My Playlist: Carpenters

“Bland”, “saccharine” and “clean-cut.” These are a few attributes music critics used to describe Carpenters back in their heyday. Or how about this commentary by Rolling Stone writer Lester Bangs who felt Richard Carpenter and his sister Karen Carpenter had “the most disconcerting collective stage presence of any band I have seen.” He added promotional photos made them resemble “the cheery innocence of some years-past dream of California youth.” Even if some of the above wasn’t entirely inaccurate, I have no problem admitting I’ve always liked the music by Carpenters.

Before highlighting some of their songs and presenting additional tunes in a playlist at the end of this post, I’d like to provide a bit of background. Richard Carpenter (October 15, 1946) and Karen Carpenter (March 2, 1950) were born in New Haven, Conn. According to a bio on Carpenters’ official website, the siblings’ father Harold Bertram Carpenter “hated the frigid New England winters. So, in June of 1963, the family moved to a suburb of L.A., Downey, California.”

Carpenters Biography

Early in their childhood, Richard and Karen started sharing a common interest in music. Richard picked up the piano at age 8. By the time he was 14, he had decided he wanted to become a professional musician and started taking lessons at Yale School of Music. Karen initially got into playing the glockenspiel, but after enrolling at Downey high school, she discovered her enthusiasm for the drums.

In 1965, the siblings started performing together in the jazz-focused Richard Carpenter Trio. In addition to Richard (piano) and Karen (drums), the group included Wes Jacobs (tuba, standup bass), a friend of Richard’s who he had met the previous year at California State College at Long Beach. After The Richard Carpenter Trio had disbanded in 1967, the siblings went on to form a band called Spectrum. But their music didn’t conform to rock and roll standards at the time, so they dissolved in 1968. Richard and Karen decided to soldier on as a duo and became Carpenters.

The Carpenters (live in australia) 1972- Love Is Surrender - YouTube

In April 1969, Carpenters signed with A&M Records after label owner Herb Alpert had heard and was intrigued by Karen’s voice. Their debut album Offering appeared in October 1969. While it didn’t sell well, a rendition of The Beatles’ Ticket to Ride, which had been arranged by Richard, gave Carpenters their first charting U.S. single on the Billboard Hot 100, where it climbed to no. 54. Their fortune changed drastically with their next single, (They Long to Be) Close to You, a tune written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David. It became the first of three songs to top the U.S. mainstream chart and the first of 15 no. 1 singles on the Adult Contemporary (then called Easy Listening) chart.

During their 12-year recording career, Carpenters released nine studio albums, one Christmas album, two live albums, two compilations and approximately 30 singles. This doesn’t include the numerous posthumous releases following the untimely and tragic death of Karen at age 32 from heart failure caused by complications from anorexia nervosa. Let’s get to some music!

My first pick is the aforementioned rendition of Ticket to Ride. Rearranged by Richard Carpenter as a ballad, the tune is from Carpenters’ debut album Offering, which following their breakthrough was reissued internationally under the title Ticket to Ride.

In August 1970, Carpenters issued their sophomore album Close to You. Their breakthrough record surged to no. 2 in the U.S. on the Billboard 200 and topped the charts in Canada. It also did well elsewhere, reaching no. 16, no. 23 and no. 53 in Australia, the UK and Japan, respectively. In no small part, this was due to the above noted hit single (They Long to Be) Close to You.

The hits kept coming on Carpenters’ eponymous third studio album from May 1971. Here’s one of my favorites: Rainy Days and Mondays. The tune was co-written in 1971 by Roger Nichols and Paul Williams. Rainy Days and Mondays was one of the record’s three singles that all topped the Adult Contemporary chart. It also reached no. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Top of the World is one of the tunes co-written by Richard Carpenter and John Bettis, who Richard had first met in 1964 in college and who had been a member of Spectrum. Interestingly, Richard who it seems to me had a great sense of songs with hit potential initially didn’t see that for Top of the World. It was only released as a single in September 1973, more than one year after the album A Song for You had come out. The country-flavored tune became one of the Carpenters’ most successful songs, topping the mainstream charts in the U.S., Canada and Australia, and charting in the top 40 in many other countries.

