Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Richard Carpenter: 33 years after Karen's death

Karen and Richard Carpenter were quite a sister/brother act during the 1970s.  Sadly, Karen died on February 4, 1983 of complications from anorexia nervosa .  She was only 32 years old at the time of her passing.  The story of Karen's tragic death is well documented, but her brother Richard has battled his own demons.

The Carpenters' hectic concert schedule took its toll on both siblings. In his 2010 book Rock Obituaries - Knocking on Heaven's Door (2010), author Nick Talevski wrote:"Constantly on the road since 1970 with their Vegas-style act, both Karen and Richard Carpenter were in ill health by late 1975. With Karen's weight down to 80 pounds (36.3 kilograms), sold-out tours to Japan and the United Kingdom had to be cancelled.  Richard, meanwhile, had become addicted to a prescription drug, Quaalude."

The pressure on the duo was overwhelming.  Something had to give and it did.  Karen became obsessed with her weight and Richard suffered from depression and insomnia.  He turned to Quaaludes (a sedative) for relief.  In January of 1979, while in a semi-comatose state, he fell down a flight of stairs backstage.  Finally, in an effort to deal with his dependency on the drug, Richard checked himself in to a treatment program at the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas.  He also decided to take the rest of 1979 off for the sake of his health and well being.

Richard Lynn Carpenter was born on October 15, 1946 in New Haven, Connecticut.  His father, Harold Bertram Carpenter (November 8, 1908 – October 15, 1988), worked in the printing business. His mother, Agnes Reuwer (nĂ©e Tatum) (March 5, 1915 – November 10, 1996), was a housewife. Richard's only sibling, Karen Anne Carpenter, was also born in New Haven, on March 2, 1950.  In 1963, the family moved to Downey, California, a suburb of Los Angeles.

Karen and Richard with their parents

Richard Carpenter developed an interest in music early in life.  As a child, he listened to the 78s in his father's extensive record collection.  He listened to everything from the classics to big band music. Soon he began asking his parents to buy him some of the records he had heard on the radio.  Among his favourites were Nat King Cole and Perry Como.

Not surprisingly, Richard started to play music himself.  His first instrument was the accordion, but he soon gravitated toward the piano.  As a youngster, he began studying classical piano and eventually pursued his studies at Yale University's Music School. While a teenager, he  performed with a jazz trio at various nightclubs in the New Haven area.

When the Carpenter family moved to southern California, Richard attended Downey High School. During his senior year, he studied music at the University of Southern California at Los Angeles (UCLA) and later at California State College at Long Beach (USCLB).  In 1965, he formed an instrumental group, the Richard Carpenter Trio, with his sister Karen on the drums and a friend, Wes Jacobs, on tuba and bass.  In 1966, the group won the "Battle of the Bands" contest at the Hollywood Bowl after performing "Iced "The Girl from Ipanema" and "Iced Tea," (a jazz waltz written by Richard Carpenter).

Following the Hollywood Bowl competition, the Richard Carpenter Trio signed with RCA and cut 11 tracks at RCA Studios, including the Beatles' "Every Little Thing," "Strangers in the Night," and "Flat Baroque," an original.  The record company decided that the jazz trio did not have commercial potential and decided not to release their recordings.  This lack of confidence prompted Richard, Karen and Wes to accept RCA,s offer to buy out their contract.

In early 1968,Wes Jacobs left the band. After his departure, Karen and Richard formed a new group called Spectrum, a sextet which included Richard's college friend John Bettis, three other students from Calfornia State University at Long Beach and Karen.  Spectrum was short-lived, but the Carpenters continued performing and recording demos. It was Herb Alpert, then head of A&M Records, who signed them to a contract in early April of 1969.  The Carpenters' first album, Offering, was released in November of that year.  The time was all wrong.  Offering made little impact during an era when psychedelic rock predominated. However, the album's accompanying single, a cover of the Beatles' "Ticket to Ride," was well-received by critics.  It also impressed songwriter Burt Bacharach who was to provide Richard and Karen with their first blockbuster hit.

In 1970, the Capenters released a second studio album  "Close to You."  The title track, "(They Long to Be) Close to You," written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, became the duo's breakthrough song. Originally released as a single by actor Richard Chamberlain of  Dr. Kildare fame in 1963, "Close to You," had also been recorded by Dionne Warwick and released on her 1964 album Make Way for Dionne Warwick.  Bacharch himself released his own version in 1968.  However, it was the Carpenters' version that became a huge hit single, climbing to number one on the Billboard Top 100 and remaining there for four weeks. Richard and Karen followed the success of (They Long to Be) Close to you with another big hit single, "We've Only Just Begun."

