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

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The Temptations and Four Tops Shine On After 60-Plus Years

Iconic Motown acts deliver sweet soul music old school style and in perfect harmony at St. George Theatre on Staten Island, N.Y.

Nope, it wasn’t just my imagination, runnin’ away with me. On Thursday evening, I actually found myself at my first larger-scale indoor concert since January 2020: The Temptations and Four Tops at St. George Theatre, an old beautiful 2,800-seat performance venue on Staten Island, N.Y. I literally didn’t make the final decision to go until the morning of the show. In the end, perhaps I’m weaker than a man should be, I can’t help myself. One thing is for sure: It felt so damn good!

I’ve deliberately been avoiding large crowds since this bloody pandemic began, especially in closed rooms, so my decision to attend this show didn’t come easy. In the end, I felt the risk was acceptable, given the Covid numbers have been trending down, I’m fully vaccinated and I was wearing a mask for additional protection. In addition, performance venues in New York require that all visitors provide proof of vaccination before they can be admitted. Frankly, I wish New Jersey would do the same. On to the show!

Yours truly at St. George Theatre, which first opened its doors on December 4, 1929. And, yes, there was a big smile behind that mask!

I trust none of these two iconic Motown acts need much of an introduction. The Temptations, who opened the evening, were formed in 1960 in Detroit, Mich. Initially called The Elgins, the original members included Otis Williams, Eddie Kendricks, Paul Williams and Elbridge “Al” Bryant. Not surprisingly, the group’s composition has changed many times over the decades. Notably, Williams who just turned 80 on October 30, is still part of the current line-up, which also includes Terry Weeks (since 1997), Willie Greene (since 2015), Ron Tyson (since 1983) and Larry Braggs (since 2016). Braggs couldn’t be there since he was under the weather, as Williams put it, but the four of them did a marvelous job on vocals.

Following are a few clips I took from their set. First up: Ain’t Too Proud to Beg. Co-written by producer Norman Whitfield and Edward Holland Jr., part of the songwriting and production powerhouse of Holland-Dozier-Holland, Ain’t Too Proud to Beg was first released as a single in May 1966 and also included on The Temptations’ fourth studio album Gettin’ Ready from June of the same year. The song became their fourth no. 1 on Billboard’s Hot Rhythm & Blues Singles chart. It also reached no. 13, no. 32 and 21 on the mainstream charts in the U.S., Canada and UK, respectively.

For the most part, The Temptations presented their songs blending into each other, which made recording a bit tricky. Luckily, Setlist.fm included the song line-up from another recent show and, as far as I could tell, they replicated that same set. Here’s the highlight of their show and perhaps the highlight of the night: Just My Imagination (Runnin’ Away With Me) and Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone. Just My Imagination, co-written by Whitfield and Barrett Strong, first appeared as a single in January 1971 and was also part of the group’s 14th studio album Sky’s the Limit. The song became their third to top the Billboard Hot 100 and reached no. 8 in the UK, one of their most successful hits there. Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone, another Whitfield-Barrett co-write, with its edgy psychedelic soul sound set quite a contrast. Originally, this tune was released as a single in May 1972 by The Undisputed Truth, another Motown act. But it was the version by The Temptations from September that year, which turned the great tune into a major hit, both in the U.S. and internationally. Once again, it topped the Billboard Hot 100, reached no. 12 in Canada, and became a top 20 hit in the UK and various European countries.

The last tune from the group’s set I’d like to call out was the closer My Girl, which Williams called The Temptations’ anthem. Co-written by Smokey Robinson and Ronald White who also both produced the tune, My Girl became the group’s first big hit and a signature song. First released in December 1964, it reached no. 1 in the U.S. on both the mainstream and R&B Singles charts, climbed to no. 8 in Canada, and peaked at no. 2 in each the UK and Ireland. My Girl was also included on The Temptations’ sophomore album The Temptations Sing Smokey, which appeared in March 1965.