If I recall it correctly, Only Yesterday was the first Carpenters song I ever heard. It was included on some pop sampler my sister had on vinyl. Another composition by Richard Carpenter and John Bettis, Only Yesterday first appeared as a single in March 1975. It also was included on Horizon, the sixth studio album by Carpenters from June 1975.

This brings me to the final song I like to highlight: Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft. This great ballad had first appeared on 3:47 EST, the debut album by Klaatu from August 1976. The Canadian outfit became famous after a 1977 feature story in Providence Journal started speculations Klaatu could be The Beatles or include members of the band. I did a post on the magical mystery in May 2017, which you can read here. This was a quite unusual tune for Carpenters to record, but I think they did a nice job. Their rendition was first released in September 1977 as the second single from their eighth studio album Passage that appeared two weeks thereafter.

Following is a playlist with many additional tunes by Carpenters:

Carpenters have sold more than an estimated 100 million records worldwide as of 2005, making them one of the top-selling music artists of all time. In the U.S. alone, their total sales are believed to be close to 35 million. In the UK, they are ranked as the seventh top-selling albums artist on the official record chart of the 1970s. And in Japan, the pop duo has been the third best-selling international music act behind Mariah Carey and The Beatles.

I think it’s fair to say views of Carpenters’ initial critics have evolved, which isn’t unusual. In this context, Wikipedia notes a series of documentaries in the late ’90s and early 2000s, maintaining they have led to a critical re-evaluation of the pop duo. In December 2015, Rolling Stone ranked Carpenters no. 10 on its list of 20 Greatest Duos of All Time.

During an NPR segment from February 2013 in connection with the 30th anniversary of Karen Carpenter’s death, Paul McCartney called her “the best female voice in the world: melodic, tuneful and distinctive.” That’s certainly a bold statement, though I do agree Karen had a beautiful and distinct voice. We’ve Only Just Begun and (They Long to Be) Close to You have received Grammy Hall of Fame awards for recordings of lasting quality or historical significance.

Sources: Wikipedia; Carpenters official website; NPR; YouTube

My Playlist: Aretha Franklin

Earlier this year, I got very close to seeing Aretha Franklin live at New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, N.J. I had already purchased two tickets and was thrilled to finally experience who I felt was one of the greatest vocalists of our time. Another cool thing was that the March 25th show would have coincided with her 76th birthday. Unfortunately, it didn’t happen.

On very short notice, the concert was cancelled due to an unidentified illness. When media reported shortly thereafter that Franklin’s doctor had ordered three months of absolute rest, I didn’t have a good feeling. After all, this wasn’t the first time she had dealt with health issues. Yesterday, the Queen of Soul passed away from advanced pancreatic cancer, barely five months after her birthday and what I’m sure would have been an unforgettable performance.

FRANKLIN
Aretha Franklin performing at the VH1 Divas 2001

Given the vast number of obituaries that have been published since news about her untimely death broke yesterday morning, I’m not going to develop yet another one. Instead, I’d like to focus on what will remain – an amazing amount of music by an amazing performer, released over a 60-year-plus professional career.

Based on Wikipedia, Franklin’s enormous catalog includes 42 studio albums, six live albums, 131 singles and numerous compilations. While it’s obviously impossible to capture all of that music in one playlist while keeping it to no more than 10 tracks, I tried to come up with tunes that span her entire recording period.

Where to start the undertaking? Well, how about Franklin’s studio debut Songs Of Faith from 1956, which was recorded live at New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit, the church of her father, the Reverend C.L. Franklin. Here’s While The Blood Runs Warm. Franklin was only 14 years old at the time, but you can already hear her powerful voice. This is giving me goosebumps!

Franklin’s fourth studio album The Tender, The Moving, The Swinging Aretha Franklin from August 1962 became her first charting record, reaching no. 69 on the Billboard pop albums chart. Here’s Try A Little Tenderness, a tune I dig, written by Jimmy Campbell, Reg Connelly and Harry M. Woods, and first recorded by the Ray Nobel Orchestra in December 1932. It has since been covered by many other artists, who in addition to Franklin most notably included Otis Redding in 1966.