"We've Only Just Begun" was originally composed by Paul Williams and Roger Nichols for a Crocker Bank television commercial.  The ad for the San Francisco bank, featured a montage of a couple getting married set to the jingle.  Its tag line was "You've got a long way to go.  We'd like to help you get there."  In an interview with Oprah Winfrey, Williams said that "Roger and I expanded it as a complete song and never in our wildest dreams imagined it would be a hit.  And then an angel sang it. When Karen Carpenter sings your songs, you are blessed."

The Carpenters went on to become one of the most successful bands of the early 1970s with Karen on the drums and lead vocals.  Richard played the piano and sang backup vocals.  For five years, they released hit after hit, including "Rainy Days and Mondays," "Superstar," "Hurting Each Other," "Goodbye to Love," "Yesterday Once More,"  "Top of the World" and "Only Yesterday." During that time, they were one of the most popular recording artists in the world.  By 1976, however, their popularity had declined, as had their record sales.  They were plagued with health problems and their singles were not even reaching the Top 40.

On December 3, 1978, the Carpenters delivered their final public performance. It was a Winter Festival benefit concert at the Pacific Terrace Theatre at California State University in Long Beach.
In 1979 and early 1980, while Richard was taking time off to overcome his dependency on Quaaludes, Karen recorded a solo album in New York with producer Phil Ramone and she was back by Billy Joel's band.  Simply titled Karen Carpenter, the album was shelved until its release on CD by A&M Records in 1996.

On August 31, 1980, Karen Carpenter married real estate developer Thomas James Burris in the Crystal Room of the Beverly Hills Hotel in Beverly Hills, California.   During the ceremony, "Because We're in Love," an original song sung by Karen, was played.  Unfortunately, however, the union was not a happy one and the couple separated after 14 months.

In June of 1981, the Carpenters released Made in America, their last album together.  The album included "Touch Me When We're Dancing,"the last of the Carpenters' singles to reach the Top 40 on the Billboard Hot 100.  Karen and Richard promoted Made in America on TV shows such as Good Morning America and The Merv Griffin Show, performing "(Want You) "Back in My Life Again," another song from the album.  In 1985, Richard told talk show host Larry King that Made in America was Karen's favourite album and is mine, out of all our projects."

In January of 1982, Karen went to New York City to undergo treatment for her eating disorder.  She spent most of the next 11 months in the Big Apple, returning to Los Angeles briefly in April to record some rhythm tracks. After many therapy sessions and a hospital procedure, she returned to L.A, in November, hoping to move forward with her life and her career.  On the morning of February 4, 1983, the day she had planned to finalize her divorce, Karen collapsed at her parents' home in Downey. She was rushed to hospital, but her heart had gone into full cardiac arrest and she died.

Although Karen Carpenter was a talented percussionist, she will always be remembered for her distinctive vocals.  She was a contralto and her voice was rich and hauntingly beautiful.  Carnie Wilson, daughter of the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson, wrote the following tribute to Karen and Richard in her book Gut Feelings: From Fear and Despair to Health and Hope: “I knew I wanted to be a singer when I heard voices like Barbara Streisand and Karen Carpenter. My parents loved the Carpenters, and we played their records all the time at home. It didn’t matter whether you liked that style of music or not. It was the magic in Karen’s voice that was so soothing, and the lushness of the layered harmonies that were like soft clouds of sound.”

While Karen Carpenter was indeed a superb vocalist, her brother Richard displayed a genius for arranging and producing music. He made the most of Karen's unique voice.  The siblings were a team and they complimented each other.

On May 19, 1984, more than a year after Karen's passing, Richard Carpenter married Mary Rudolph, in Downey, California. Mary is Richard's first cousin, the daughter of his mother's sister, Bernice. There have been reports that Mary is Bernice's adopted daughter and not biologically related to Richard.  However, some maintain that this is story is not true and was used to cover up the truth..  Mary's brother, Mark Rudolph, was the Carpenters' road manager.  According to an October 26, 1987 article by Jim Calio in People magazine, the couple met in 1975 when Mark brought Mary backstage in Las Vegas.  According to the article, she and Richard hit it off at their first meeting, so she decided to move from her home in Baltimore to Downey, where he lived.

