By William Hosley
(c) Connecticut Explored Inc. Fall 2008
The Carpenters, the phenomenally successful pop group of the 1970s, were two baby boomers who grew up in New Haven, attended public schools there during the 1950s and 1960s, and achieved as much fame and worldly success as any 20th-century artists associated with Connecticut. They were the #1 American recording artists of the 1970s, with total sales of more than 100 million records and seven consecutive gold records, a feat rarely matched.
Karen and Richard Carpenter were unabashed, unpretentious middle-class suburban kids at a time when being so was unfashionable. Richard was born in 1946, Karen in 1950. They were old enough to experience firsthand the birth of rock & roll and “all-hit radio” in the mid to late ’50s and young enough that Beatlemania shaped their aspirations. Richard cites their greatest influences as “the 3 B’s – the Beatles, Beach Boys and Burt Bacharach.”
Their father, Harold, worked for a printing company and collected records in diverse musical genres. Mother Agnes sang around the house. She was a perfectionist who kept a spotless home and detailed automobiles for pin money. Otherwise, Richard’s precocious mastery of piano, which he began playing at age 9, was not foreshadowed by parental influence. By age 13 he was taking lessons with a Yale music instructor who dubbed him a prodigy. Richard started his first band at Wilbur Cross High School in 1962. In 1963, seeking to improve their son’s prospects for breaking into show business, the family moved to a suburb outside of Los Angeles.
Richard had few outside interests beyond music. Karen, who spun records with him in the basement, was a gregarious tomboy who loved baseball, delivered the New Haven Register, had a toy machine gun, and played “army” with a neighborhood gang of kids at nearby Fort Nathan Hale Park. With no voice lessons and no significant role models, somewhere between the ages of 16 and 19 (when she and Richard cut their first album), Karen Carpenter the singer emerged fully formed. Her distinctive tonalities have been compared to Nat King Cole’s; she had an ability to get inside the emotional space of compositions that rivals Billie Holiday’s and John Lennon’s.
When, in the twilight of her career, Karen was paired doing duets with Ella Fitzgerald, it was a prelude to a possible second act and the apogee of her status as a pitch-perfect contralto whose low range and tonal depth is instantly recognizable. Bandmates recall spotless, unerring performances in which night after night she hit notes like radar. Moreover, her emotional connection to their songs was uncanny and, in the end, eerily predictive and tragic, as songs like Rainy Days & Mondays and Goodbye to Love assumed a darkly biographical dimension.
Karen’s anorexia was unusual in not developing until her mid 20s. Having been a somewhat chubby kid who briefly, and perhaps traumatically, became heaver in her early teens, Karen shed 30 pounds at the age of 17 and hovered around 120 until 1973, when she began dieting more aggressively and adopting habits of secrecy and self-deception. She dropped down to 100 pounds and eventually to a skeletal 80, subsisting on a diet of salad, ice tea, thyroid pills, and laxatives. Finally, in 1982, career sidetracked and in heavy therapy, she hit the wall with a cry for help that shook everyone close to her. She appeared to have turned it around and at the time of her death at age 32 was back up to about 110 pounds. It was too late. In February 1983, she died of heart failure induced by anorexia. Her death put a human face on an illness that until then barely had a name and was rarely discussed.
Between 1969 and 1981 The Carpenters produced 10 albums of original material. The first, Ticket to Ride(October 1969), although superb, produced no hits, and there was pressure at A & M Records to drop them. Their mentor (and A & M co-founder) Herb Alpert insisted they be given a second shot.
Close To You was released on May 15, 1970, three weeks after the first Earth Day, 11 days after the Kent State massacre, and the same week as 1970’s Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam. Close To You is a cultural document, embodying a time when America was reaching through the smoke and horror of current events for an antidote that was aggressively calming. Seeming to address a troubled nation’s need for respite, it sprinted to #1 in six weeks, dominated airplay all summer, and wound up #2 for the year, behind Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water.
Their third album, Carpenters, released on May 1971, produced a string of hits including For All We Know, Rainy Days & Mondays, Let Me Be the One, and the Bacharach-David Medley, one of the great virtuoso performances in pop music. A year later they released Song for You, one of the great pop records ever made, with six A-side singles, including Goodbye to Love, which gave birth to a genre known as the power ballad, and Top of the World, a monster crossover to country music that is now a megachurch movement staple. No Beatles album produced this many hits.
Having rocketed to the top in 1970 with one of the strongest debuts in pop history, during 1971, 72, and 73, The Carpenters were on the road incessantly and expected to generate new hits during the breaks. They performed 550 concerts in three years, a formula for burnout. Although Karen and Richard and their band produced six more albums or original material through 1981, tour pressures, health issues, and changing fashions limited their commercial success.
Though Connecticut has never been home to a Haight Ashbury, Greenwich Village, Southside Chicago, or South Street in Philadelphia, it’s nonetheless a state that has produced more than its share of original thinkers, performers, and artists. While The Carpenters rose to fame only after leaving Connecticut for sunny Los Angeles, Connecticut never quite left them.
Much is made of Bruce Springsteen’s New Jersey roots. Surely Connecticut can make the same claim on a pair of the 1970s’ biggest hit-makers.
William Hosley was the executive director of the New Haven Museum, Connecticut Landmarks, and curator of American Decorative Arts at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art.
Read all of our stories about Connecticut’s music history in the Fall 2008 issue
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