Respect is perhaps the best-known Aretha Franklin song. The signature tune, which was written and first released by Otis Redding in 1965, appeared on her 11th studio album I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You from March 1967. The song was Franklin’s first no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and R&B charts, as well as the Cash Box chart. The record became her highest charting to date, peaking at no. 2 on the Billboard album chart and topping the magazine’s R&B chart.

Another Franklin signature song undoubtedly is Think, co-written by her and her manager and first husband Ted White. The feminism anthem appeared on her 15th studio album Aretha Now in June 1968 and was also released separately as a single in May of the same year. White’s involvement in the song’s writing looks ironical, given Franklin divorced him in 1969, following reports of domestic abuse.

This Girl’s In Love With You was Franklin’s first ’70s album appearing in January that year, and her 18th studio album overall. Intriguingly, it includes the first commercial release of Let It Be, preceding The Beatles’ version by two months, and the following take of The Weight written by The Band’s Robbie Robertson. Oh, and if the guy on the slide guitar somehow seems to sound familiar, it was Duane Allman. I think not only is this soulful cover smoking hot, but it’s also a great illustration of Franklin’s great ability to take songs written by others and make them her own.

In February 1974, Franklin released her 22nd studio album Let Me Be In Your Life.  The second single from that record was Until You Come Back To Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do), co-written by Clarence Paul, Stevie Wonder and Morris Broadnax. It was first recorded by Wonder in 1967, though he didn’t release his version until 1977. The tune became a million-seller for Franklin, topping the Billboard R&B chart and peaking at no. 2 on the Hot 100. It was her last major ’70s hit.

Jumping to the ’80s, Franklin collaborated on a number of songs with various other artists during that decade, such as George Benson, Elton John, George Michael and Eurhythmics. The tune I’d like to highlight in this context is Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves, another feminist anthem that Franklin recorded with Eurhythmics. Apart from appearing as a single in October 1985, the tune was included on Franklin’s Who’s Zoomin’ Who? and the British pop duo’s Be Yourself Tonight studio albums. Co-written by Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart, the song reached no. 18 on the Billboard Hot 100 and no. 9 in the U.K. on the Official Singles Chart. The track proves that Franklin could even make an ’80s commercial pop tune sound pretty hot.

A Rose Is Still A Rose, released in March 1998, was Franklin’s last studio album that reached Gold certification and became her best-selling record of the ’90s. Following is the title track, which was written by Lauryn Hill and is yet another feminist-based tune. It also appeared as a single one month ahead of the album, reaching no. 1, 5 and 26 on the Billboard Dance Club Songs, Hot R&B/Hip-Hop/Rap Songs and Hot 100 charts, respectively.

Jumping to the current century, in September 2003, Franklin’s 38th studio record So Damn Happy appeared. It included Wonderful, a song co-written by Aleese Simmons and Ron “Amen-Ra” Lawrence, which won Franklin the 2003 Grammy for Best Traditional R&B Vocal Performance.

Franklin’s 42nd and final studio album A Brand New Me was released in November 2017. It featured archival vocal recordings from her years with Atlantic Records combined with new arrangements by London’s Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and newly recorded backing vocals. Here’s I Say A Little Prayer, which Burt Bacharach and Hal David co-wrote for Dionne Warwick who released it in 1967 as as single. It was also included on her eighth studio release The Windows Of The World. Franklin originally recorded the tune for the above noted Aretha Now album and released it as a single in July 1968, scoring a no. 3 and 10 on the Billboard R&B and Hot 100 charts, respectively.

As previously noted, the goal of the above playlist was to be career-spanning. As such, not all of the songs are among my favorite tunes. But at the same time, I feel that because of her powerful voice and soulful delivery, Franklin simply never sang a bad song in the first place – at least I haven’t heard one yet. Two other artists who come to my mind in this context are Tina Turner and Joe Cocker. It’s a rare quality that is going to be part of Franklin’s legacy.

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube