The Carpenters: Up From Downey

Page 4 of 7

Richard carries a great many things in his head. Every pop hit since 1962, for instance; theme songs from all the Fifties TV comedies and every detail of the Carpenters' struggle to be accepted. To an outsider their rise may seem meteoric, but for Richard it is an ongoing story, with past details as fresh and clear as yesterday's rehearsal. Bitterness is one of the qualities he subliminally projects, although he hastens to cover its traces when he becomes aware of them.

One of the Carpenters' first gigs was a charity show where they met Burt Bacharach, who complimented them lavishly and asked them to prepare and perform a medley of his tunes for another upcoming benefit. Initially he gave them carte blanche, but when he heard the medley Richard had arranged he dictated all kinds of changes the day before the show, necessitating frantic all-night work from the group, who had to learn a radically different medley from the one they had been rehearsing for weeks.

When Richard first told this story, the confusion and hurt he felt at the time lay heavy in his words, but as Karen embroidered the incident, essentially repeating what he had said, his attitude reversed completely and he finished by denying any thoughtlessness or folly on Bacharach's part, as if it were necessary that he officially remember his relationship with the man who wrote "Close To You" as nothing short of perfect. There are touchy areas, places he is not willing to probe. He fills his conversation with verbal shorthand and cliches. ". . . type of thing." "I was stunned." (Karen, too, on the brink of a revelation about someone, will stop short and say instead, "Well . . . she's quite a character.") He has no time to probe those areas. He is busy working, maintaining the style of life and work he and his sister have become accustomed to in the last five years.

"It all changed very gradually," Karen said.

"For a long time it was the same," Richard picked up. "First of all, you don't get a royalty check for six months. In six months we had three gold records: 'Close To You,' 'We've Only Just Begun' and the Close To You album. But we were still at our old house, still living in the same neighborhood, with the Number One record in the United States and it was odd."

"Then we decided to move, to the other side of the tracks. There's a street in Downey that's both north and south of the tracks. We were south of the tracks."

"Right. There's actually tracks in Downey to be on the wrong side of. We bought a place right around fall of '70, when 'Begun' was out, and we moved in December, when 'For All We Know' was released."

"Even so, we were scared."

"Well, you know some royalties are going to come in, you just know it. You've sold those records. But you still haven't seen it. We were wondering if we should buy a place that cost so much."

"Then the first royalty check came. Herbie [Alpert] signed it himself, and he'd written 'hello' all over it, made all kinds of little drawings. . ."

"Yeah. And it was for 50." Fifty what? "Fifty thousand."

"I'd never seen anything like that in my whole life," Karen recalled. "We sat and stared at it all through dinner. I'd never seen that many zeros . . ."

"That's when you start noticing a change. That's an awful lot of money. You know? You still feel the same inside, you're still the same person. But to come from the financial situation we grew up with, right into staring at something like that . . ."

"It take a long time for it to sink in. There are all these habits you've been brought up with all your life. That you don't just go plowing through a store, buying everything you like. I'm getting better at it, but . . . Compared to a lot of other people, what I buy is nothing. Like my accountant told me last week to go spend some money."

"He was kidding, Karen," Richard smiled. "That was humor from the accountant." But Richard grew reflective.

"I never thought it would get as big as it has," he said. "I never thought it would have as many pressures as it does. How could you imagine it? Before, when the two of us were going to college, it was just screwing around. We rehearsed and said, 'Someday we'll make it,' and . . . no worries. What worries? Our biggest worry was not being able to afford some microphone we wanted."

"The first thing you know you need to do is get a contract," Karen said. "If you're lucky enough to do that, you say, 'I've got to have a hit.' When you get your hit . . ."

"Everyone tells you. 'That's not enough. You need another one right away. You don't want people thinking you're a one-hit group, do you? There are lots and lots of those around.'

"Waiting for our second hit. We were in New York to do the Sullivan Show. 'We've Only Just Begun' had taken off, but WABC hadn't put it on their playlist yet. I was worried about it, because WABC was the biggest, the most important station in the world. And they weren't playin' it, and I was worried. Then ABC went with it, and it was the last station, and I knew the record was a smash, I knew we had our second Number One.

"Then the promotion man in New York says, 'I gotta tell ya, kids, the whole ball of wax . . . is three. Three, it really puts you in the money.'

"I suppose the guy was serious. I guess he really believed that and the whole thing, but . . .

"Ever since then it's been, 'OK, get an album out, OK you gotta go here to perform, OK you have to do this, OK now that.' Sometimes I feel like a big . . . like a robot.

"And yet . . . I can't complain. This is what we worked for. It's all stuff I want to do. I want to play the Warsaw Concerto with the Boston Pops. I want to record a new album. I love to go out and perform.

"It's just so exhausting. We haven't had three days off in all these years, not three days where we were totally free of interviews, rehearsing, composing. It's become a business, whether we like to think of it that way or not. Even though it started as music, and it still is music, you've got like 30 people working for you, and a corporation, the whole thing." The Carpenters' corporation is dubbed "Ars Nova." Richard is its president and chief decision maker. "You get problems, things you never thought you would have to deal with, things you never knew existed. What it's like to have people working for you, keeping them all happy."

"And while all these people are working at the things that have to be done, nothing can be done without an OK from us. So we have to think about all those things still.

"It's not like being a doctor, where you work hard for so many years and then at last you've got your practice, your office, your regular routine. Your El Dorado. In the record business you can have money piled up to the ceiling. You can say, 'Well, I could retire tomorrow.' But you don't wanna retire. So you always have to worry about that next hit.

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