"I got a job in a bank," Mary old People, "and we stayed together. He wanted to get married when we first met, but I didn't because I was only 18, and I wasn't ready. Then when I was ready, he wasn't. We went back and forth like that for quite a while."  Nine years passed.  When Mary eventually returned to Baltimore to live with her parents, Richard visited at Christmastime and proposed.

At the age of 40, Richard Carpenter became a father for the first time.  He and Mary are the parents of five children (four daughters and a son): Kristi Lynn Carpenter (born August 17, 1987), Traci Tatum Carpenter (born July 25, 1989), Mindi Karen Carpenter (born July 7, 1992), Colin Paul Carpenter (Born 1998) and Taylor Mary Carpenter.(born 2000).  Richard and his offspring perform at various events.

Richard and his wife Mary

Richard and Mary with son, Colin Paul Carpenter and daughter Mindi

Mindi Carpener singing, accompanied by Richard

Editor's Note: the photo below was tagged "Mindi Carpenter." (I can't remove the tag). However, some readers have claimed that it is in fact a photo of Kristi Carpenter.

After Karen's death, a heartbroken Richard worked diligently to preserve the Carpenters' legacy.  He focused on production work and putting together compilations of the Carpenters' recordings.  In 1987, A&M Records released his first solo album.  The album, entitled Time, also featured Dionne Warwick and British soul legend Dusty Springfield.  A single from the album, "Something In Your Eyes," with Springfield on vocals, reached the Top 40 on Adult Contemporary charts.

It was difficult for Richard to record without Karen for the first time.  He explained to People magazine how much his sister's absence upset him.   "Here I was," he said, "working alone when we had always been a team, working with the same engineer, the same musicians and in the same studios, and no Karen."

In 1997, ten years after his solo debut with Time, Richard released a second solo album.  Entitled Pianist, Arranger, Composer, Conductor, the album is a compilation of instrumental music.  It contains a variety of the Carpenters' best-loved songs ("Yesterday Once More," "Bless the Beasts and Children," "Top of the World," "We've Only Just Begun") and some new material too, including "Karen's Theme," Richard's tribute to his late sister.

On October 15, 2008, the day he turned 62 years old, Richard Carpenter announced the relaunch of his music career at a press conference at the Foreign Correspondents' Club in Tokyo, Japan.  It was called "Richard Carpenter Strikes Back."  His plans included re-release of a Carpenters Christmas album and a tribute album featuring cover versions of Carpenters songs."


* In 1971, the Carpenters had a hit song with a cover of "For All We Know," from the 1970 film Lovers and Other Strangers. The song, originally performed by Larry Meredith, won an Oscar for Best Original Song.  British singer Petuala Clark, rather than the Carpenters, was chosen to sing the tune at the Academy Awards ceremony in 1971 because the Academy preferred to spotlight people associated with film.  On February 6, 1983, three days after Karen Carpenter's death, Clark performed the song in concert as a tribute to Karen.

* The Carpenters met twice with Richard Nixon at the White House, once in 1972 and again in 1973. On May 1, 1973, at Nixon's request, Karen and Richard performed for visiting West German Chancellor Willy Brandt.  The former U.S. president introduced Karen and Richard to the White House audience as "young America at its very best."  When Karen died, Nixon sent a letter to the family expressing his condolences.

The Carpenters with former U.S. president Richard Nixon in 1972

* On December 8, 1976, The Carpenters Very First Television Special aired on the ABC network. The special, featuring John Denver and Victor Borge, received high ratings.  By 1980, Richard and Karen had completed five specials for ABC.

* John Bettis, Richard's good friend and former Spectrum member, wrote the lyrics for several of the Carpenters' hit songs, including "Yesterday Once More" and "Goodbye to Love."

* In 1994, the Richard and Karen Carpenter Performing Arts Center was built on the campus of California State University, Long Beach, where the duo performed their last public concert.  The Carpenter Center has a 1,074-seat capacity.  It accommodates concerts, special events, conferences and the screening of films.  It also contains the Richard and Karen Carpenter Exhibit, a permanent display of the Carpenters' awards and memorabilia.  The centre's website states that Richard Carpenter is a benefactor but is not involved in the facility's day-to-day activity.

* Richard Carpenter and his family currently reside in Thousand Oaks, California.  He and Mary do philanthropic work in Thousand Oaks and are recognized as "Distinguished Grand Patrons of the Arts."

- Joanne