musicians he has most admired are Frank Zappa, Brian Wilson and Jim Morrison.

Music is almost his sole interest in life. He does not read books. He is not concerned with politics and feels no affinity for either major party, although he was outraged at the 18-minute gap in the White House tapes and at the lenient sentence given Spiro Agnew, two developments which managed to come to his attention.

"I'm not into much besides my music," he says frankly. "And cars. And investing my money. I like to have money, because I like what it gives me. I like to buy nice clothes. I like to eat well at good restaurants. If I hear about some new amplifier or something I want, I like being able to say without thinking twice, 'Yeah, get it.'"

He did not always have that option, and some of his single-mindedness may come from remembering the financial difficulties experienced earlier in his life when their parents worked wonders with a lower middle-class income in order to give their children what they wanted.

"When we were trying to make a go of our music," Richard said, "our parents bought everything they could afford for us. We had a drum set, a piano. Basically the whole thing. But we couldn't really afford to buy amplifiers, or an electric piano, or even mike stands.

"When we wanted to buy a tape recorder, to make demos of this first group we had . . . Dad, he wanted to get it for me, but we just couldn't swing it. It took us months to save enough even to make a down payment on a little Sony."

The Carpenters' early history is not as smooth as some might assume. Children of a lithographic printer, they grew up in New Haven, Connecticut, where 16-year-old Richard studied piano at Yale. The family moved to California in 1963, to Downey, a low-lying, bland suburb near L.A. International Airport. Richard continued his music studies at Cal State Long Beach, where he became interested in vocal arranging and was accompanist for the school choir. A few months after high-schooler Karen had begun playing drums, the Carpenter Trio was formed – a jazz instrumental group consisting of Karen, Richard and a bass-playing friend. In 1966, the trio won a city-wide "Battle of the Bands" televised from the Hollywood Bowl, with Richard taking the Best Instrumentalist award as well.

The trio was signed to an abortive contract with RCA, and some instrumental tracks were cut which pleased no one. Karen had started to sing by this time, but RCA was not interested in listening to her. While Richard and Karen Carpenter were recording light jazz instrumentals for RCA, the company was also cutting vocal tracks with a young unknown singer named Herb Alpert who was unsuccessfully trying to stir up RCA interest in an idea he had for a trumpet record.

When the trio disbanded, Richard and Karen became the nucleus of a vocal group called Spectrum which stressed the harmonies Richard had loved in choral work. Spectrum included four other members – all of them Cal State students – two of whom would eventually find a home in the Carpenters' organization Danny Woodhams, who sings and plays in the Carpenters' touring band, and John Bettis, a tail end folkie who became Richard's lyricist.

Spectrum, all dressed alike and singing original compositions, not pop hits, had difficulty getting gigs. For the year they were together (1968) they mostly played Hoot Night at L.A.'s Troubadour Club, waiting their turn to appear for 15 minutes on the same stage as other unknown hopefuls like Jackson Browne and Brewer and Shipley. After some unsatisfactory contract talks with White Whale Records, Spectrum disbanded.

Richard and John Bettis worked at Disneyland for a time, singing on Main Street dressed in 1900s ice cream suits, writing songs on Pepsi napkins during spare moments.

Soon Richard created a vocal sound similar to Spectrum's with a new group made up of just him and his sister Karen; they achieved harmonic blend through overdubs. Demo tapes were cut in the garage of well-known session bassist Joe Osborn, and Richard made the rounds of the record labels as he had done for Spectrum. He was turned away at the A&M gate, but in 1969 a friend of a friend got the Carpenters' tape a hearing from that company's now famous cofounder Herb Alpert. Alpert gave the Carpenters freedom in, the studio, said nothing when their first album stiffed, and brought them "Close To You," a little-known Burt Bacharach-Hal David tune which became their first Number One single.

The rest is well-known. Twenty-five million singles and albums sold. (Even their atypical debut LP, Offering, is headed for the million-dollar mark.) Three Grammy awards, phenomenal concert attendance in all countries, with concerts bringing them up to $30,000 a night. The Carpenters refrained from issuing figures telling their monetary worth, but they do state they are both millionaires. Their investments include two shopping centers in Downey and two apartment complexes, one named "Just Begun" and the other "Close To You." According to the success ethic, they should be completely untroubled. Life, alas (or fortunately), is not that simple.

The Carpenters have real pressures and problems, hard feelings and confusions which few would associate with the image of the group. Richard and Karen themselves are far from fully acknowledging these feelings. They suffer under strains which even they only dimly comprehend.

The Carpenters seem to be going through what they would like to be a transition period. They have an idea of what they are unhappy with but apparently no clear picture of what would make them more content. They would like to change the image people have of them. They would like to change their way of life. It is just that they are not at all certain what they would like to become. They are reluctant to give up the sheltered existence they have known, and change is such a foreign concept to them they can only approach it with great caution.

Well into their 20s, they still live with their parents in the suburb where they grew up. They are about to move from Downey at last – not into two separate homes, however, but into one home for the two of them.

There is evidence the Carpenters' special circumstances have made it especially difficult for them to break old habits. Their parents have remained parents. When told that Richard and Karen would be driving back to Los Angeles immediately after the final evening performance of a recent Las Vegas engagement, their mother warned, "I wish they wouldn't do that. They are just too tired after a show."

The Carpenters are protected from outside stresses not just by their parents but by a retinue of publicity and management people who carefully screen anyone wishing to make the acquaintance of Richard and Karen. One of the things Richard and Karen are particularly sensitive about at the moment is their home in Downey. It was decorated in their parents' taste, which embraces a Japanese garden, artificial waterfalls, and Astroturf and was probably always meant to be a present to the elder Carpenters.

Although unsure of where they are going and how to get there, they are on firmer ground discussing grievances incurred in getting where they are.

During dinner at Au Petit Cafe, a Hollywood restaurant the Carpenters frequent, Richard and Karen made forays into personal territory. Or rather, Richard expounded while Karen demurred to his lead. Richard had many things he very much wanted to discuss. It seemed he had had few opportunities to explain himself on these points, and what he wanted most was to be understood.

He was openly angry about the Carpenters' image, about the wholesome halo made to hover over the two of them from the very first. The problem, he thought, began and was perpetuated by the publicity pictures and album covers prepared by their record company.

"The pictures, the album covers, the eight-by-ten glossies." He sighed in disgust. "There had been no brother-sister act since Fred and Adele Astaire. They just hadn't known what to do in a photography session. You can't be embracing. And yet . . . they wanted that.

"We didn't say anything when we were getting started except 'yes sir.' So they said: 'OK, sit on the floor back-to-back and smile. Put your arm on his shoulder and smile. Richard, put your arm around her waist and smile.' Every stock Steve and Eydie pose you could imagine.

"In Europe, just last month, it was the same thing. Press conferences with 80 photographers, all saying. Smile! Cheer up! Come on, smile smile smile! I'm sick of smiling. But they're all upset if you don't. So we oblige them, and we get it back in the press. 'The sticky-sweet Carpenters – still smiling those Pepsodent smiles!'

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