Here’s the entire setlist (based on the aforementioned entry in Setlist.fm)

Get Ready
Girl (Why You Wanna Make Me Blue)
The Way You Do the Things You Do
Ain’t Too Proud to Beg
Ball of Confusion (That’s What the World Is Today)
I Wish It Would Rain
Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)/Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone (The Undisputed Truth cover)
I Can’t Get Next to You
Is it Gonna Be Yes Or No
Waitin’ On You
Treat Her Like a Lady
My Girl

After a 10 to 15-minute intermission, it was the Four Tops’ turn. That vocal quartet was first established as the Four Aims in 1953 in the Motor City. This means the group has been around for some 68 years, which I find absolutely incredible. What’s even more amazing is that one of the founding members, Abdul “Duke” Fakir, who is turning 86 years in December, is still part of the current line-up! The other original members were Levi Stubbs, Renaldo “Obi” Benson and Lawrence Payton. That line-up remarkably performed for more than 40 years until 1997 without any changes. Apart from Fakir, the group’s present members are Ronnie McNeir (since 1999), Alexander Morris (since 2019) and Lawrence Payton Jr., the son of original member Payton (since 2005).

Here’s Baby I Need Your Loving, the Four Tops’ first Motown single. Written by the aforementioned Holland-Dozier-Holland and released in July 1964, it marked an impressive start, reaching no. 11 on the Billboard Hot 100 and going all the way to no. 4 in Canada. The song was also included on the Four Tops’ eponymous debut album from January 1965.

Similar to The Temptations, the Four Tops hardly left breaks between their songs and combined some in medleys. Here’s a mighty triple combo of Reach Out (I’ll Be There), Standing in the Shadows of Love and I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch). All of these three tunes, which formed the finale of the group’s set, were penned by Holland-Dozier-Holland. First released in 1966, Reach Out was the second Four Tops song to top both the Billboard Hot 100 and the Hot R&B Singles charts. Also reaching no. 1 in the UK, no. 4 in Ireland, no. 6 in each The Netherlands and Canada, and no. 10 in Belgium, Reach Out became one of the group’s biggest hits and one of Motown’s best-known songs. Standing in the Shadows of Love couldn’t quite match that enormous chart success, but still climbed to no. 6 on the U.S. and British mainstream charts. I Can’t Help Myself marked the first no. 1 for the Four Tops in the U.S. on both the Billboard Hot 100 and the Hot R&B Singles charts. In the U.K., it got to no. 23.

Here’s the list of songs the Four Tops performed:

Loco in Acapulco
Baby I Need Your Loving
Bernadette
Same Old Song / Shake Me, Wake Me
I Believe in You and Me
I Got a Feeling
Mack the Knife
What’s Going On (Marvin Gaye cover)
When She Was My Girl
Ain’t No Woman (Like the One I’ve Got)
Reach Out (I’ll Be There) / Standing in the Shadows of Love
I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)

What else can I say? Other than sharing a 10-piece horn section, The Temptations and Four Tops were backed by excellent separate bands. One cool factoid the Four Tops‘ Fakir shared is that their backing band featured Earl Van Dyke Jr. on keyboards. He’s the son of Earl Van Dyke, the main keyboarder for Motown’s house band The Funk Brothers. Similar to Booker T. & the M.G.’s at Stax, The Funk Brothers can be heard on countless Motown recordings between 1959 and 1972.

Speaking of Stax, I’ve noted before that Motown introduced me to soul, which eventually led me to Stax, my favorite soul label these days. Having said this, while the Motown formula they used during the ’60s can become repetitive, many of these songs were done incredibly well, thanks in part due to excellent studio musicians like The Funk Brothers. That’s something I realized once again listening to this music on Thursday night.

The final thoughts in this post shall belong to Otis Williams, who was quoted on the website of St. George Theatre as follows: “When I tell people we are God’s group…I don’t mean it arrogantly. It’s just that we have been tested time and again and keep coming back. We have suffered the death of so many legendary singers…Paul Williams, David Ruffin, Eddie Kendricks, Melvin Franklin. Other’s like Dennis Edwards, Richard Street, Ali-Ollie Woodson and Theo Peoples have left, and yet our unity is tighter, our sound brighter and our popularity greater. Someone has watched over this group. Someone has protected our integrity. Someone has said…just go on singing and it’ll get better.”

