RICHARD CARPENTER: STILL BUILDING BEAUTIFUL SOUNDS
By Paul Freeman
Our interview took place in 1998. For the latest on this artist, visit richardandkarencarpenter.com.
Half of one of the best-selling recording duos of all time, Richard Carpenter has managed to make his life whole again.
After his sister Karen died of heart failure in 1983, following a long struggle with anorexia nervosa, he waited four years to release his first solo album. Now, A&M is unveiling his second, "Pianist-Arranger-Composer-Conductor."
Carpenter has kept busy over the years. He served as executive producer on the TV movie, "The Karen Carpenter Story" and supervised compilations of the Carpenters' hits. He produced albums for other artists. He cooperated with a biographer and recent Carpenters documentaries made for PBS, VH1 and A&E. He also got married and collaborated on four children.
During the Carpenters heyday, there was little time for a personal life. "It was a whirlwind," Richard Carpenter says. "But it was what we had dreamed of and worked toward.
"On the whole, we had a very good time. But I don't feel that all the touring and studio time is conducive to raising a family. I wanted to do this and do it right."
Though he tries hard to be a successful husband and father, Carpenter remains a perfectionist in the studio. The new album features orchestral reworkings of favorites such as "Bless the Beasts and the Children" and "We've Only Just Begun," plus his previously unavailable "Karen's Theme" from the TV movie.
Of the hits, he says, "My challenge was to interpret them, with rare exception, a whole different way. Burt Bacharach used to do that. He'd produce a number of hits, especially for Dionne Warwick and then, every year or so, put out an instrumental album, where he took the same charts and did different arrangements with them.
"After giving it some thought, I didn't want this to be one of those assembly line instrumental piano albums, where you hear the little rhythm section in the background and just play a little melody over the top. With my training, I wanted to approach this more in a classical mode - very little strict tempo and a lot of quasi-symphonic. It worked very well, because a lot of the songs we introduced have a lot of melodic sweep."
He always had a knack for choosing the right songs for the Carpenters. "That's something you're born with. Granted, environment can play some part, but I'm a firm believer in genetics.
"A person can learn technically to orchestrate. But the stuff it takes to make a really terrific arrangement, that can't be taught, just as you can't teach someone to write a memorable song. Karen's gift was natural too, as it was with Sinatra, Crosby and all the great singers."
Though he fashioned the Carpenters' sound and wrote such hits as "Yesterday Once More" and "Top of the World," he wasn't given enough credit for the act's phenomenal popularity.
"The average person didn't really know what my role was," Carpenter says. "Obviously, on stage, Karen was the star of the duo. I urged her to go out in front of the group, when, of course, she loved to drum and sing at the same time.
"Until we were playing venues big enough to get the nine-foot Baldwin in there, we were using my little Wurlitzer electric piano. There had been so many people standing behind one of those and they couldn't really play very well. So most people thought, 'Here's another guy sitting behind one of those little things; he probably doesn't do much at all.'
"I did want a certain amount of recognition for what I did, even though, being a student of the industry, I knew I wasn't going to get that much of it."
"The laymen still may not be able to tell you what the record producer does or pay much attention to arrangement," he says. "But they can sense when something is done well. The Carpenters songs had a lot of melody. And people have always liked a good melody."
Growing up in New Haven, Connecticut, Richard Carpenter enjoyed finding good melodies in his father's extensive, eclectic record collection. At 16, he studied piano at Yale. Because of the youngster's outstanding musical ability, the family moved to Downey, California, where he would be closer to show business opportunities.
Legendary Wrecking Crew bassist Joe Osborn helped put the siblings on the right path. Osborn says, “Richard and Karen were still in school. They came over with a horn player one night. He had some stuff he wanted to play for me. I don’t remember who he was or if he ever got anywhere with his music. But Richard and Karen hung around. This girl on the drums sang “Ebb Tide,” not an easy song. She was 16 years old. And that voice - my God! It was there, as strong and as big as it ever got. Richard was playing the piano. They weren’t known at all at the time.
“So I like to say I didn’t discover The Carpenters,” Osborn says. “They found me. They just were there one night. I knew she was something special. Richard had some songs that he had written. And they couldn’t afford to go and do any demos. So I offered use of the studio [in Osborn’s garage]. And we did that off and on for a couple of years. And that gave Richard a chance to experiment with ideas that he’d never had any way to do, like stacking vocals. I don’t think he’d ever considered that. He learned to do that. Karen was a great jazz drummer. Richard had studied classical music since he was born and you can hear that influence in all their records.”
Richard Carpenter’s jazz trio, with Karen on drums, earned a record deal, but didn't go anywhere. Finding his forte in pop, Carpenter uncovered engaging songs, showcased Karen's heartfelt vocals, then overdubbed the siblings' rich harmonies. Their polished presentations contrasted with the garage rock bands popular at the time.
"There were a hell of a lot of doors slammed in our faces," Carpenter recalls of the time. "Every major record label, including two people representing A&M, just plain weren't interested. They all said, “It's too soft. It'll never sell.” Herbie took a different view, and it worked out well for all concerned."
Of the act's appeal, Carpenter says, "It's the combination of memorable songs, a timeless voice, well-crafted arrangements, well-engineered records and nothing trendy. A few times I fooled around with synthesizers back then, and when I hear those recordings today, they haunt me, because that's a trendy thing. Real instruments don't go out of date. Effects can wear on one."
The Carpenters' music has never worn out its welcome. Recent reissues became blockbusters in Britain and Japan. Seventies nostalgia is growing, and the duo was one of that decade's best-selling groups, topping 100 million records worldwide.
"Time flies. The '70s weren't that long ago." Carpenter chuckles. "Actually, it's not one of my favorite decades for a number of reasons, the clothing to begin with. The kids are wearing bell bottoms and hip-huggers, all the things that my generation swore we'd never go near again. Everything old is new again."
Music fans who weren't yet born in 1969 are discovering the Carpenters' songs. "It's very rewarding to know that something we did nearly 30 years ago is still fresh-sounding and appreciated today."
Carpenter is performing songs from "Pianist-Arranger-Composer-Conductor" with symphony orchestras across the globe. The concert includes film clips of his sister. For him, the experience is simultaneously uplifting and unsettling. "It's always been both, working with this material over the years. It reminds me time and time again of just how marvelous a talent Karen was. And yet, of course, it always is tinged with melancholia."