In November of 1969 their first album was released. Called ‘Offering’, it included Richard’s ballad version of the Beatles’ 1965 hit Ticket To Ride. Much more than just slowing the song down, Richard tailored John Lennon’s strong melody to Karen’s alto and to the changed mood of the song, which was quite different due to the ballad approach. Certain chords and time signatures were changed as well, and the chart features liberal use of Karen’s and Richard’s overdubbed harmonies.
According to one critic, the finished product “virtually redefined the song”; Ticket To Ride is certainly one of Karen’s and Richard’s strongest and most innovative recordings.
All this being said, the record did not become a full-fledged hit, but still had a long chart life as it would enter and leave the chart, only to enter again, sometimes “bulleted,” and ultimately reaching No.54 in April, 1970. Considering the fact that most singles never reach the charts, Karen and Richard believed that this was not a bad showing. Besides, Ticket had been heard by the co-writer of the Carpenters’ next single, which was “in the can” and being held up for release as all watched the ever changing fortunes of Ticket To Ride.
Also on A&M’s books at that time was the hugely talented Burt Bacharach, who showed an early interest in the Carpenters’ work after hearing Ticket To Ride on the radio, and invited them to join him for a number of dates during 1970. In June of that year it was a Burt Bacharach song which would finally bring them worldwide acclaim.
They Long To Be Close To You had been written by Bacharach and his partner Hal David some seven years earlier, and was included in Dionne Warwick’s third album. In addition to Karen’s alluring lead vocal, the Carpenters added intricate harmonies to a beautiful arrangement by Richard who also shortened the title and, in six weeks, the song occupied the No.1 spot on the American charts. It remained one of the best sellers of the year, and sold over three million copies worldwide. The song also gave the duo their first British success, reaching No.6 in the autumn of 1970, and became a hit in several other countries.
In March of the following year, the recording also won them their first Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Vocal Performance by a Duo, Group or Chorus. There was a second Grammy for Best New Artist of 1970. In all, Close To You and the “Close To You” album were nominated in six categories, including Record and Album of the Year.
By then they had another million-seller to their name. We’ve Only Just Begun, taken from their second album, ‘Close To You’, only just missed the top spot in the US, peaking at No.2. The impact of We’ve Only Just Begun on millions of people cannot be overstated. Written by the then unknown team of Roger Nichols and Paul Williams expressly for a television ad campaign for the Crocker Bank, a California concern, the song caught Richard’s attention, who felt that with the right arrangement, the song would be a hit. The fact that We’ve Only Just Begun is a wedding song did not make any difference to him one way or another, but certainly did to countless couples planning to get married following the record’s release; We’ve Only Just Begun became the wedding song of a generation. In addition, Karen and Richard, Nichols and Williams were bombarded with requests from yearbook committees, asking permission to use We’ve Only Just Begun as the motto of the graduating classes.
Additionally, Richard’s interpretation of the song would have quite an impact on the way many ballads to come were arranged, from the voicing of the piano in the intro and first verse, to the entrance of vocals, strings and the use of brass in the bridge.
Joining (They Long To Be) Close To You in the Grammy Hall of Fame, We’ve Only Just Begun for years has been considered Karen’s and Richard’s ‘signature’ song.
The album, too, was enjoying enormous success, spending well over a year on the US album chart. In addition to the two hit singles, it included many more memorable tracks; among them Help!, Baby It’s You, Mr. Guder and Reason To Believe.
In 1971 there were three more hugely successful singles, all of which became million sellers. For All We Know had been featured in the film ‘Lovers And Other Strangers’. With music by Fred Karlin and lyrics by a certain Arthur James and Robb Wilson – actually pseudonyms for Arthur Griffin and Robb Royer of the group Bread – it went on to win an Oscar for the Best Film Song of 1970.
The Carpenters’ version went to No.3 on the American charts and was soon followed by the similarly successful Rainy Days And Mondays – written, as was We’ve Only Just Begun, by Roger Nichols and Paul Williams. During the last week of May, 1971, while Rainy Days And Mondays was rapidly climbing the charts, Karen and Richard were rapidly videotaping their songs and sketches for an eight-week summer replacement television series entitled “Make Your Own Kind Of Music.” Scheduled to air on NBC in lieu of “The Don Knotts Show,” the summer series was supposed to be a kind of cross between “Laugh-In” and “Sesame Street.” Whatever it was, management should have known better than to persuade Karen and Richard to take any part; Carpenters was too big a name to be associated with a summer replacement series. To make matters worse, although it was considered their show, Karen and Richard were co-billed with somewhat lesser names. Add to this the fact that the show simply was not very good, the result was that “Make Your Own Kind Of Music” left an understandably unfavorable impression with television executives as far as the Carpenters were concerned, while contributing nothing to record sales.
A few months later it was the turn of Superstar, which reached the No.2 spot on the American charts but, backed with For All We Know, it also brought the pair their third British success, reaching No.18. Superstar is considered by many to be the ultimate Carpenters’ track, with its haunting melody, off-beat lyric, heartfelt reading by Karen and Grammy nominated arrangement by Richard.
There was another album, too. Called simply ‘Carpenters’, it resulted in further chart success in both Britain and America. It also won them yet another Grammy Award, again for Best Performance by a Duo, Group or Chorus.
Last Updated June 4, 2008
May 2004 © Richard Carpenter