Sources: Wikipedia; St. George Theatre website; YouTube

Multi-Part Harmonies And Seductive Grooves – The Magic Of The Temptations

When it comes to vocal groups, I can’t think of a more compelling example than The Temptations. Their perfect multi-part harmonies have impressed me from the very first moment I heard them sometime during my early teenage years. I was reminded of The Temptations’ mighty singing while listening to a Christmas playlist yesterday that includes their beautiful rendition of Silent Night. Since I’m a huge fan of great harmony vocals, I decided a tribute post was an order.

The story of The Temptations began in Detroit in 1960 when members of two other vocal bands formed a group called The Elgins: Otis Williams, Elbridge “Al” Bryant and Melvin Franklin of Otis Williams & the Distants, and Eddie Kendricks and Paul Williams who came from a group called The Primes. Following an audition in March 1961, an impressed Berry Gordy signed the group to Motown imprint Miracle Records. However, there was one problem. The name Elgins was already taken by another band. According to Wikipedia, Miracle Records employee Billy Mitchell, songwriter Mickey Stevenson, Otis Williams and Paul Williams came up with the idea to call the group The Temptations.

In April 1961, the group released their debut single Oh, Mother of Mine. Co-written by Otis Williams and Mickey Stevenson, who also produced the track, the tune was not successful. Neither were the following seven singles The Temptations released. In January 1964, Al Bryant was replaced by David Ruffin, marking the start of “The Classic Five” era that would turn the group into superstars. In the meantime, Smokey Robinson had become their producer, and it was one of his tunes that became the group’s first no. 1 on both the Billboard Hot 100 and the Hot R&B Singles charts: My Girl, released in December 1964. Every time I hear that song, I got sunshine, no matter how cloudy my day may be. By the way, that cool bass intro is played by the amazing James Jamerson. Feel free to snip and groove along!

While it would take The Temptations another four and a half years before scoring their second double no. 1 on the Hot 100 and Hot R&B Singles charts, they released plenty of other hits in the meantime, many of which topped the Hot R&B Singles. Here’s one of my favorites: Get Ready, another tune written and produced by Smokey Robinson. I was going to feature an audio clip of the track but couldn’t resist using the below footage instead, which was captured during a TV appearance in 1966. The song appeared in February that year. Even though none of the singing and music are live, just watching the dance choreography of these guys and the female backing dancers is priceless!

And then the era of The Classic Five came to an end after success and fame apparently had gotten to David Ruffin’s head. His behavior led to friction with the other members of the group, and The Temptations ended up firing him on June 27, 1968. The very next day, he was replaced by Dennis Edwards, a former member of The Contours. The new line-up became what some called the group’s “second classic line-up.” But more changes were in store.

Norman Whitfield took over as producer, and The Temptations started adopting a more edgy sound, influenced by contemporaries like Sly & The Family Stone and Funkadelic. The group’s four-year psychedelic soul period kicked off with their ninth studio album Cloud Nine from February 1969. The record climbed to no. 4 on the Billboard 200 and brought the group their first Grammy Award in the category Best Rhythm & Blues Group Performance, Vocal or Instrumental. Here’s Run Away Child, Running Wild, a co-write by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong. A shorter version of the tune was also released separately as a single and became another no. 1 on the Hot R&B Singles chart. Here’s the full album version. That’s one hell of a hot funky tune!

Even though The Temptations had come a long way from their oftentimes romantic songs that marked their early years, the group did not entirely abandon sweet ballads. Here’s one of the most beautiful in my opinion, released in January 1971: Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me). Evidently, the public liked it as well. The song became the group’s third and last to top both the Hot 100 and Hot R&B Singles charts. Interestingly, it was written by the same guys who penned Runaway Child, Running Wild. Perhaps appropriately, the track also appeared on an album called Sky’s The Limit. Damn, these guys could harmonize – it’s pure perfection and actually no imagination!

Writing about The Temptations’ psychedelic soul era wouldn’t be complete without including another epic tune: Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone, another Whitfield-Barrett gem. Initially, it was recorded and released as a single in May 1972 by another Motown act called The Undisputed Truth – something I had not known until I did some research for this post. While their original is pretty cool, I still prefer The Temptations’ version. Interestingly, it hit no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 but “only” peaked at no. 5 on the Hot R&B Singles chart. Here it is in its full 12-minute glory!

