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

The Sunday Six

Celebrating music with six random songs at a time

It’s an overcast and rainy weekend in my neck of the woods (central New Jersey), but this shall not take away any of the fun to present another eclectic set of six tunes, especially given The Sunday Six is hitting a mini-milestone today with its 20th installment. Plus, if the weather is a mixed bag in your area as well, it’s a perfect opportunity to listen to some music. And in case conditions are perfect to be outdoors, just take the music with you! 🙂

Dave Holland/Grave Walker

Kicking us off today is some brand new funky jazz by an old hand: Dave Holland, an English double bassist, composer and bandleader who has been active for five decades. Holland started out teaching himself how to play the ukulele as a four-year old, followed by the guitar and the bass. At the age of 15, he quit school, initially wanting to play pop before discovering jazz. Holland subsequently received a full-time scholarship for London’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama. By age 20, he was a busy student and musician, who frequently performed at London’s premier jazz venue Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club. In 1968, Miles Davis saw Holland and invited him to join his band to replace Ron Carter. For the next two years, he worked with Davis and appeared on the albums In a Silent Way and Bitches’ Brew. His first record as a bandleader, Conference of the Birds by Dave Holland Quartet, appeared in 1973. In addition to Davis, Holland has worked with numerous other jazz artists, such as Thelonious Monk, Anthony Braxton, Stan Getz and John Abercrombie. According to his website, Holland’s “playing can be heard on hundreds of recordings, with more than thirty as a leader under his own name.” This brings me to Grave Walker, the great funky opener of Holland’s new album Another Land, which came out on Friday (May 28), featuring guitarist Kevin Eubanks and drummer Obed Calvaire. Groovy and great sound, baby!

Sam & Dave/Hold On, I’m Coming

Let’s keep on groovin’ and jump back 55 years to March 1966. That’s when Stax recording artists Sam & Dave released their new single Hold On, I’m Comin’. Co-written by the songwriting team of Isaac Hayes and David Porter, this gem became the soul duo’s first no. 1 hit on the Billboard Hot R&B Singles chart. It also was the title track of Sam & Dave’s debut studio album, which was released the following month. According to Wikipedia, Steve Cropper, lead guitarist of Stax house band Booker T. and the M.G.s, said the song’s title came out of a verbal exchange between Porter who was in the restroom at the Stax studio and an impatient Hayes who yelled for Porter to return to their writing session. When Porter responded, “Hold On, I’m Comin’,” they both thought this would make for a great song title and completed the tune within an hour. It’s amazing what bathroom breaks can do!

Squeeze/Pulling Mussels (From the Shell)

Pulling Mussels (From the Shell) may be one of only a handful of Squeeze songs I’ve heard but, hey, you don’t have to be an expert about a band to recognize a great power pop tune. When I came across the song in the process of researching this post, it was an easy decision to include. Co-written by Squeeze rhythm guitarist and vocalist Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook, the band’s lead guitarist and keyboarder, Pulling Mussels (From the Shell) is from their third studio album Argybargy released in February 1980. It also appeared separately as a single in April that year. To my big surprise, the tune only climbed to no. 44 in the UK and didn’t chart in the U.S. at all. BTW, Squeeze, which were initially founded by Difford and Tilbrook in March 1974, are still around, though they had some breaks in-between. The current incarnation has been active since 2007, released three new albums to date, and still includes Difford and Tilbrook.

Deep Purple/Pictures of Home

It’s time to push the pedal to the heavy metal coz why not? In this context, I couldn’t think of a better choice than Deep Purple, my all-time favorite hard rock band. The combination of Ritchie Blackmore’s guitar and Jon Lord’s roaring Hammond B3 still excites me. Pictures of Home is a track from Deep Purple’s sixth studio album Machine Head that came out in March 1972 and is their Mount Rushmore, in my view. Just about everything about this song is cool: The intro by Ian Paice, who is a beast of a drummer; the great main guitar riff by Ritchie Blackmore; Jon Lord’s sweet B3 work; Ian Gillan who was at the top of game as a lead vocalist; and let’s not forget about Roger Glover’s pumping bass and his neat short solo starting at about 3:40 minutes. Like all other tracks on the album, Pictures of Home was credited to all members of the band.

Mariah Carey featuring Trey Lorenz/I’ll Be There

Mariah Carey? Yep, you read that right! Have I lost my mind? I hope that’s not the case. Before causing too much confusion here, I generally don’t listen to Mariah Carey. However, together with Christina Aguilera, I believe she’s one of the strongest female contemporary vocalists. Then there’s I’ll Be There, a tune I loved from the moment I heard it first from The Jackson 5 as part of a Motown box set. It must have been in the early ’80s. Credited to Berry Gordy, producer Hal Davis, Bob West and Willie Hutch, I’ll Be There was released in late August 1970 as the lead single of the Jackson 5’s third studio album ingeniously titled Third Album that appeared two weeks later. Carey’s cover, which I think is even more compelling than the original, was included on her MTV Unplugged EP from June 1992. Apart from Carey’s strong rendition of Michael Jackson’s part, I’d like to call out R&B singer Trey Lorenz who does an amazing job singing Jermaine Jackson’s lines. It’s really the outstanding vocal performance that convinced me to feature this rendition.

3 Doors Down/It’s Not My Time

Just in case that previous tune shocked you, or perhaps did the opposite thing and put you in a sleepy mood, let’s finish this installment on a rock note: It’s Not My Time by 3 Doors Down. Formed in 1996 in Escatawpa, Miss., they broke through internationally with their first single Kryptonite from January 2000. Originally, that song had been recorded as a demo for a local Mississippi radio station. From there, it was picked up by other radio stations and became popular, topping Billboard’s Mainstream Rock Tracks chart and eventually reaching no. 3 on the Hot 100. Subsequently, 3 Doors Down signed with Republic Records and recorded their debut album The Better Life. Appearing in February 2000, it continued the band’s remarkable streak of success, climbing to no. 7 on the Billboard 200, charting in many other countries, and becoming their best-selling album that only the in the U.S. sold more than 5 million copies. It’s Not My Time is from 3 Doors Down’s eponymous fourth studio album from May 2008. Like all other songs on the record, the tune is credited to four of the band’s members at the time: Brad Arnold (lead vocals), Matt Roberts (lead guitar, backing vocals), Chris Henderson (rhythm guitar, backing vocals) and Todd Harrell (bass). Greg Upchurch (drums) completed their line-up. 3 Doors Down are still active, with Arnold, Henderson and Upchurch remaining part of the current formation.

Sources: Wikipedia; Dave Holland website; YouTube