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Yesterday Once More
The Carpenters Reader
By Randy L. Schmidt
Chicago Review Press Incorporated Copyright © 2012 Randy L. Schmidt
All rights reserved.
THEY'VE ONLY JUST BEGUN
TV Radio Mirror, 1971
What a super trip! Initially they took a "Ticket to Ride" (the Beatle classic), and the Carpenters, handsome six-foot Richard and his pretty brown-eyed sister Karen, rode nonstop to fame and fortune in the spinning of this 45-rpm disc on airwaves around the world. Their second record release, "Close to You," proved an even bigger hit and the new sound introduced by the pair was sweeping the music industry — the same industry that had previously rejected their talents.
"We were under contract to RCA Victor," recalls Richard with a catlike grin. "But they wanted us to do instrumentals. We cut two records although I told them they would never sell. They were never even released as it turned out.
"But we don't feel so badly. RCA once rejected Herb Alpert."
Actually, it was Alpert who later became aware of their commercial potential. He flipped when he heard a "homemade" tape of their blended voices, and immediately signed them to a lucrative contract to record for his A&M label. It turned out to be one of the best talent deals the trumpet-playing executive has ever made.
"We've Only Just Begun" was another hit single on their road to success. But the Carpenters are continually bettering their efforts. With the smash success of Oscar-winner "For All We Know," it looks as if they will be around for a very long time, much to everyone's delight. They've already proved they're no flash in the pan — they're loaded with talent ... talent that they have been nurturing for years, which has now blossomed into stardom.
This summer proved a lot cooler because the Carpenters are such a refreshing welcome to off-season weekly television. Their Tuesday night show on NBC is called Make Your Own [Kind of] Music. The popular Doodletown Pipers and Mark Lindsay, the hip songster, also are regulars on the one-hour musical.
Already the Carpenters' success has been chronicled by music journals such as Cashbox. Recently, they were honored by their peers, receiving Grammy Awards as the best new artists and vocal group of 1970. But behind the statistics of record charts and phenomenal sales is a beautiful, warm story of two beautiful and warm people.
The only children of Harold and Agnes Carpenter, Richard and Karen were born in New Haven, Connecticut. Richard on October 15, 1946, and Karen on March 2, 1950. Their father worked for a printing firm. The three-bedroom house in a middle-class neighborhood was small in size but the atmosphere was a loving one.
Both Richard and Karen attended the neighborhood grammar school, Nathan Hale Elementary. But child prodigies they were not; they did the usual childhood things.
Karen has a marvelous sense of humor, and Richard, though more serious in nature, also has an upbeat personality.
"Mom has a nice voice," Rich says admiringly, "but she never sang professionally. Dad has a fantastic love for all music. They were very instrumental in helping us get where we are today.
"When I was nine, I started taking piano lessons. The book type of lessons where the teacher comes to your home. I disliked this, and finally convinced my parents they were wasting money.
"Not until I was about thirteen did I really get into music. This time it was my idea to take lessons again, and by the time I got into high school (Wilbur Cross in New Haven) I was really hooked. In fact, I learned everything the music books could teach me and so I enrolled for more courses at the nearby Yale Music School."
Meantime, Karen played at being Richard's cute kid sister.
"I idolized Richard," recalls Karen, "and would tag along with him. You might say I was a tomboy. I loved playing baseball."
Rich interrupts with, "It was slightly embarrassing. Karen was a better ballplayer than I was, and when choosing sides for sandlot games, she'd be picked first."
TV Radio Mirror recently interviewed brother and sister in their suite at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas. After two weeks singing at the gambling spa, Karen had developed "Vegas throat" (the most common malady singers suffer from in the dryness of the desert).
"It's amazing," Karen says as she clears her sore throat with a cough. "I always figured 'Vegas throat' was some kind of a put-on. But for the past few days I have been losing my voice during the day and luckily finding it before show time."
Both performances each night on a co-bill with comic Don Adams were sold out. Not only is their music pleasant to the ears, they give the audience the impression, honestly so, that they are indeed beautiful people.
Barely over twenty-one, Karen in many ways has remained a wholesome sweet sixteen. Not that she's un-hip, either. She's very hip. But she has never lost a youthful innocence, and we hope she never does. All five feet, four inches of her frame, from her flowing brown hair to her tiny feet, bubbles with gaiety, although she is very aware of a troubled world.
"The situation of the whole world is a drag," she says. "Everybody fighting everybody. Through our music, Richard and I try to do our best to pull people together — not apart."
Whereas Richard's talent was quite apparent by the time he was in his early teens, Karen didn't test her musical ability until she was in high school: ironically, not as a vocalist either, but on the drums. The 120-pounder became a heavyweight drummer without taking a lesson.
When Richard was sixteen, the Carpenter family was faced with a major decision. For several years Harold Carpenter had been offered another position by a former boss. But it would mean a move to Southern California.
By now most everyone in the New Haven area who knew anything about music realized that Rich was destined for bigger things.
"My parents are very hip," Rich smiles. "They didn't have to be told that Los Angeles was where music was happening. So mainly for my future, we moved."
Actually, the Carpenters at first got only a brief glimpse of Los Angeles as they passed through the city and settled off the Santa Ana Freeway in Downey. Harold's job was at the Container Corp. of America in nearby Vernon.
Richard finished his senior year at Downey High School and then enrolled at Long Beach State College. Karen entered South Junior High and soon the Carpenters had adjusted to their new home.
Still Karen was not aware of her musical talents.
"Junior high was a waste," she says, "and I didn't do much of anything in music until I was sixteen. This was really the turning point in my career.
"At Downey High I became a member of the band, but I really couldn't play any instrument. It all came about because both Richard and I hated gym.
"If you took band you didn't have to take gym and run around and do all those weird things. Richard took band and got to know the band director very well.
"When Richard was at Downey High, he marched in and said he wanted to be in the band. They asked him what instrument. He said 'Piano,' and they laughed. 'Baby or grand?' Of course everyone knows nobody plays a piano in a marching band, and Richard ended up playing a trumpet, although he knew little about the instrument.
"But after the band director heard him play the piano, he was so impressed he didn't care if Richard never tooted a note. Sometimes the whole band would just gather around and listen to Richard play.
"So I went to the band director when I was a sophomore — Richard was going to Long Beach State — and I told him I was Richard's kid sister and wanted to be in the band. I couldn't play anything. Well, I ended up with a mallet playing the glockenspiel.
"This wasn't what you would call playing heavy music. Still I didn't care because I got out of taking gym. Later I became interested in the drums when I started to listen to Frankie Chavez, a neighborhood school pal who had been playing the drums since he was three.
"At first I was just fooling around on the drums and then my parents started to encourage me. They even bought me a set of drums for Christmas. Actually, I taught myself and did most of the things that experienced drummers could do.
"To teach me what I didn't know, Frankie recommended some lessons at Drum City."
However, Richard points out there was very little about percussion that Karen hadn't learned naturally. The Carpenter kids formed a trio with tuba-bass player Wes Jacobs and started playing sophisticated jazz. Richard did all the arranging and in the summer of 1966 they rehearsed daily from dawn to well into the night.
That same year they entered the Battle of the Bands at the Hollywood Bowl. Competition was fierce; dozens of other groups were entered. Richard had had experience before a live audience. As he says, "My hair was longer and I wore glasses, making me look older, so I was able to pick up club dates while at college."
But little Karen had never been exposed to such a spotlight. She always felt "safe and lost" while performing on a football field with the band. "I thought I'd be scared, but I was too involved in the music to worry about it," she says.
"Well, it was sort of unbelievable," Richard admits. "Karen was the only girl drummer in the contest, and the audience would stare at first in disbelief when she sat down behind the drums ... like is this for real? ... this pretty little girl behind a massive set of drums.'
"When she started playing, though, they believed. She's fantastic. She'd whiz through press rolls, and speedily maneuver the sticks as if she had been born in a drum factory. It was really groovy."
The judges thought so, too. For the finale Wes switched from the bass to the tuba, and the solo, says Richard, "blew everybody's minds." The trio won nine trophies that included the sweepstakes award. An RCA talent scout signed the three to a contract practically before the applause had died down.
"What a letdown," Rich remembers. "I wanted to record some new arrangements, adding vocals to make us sound more commercial. RCA said 'no,' and we cut two jazz numbers, including the tuba solo, that I knew would never sell."
By now the tumultuous sounds of hard rock were sweeping the country. RCA finally realized that Richard was right. The records went unreleased, and RCA decided not to pick up the option on the trio's contract. For a time the threesome worked local gigs, but could not play the big time clubs since Karen was a minor.
Meantime, Karen continued to learn. Following graduation from high school, she joined big brother as a music major at Long Beach State. Richard was in the choir. "I thought the group was really groovy," she says, "so I tried out, although I never had done any singing before."
It was the school's choir director, Frank Pooler, who amazed Karen by telling her that she had a good voice.
"Mr. Pooler," Karen said admiringly, "is a multi-talented choir genius. We picked up a lot from him."
Later, when Wes Jacobs decided to play classical tuba (he's currently a member of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra), the award-winning trio was "retired." Undaunted, Richard formed Spectrum, a harmony group featuring Karen as lead singer and backed by Cal State pals Leslie Johnston, Danny Woodhams, Gary Sims, and John Bettis.
This time both Richard and Karen felt that their soft-rock sound would make it. Spectrum played such choice dates in the Los Angeles area as the Troubadour, Disneyland, and the Whisky A Go-Go. But they were only a supporting act, and while appearing at the Whisky, a top hard rock spot, the management became annoyed because the dancers stopped to listen to the Carpenters sing.
Apparently the boss figured the club's reputation of presenting only hard rock acts was in jeopardy, because he terminated Spectrum's engagement.
"We really hadn't made a dime," says Richard, "and we were very discouraged. We were determined, though ... determined to stick it out, but Spectrum gradually broke up."
THEN CAME THE BIG BREAK
Around 1966, through their music contacts, the two had met electric bass man Joe Osborn. Joe is originally from Shreveport, Louisiana, and had played in back-up groups for Ricky Nelson, Glen Campbell, and many other top recording stars. Joe tinkered around with electronics and began collecting recording equipment he installed in the garage of his home.
More or less as an experiment, Richard and Karen started recording in multitrack, blending their voices into four, six, or more parts by overdubbing as Joe worked the controls at his mini-studio. The resulting tape was aired for several record producers. Each one claimed it would never sell.
Finally, as a last resort, Richard talked his way into A&M Studios and got [Herb Alpert to listen. Alpert was impressed with the multi-voices and signed them to the label.]
Soon, under Alpert's personal supervision, the Carpenters cut an album, Offering. One of the cuts, "Ticket to Ride," took off as a top-100 single. Alpert then had the pair record [Burt] Bacharach's "[(They Long to Be)] Close to You," a song that other singers had recorded with only moderate success. It was used as the title song of the Carpenters' second LP, and became a number one single on the charts.
From there the Carpenters started recording hit after hit. The most recent is a ballad by Karen, "Rainy Days and Mondays." Two former members of Spectrum, bassist Dan Woodhams and guitarist Gary Sims, rejoined the Carpenters for the success trip, although Sims is now away on military service. Doug Strawn, reed player and former barbershop [quartet member], and Bob Messenger, versatile musician on reeds and guitar, are also group regulars.
Excerpted from Yesterday Once More by Randy L. Schmidt. Copyright © 2012 Randy L. Schmidt. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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