By the time of the release of 1990 in December 1973, The Temptations had become tired of psychedelic soul and wanted to move back to their more upbeat style and lyrics of the ’60s. The album turned out to be the final record produced by Whitfield. January 1975 saw the release of the group’s next studio album A Song For You. Wikipedia lists a hodge-podge of producers, including Berry Gordy, Jeffrey Bowen, James Anthony Carmichael, Suzy Wendy Ikeda, Clayton Ivey and Terry Woodford. The record was the group’s last to top the Billboard Hot R&B LPs chart. It also featured their two last no. 1 singles on the Hot R&B Singles chart, Happy People and Shakey Ground. Here’s the latter, a nice groovy tune co-written by Jeffrey Bowen, Alphonso Boyd and Funkadelic guitarist Eddie Hazel, who also played lead guitar on the track.

Following A Song For You, success dried up. After the release of The Temptations Do The Temptations in August 1976, the group left Motown and signed with Atlantic Records. That didn’t change their trajectory, and after two albums, they returned to Motown in 1980. Two years later, they reunited with co-founder Eddie Kendricks and “Classic Five” era member David Ruffin for a tour, during which they recorded a studio album appropriately titled Reunion. Released in April 1982, the record marked a comeback of sorts, peaking at no. 2 on the Hot R&B LPs and a respectable no. 37 on the Billboard 200. Here’s opener Standing On The Top, a funk tune written and produced by Rick James, who also contributed vocals and clavinet.

While success has largely eluded them since Reunion, The Temptations have released 17 additional studio albums. The most recent, All The Time, appeared in 2018. Here’s Stay With Me, a cover of the beautiful pop soul tune by English songwriter and vocalist Sam Smith. In fact, when I heard this version for the first time, I thought it was Smith together with The Temptations, but apparently it’s not. The tune is credited to Smith, James Napier and William Phillips, as well as Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne, following a legal settlement. After the song’s release, Petty’s published had noticed a similarity to I Won’t Back Down and reached out to Smith’s team.

Altogether, The Temptations have had an impressive 14 chart-toppers on the Hot R&B LPs, including eight in a row between March 1965 and February 1969 – I suspect this must be a record. The group also scored 14 no. 1 hits on the Hot R&B Singles chart and topped the Hot 100 chart four times. In 1989, The Temptations (Dennis Edwards, Melvin Franklin, Eddie Kendricks, David Ruffin, Otis Williams and Paul Williams) were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Rolling Stone has ranked them at no. 68 on their list of 100 Greatest Artists of All Time.

The Temptations are active to this day, with Otis Williams remaining as the only original founding member. The other current line-up includes Ron Tyson (since 1983), Terry Weeks (since 1997) and Willie Green (since 2016). Next year, the group will embark on a tour through the U.S., U.K. and Germany to celebrate their 60th anniversary. This includes two dates in May in my area. My wife and I saw The Temptations once in the early 2000s at The Apollo in New York City, together with The Four Tops. We both remember it as a great show, so we’re thinking to catch them again. The current tour schedule is here.

Sources: Wikipedia; Temptations website; YouTube

Pix & Clips: The Temptations/Silent Night

This just felt right to post. Whether you celebrate Christmas and listen to related traditional music or not, I hope you enjoy this performance of Silent Night by The Temptations as much as I do. I know of no other singing group that harmonizes like these guys. To me this is as close to perfection as it gets!

Silent Night was composed in 1818 by Franz Xaver Gruber, an Austrian primary school teacher and Catholic church organist. The lyrics, which originally are in German (Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht) were written by Austrian Roman Catholic priest Josephus Franciscus Mohr (Joseph Mohr).

The Temptations included the tune on their Christmas album The Temptations Christmas Card, which was released in October 1970 on the Gordy (Motown) label. The intro was spoken by the band’s amazing bass singer Melvin Franklin. Eddie Kendricks sang lead. The remaining lineup at the time included Dennis Edwards, Paul Williams and Otis Williams. Otis co-founded The Temptations in 1960 as The Elgins and performs with the band’s current version to this day.

Merry Christmas!

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube