Over 46 years ago, in November, 1969, the very first single by brother/sister duo The Carpenters, a cover of the Beatles’ hit “Ticket to Ride,” was released on A&M Records. As performed by pianist/arranger Richard Carpenter, 23, and drummer/vocalist Karen, 19, the tough-minded Lennon/McCartney rocker became an intimate ballad sung in the lush, melodic style that would be the pair’s signature sound. But it was the Carpenters’ next single, “(They Long to Be) Close to You,” that would become a worldwide hit and launch the pair on a career trajectory that would lead to 20 Billboard top 40 hits (three of them #1’s), three Grammy Awards, and more than 100 million Carpenters records sold before Karen Carpenter died in 1983, just 32 years old, from heart failure linked to anorexia nervosa.
At the height of the Carpenters’ fame, critics reviled the two for their sweet, sentimental style and squeaky clean image but the pair began earning respect and re-evaluation in the 1990’s. First, experimental rock band – and critical darlings – Sonic Youth recorded “Tunic (Song for Karen)” and then contributed a version of “Superstar” (a surprisingly frank groupie narrative, even if Karen sang “be with you” instead of “sleep with you”) to the tribute album, If I Were a Carpenter, in which alternative artists such as Shonen Knife, Matthew Sweet, and The Cranberries provided new interpretation of Carpenters hits.
Whatever you might think of the often saccharine trappings around it, Karen Carpenter had a truly beautiful contralto voice, and has been called one of the best female vocalists of the Twentieth Century by the likes of Rolling Stone Magazine, National Public Radio and Sir Paul McCartney. Wikipedia cites a long list of modern entertainers such as Christina Aguilera, Gwen Stefani, Shania Twain, Mary J. Blige, Alicia Keys, Chrissie Hynde, Gloria Estefan, k.d. lang, and Beyoncé, who have cited the singer as “a huge influence on their careers.”
You can judge the music for yourself in a special new 3-CD set. Carpenters –The Complete Singles features the A- and B-side of every U.S. single they released on A&M between 1969 and 1989 in their original single versions. There are 66 songs on three discs, from the aforementioned “Ticket to Ride” through 1989’s cassette-single release of Karen’s solo “If I Had You,” all freshly remastered with Richard Carpenter himself supervising.
Because Carpenters singles often featured variations in mixes, vocals and instrumentation from album versions, and some of the tracks have never previously been released on CD, collectors will be especially excited by this collection but, as the old late-night commercials used to say, it’s not available in any store (or online retail outlet). The Complete Singles is being offered as an exclusive Thank You Gift to those who make contributions to Public Television stations broadcasting “Close to You: Remembering The Carpenters,” a documentary film airing this weekend (starting December 5) on stations nationwide. (Some stations in major cities like D.C., Philly and L.A., began airing it on Thanksgiving weekend.)
“Close to You” offers extensive archival footage of the duo at home, on stage and in the studio, along with remembrances from Herb Alpert, Burt Bacharach, Petula Clark, Paul Williams and Richard Carpenter. As one would expect from a film with Richard’s input, there isn’t a dark, “Behind The Music” style expose, but there is an admission of his addiction to Quaaludes, and the tragedy of Karen’s illness and early demise.
On the whole, though, the feature focuses on the pair’s career path, from the family’s move to southern California to benefit Richard’s musical ambitions, through the discovery of Karen’s innate talent and subsequent decision to move her to the forefront, and on through the full range of hits that made them internationally famous. Among the interviews, Petula Clark makes the strongest impression with her fondness for Karen clearly apparent in emotional comments.
During the public television pledge drive, in addition to The Complete Singles, contributors can also receive a revised DVD version of “Close to You: Remembering the Carpenters” with an hour minutes of bonus features. These include complete song performances not on the previously released DVD version and a segment shot when the group played at the Nixon White House, a truly live performances, since most of the TV clips are lip sync. There are also a few bizarre ads for potato chips and a Japanese pop drink that are good for unintentional laughs.
If you’re a Carpenters fan whose local public television station isn’t showing the special and offering these musical pledge bonuses, you might still be able to purchase the DVD and/or CD by visiting the web sites of participating stations. For instance, KQED-TV in San Francisco did a sneak-peek broadcast of “Close to You” in August and still has a link on their website where you can make a contribution and receive The Complete Singles.