The Carpenters are known primarily for Karen Carpenter’s distinctive vocals. She has an easily identifiable sound that resonates with listeners almost immediately. For what it’s worth John Lennon and Paul McCartney thought she was one of the best female vocalists in the world. High praise coming from those musical titans. The close harmonies that her brother Richard arranged are also integral to the Carpenter’s trademark sound. Their very smooth background vocals always supported the tunes and never detracted from the strong melodies.
Back in the early 70’s The Carpenters were one of the most popular pop acts around. Due to their instrumentation (mostly drums, guitar, keyboards, and bass), they have been categorized as a leading proponent in the “soft rock” genre, along with acts like Bread, Carole King, James Taylor, Carly Simon etc… This top ten list centers around the many international hits the duo had. And to this day (although Karen passed away in 1983 from anorexia nervosa), their music still gets broadcast around the world.
Over the last forty years they have sold over 90 million records. Not bad for a brother and sister act from Downey, California. Their recordings have a timeless sound that is comforting and just the right medicine for when you are feeling stressed out and lonely. Here are ten Carpenters songs that define the duo’s sound:
# 10 – I Need To Be In Love
Opening up our Top 10 Carpenters Songs list is the great track “I Need To Be In Love.” Richard Carpenter, Albert Hammond and John Bettis wrote this song. It was released as a single on May 21, 1976 and was featured on the album A Kind of Hush. According to Richard Carpenter this was Karen’s favorite Carpenter song. The lushly orchestrated piece reached #12 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1976. It was later re-released as a CD single in Japan where it went quadruple platinum.
# 9 – Sing
Composer Joe Raposo wrote this song for the children’s TV show Sesame Street. The Carpenters recorded it in 1973 and placed it on their fifth studio album Now and Then. The song was a smash hit quickly climbing up the charts to #3 on the Billboard Hot 100. The recording features a recorder played by the renowned saxophonist and arranger Tom Scott as well as a chorus of children singing along with Karen. No doubt one of the happiest songs since Sammy Davis’ “The Candyman.”
# 8 – Yesterday Once More
Another catchy single pulled from 1973’s Now And Then album. It peaked at #2 on The Billboard Hot 100. Richard Carpenter and John Bettis composed it. It opens Side Two on the album and segues into a long medley of eight covers of 1960s tunes incorporated into a simulated oldies radio program. According to Richard Carpenter it is his favorite Carpenter song and he still performs an instrumental version of it in concert.
# 7 – Hurting Each Other
Gary Geld and Peter Udell wrote this song in 1965. Many artists recorded it before The Carpenters including Rosemary Clooney and Ruby & the Romantics. It was released as a single in December of 1971 from the album A Song for You. It reached #2 on the Billboard Hot 100. The vocal arrangement owes a lot to the Ruby & the Romantics version. L.A. session musicians from the Wrecking Crew performed the backing track. Musically, the way the verse builds up melodically to the exploding chorus is very effective. It makes the hook that much more memorable.
# 6 – Superstar
The Carpenters had three hits with Leon Russell compositions. “Superstar” or “Groupie (Superstar)”, as it was originally titled, was written in 1969 by Leon Russell and Bonnie Bramlett. The other two songs “This Masquerade” and “Song For You” (minor hits) are also well worth checking out. The lyrics in the intensely melodic verse of “Superstar” speak of the lament of the lonely groupie. The sexual reference in the original lyrics: “And I can hardly wait to sleep with you again” was changed to the less risqué “And I can hardly wait to be with you again.” for the Carpenter’s version.
The backing track was recorded with members of The Wrecking Crew and Karen’s one take vocal was praised for its intensity and emotion. The song was released as a single in 1971 from the album Carpenters. Like so many other Carpenter hits it only rose to #2 on the Billboard Hot 100. Food for thought: There is a descending motion in the chorus that is very reminiscent of George Harrison’s 1970 song “Awaiting On You All.” Could this song have influenced the ex-Beatle? He was good friends with Leon.
# 5 – (They Long To Be) Close To You
A Burt Bacharach / Hal David masterpiece that first saw the light of day in 1963 with a recording by actor Richard Chamberlain, later in 1964 with vocalist Dionne Warwick and in 1967 with vocalist Dusty Springfield. The version recorded by the Carpenters with instrumental backing by L.A. studio musicians from the Wrecking Crew was the most successful. It appears on their album Close to You and as a single it reached #1 in 1970.
(They Long To Be) Close To You was their breakthrough hit. It earned the Carpenters a Grammy for Best Contemporary Performance by a Duo, Group or Chorus in 1971. Note: The man who signed The Carpenters to A&M Records, Herb Albert, recorded this track before the Carpenters but was not pleased with his version and consequently never released it. He suggested the duo cover it. In creating the arrangement Richard composed the flugelhorn solo for Herb to play but at the time he was unavailable. Instead session player Chuck Findley was hired for the task and was coaxed into playing it in the style of Herb Albert.
# 4 – I Won’t Last A Day Without You
This melancholy piece (typical of its writers Roger Nichols and Paul Williams) was released as a single in 1974 and peaked at #11 on The Billboard Hot 100 and #1 on the easy listening chart. The song was an album track on the 1972 record A Song For You. Richard Carpenter did the orchestration and famed session player Hal Blaine played the tasty drum part. As usual Karen delivers a pitch perfect vocal that slowly builds through the concise verse to the memorable chorus. The song also incorporates a beautiful middle section that weaves in and out of keys but expertly leads us back to the hook; a truly elegantly crafted pop confection.
# 3 – Goodbye To Love
Many original fans were taken back a bit by the memorable, distorted guitar that plays in the solo section and over the outro chords. It seemed out of character with the mellower material the Carpenters were known for. Considering the resigned lyrics about feeling discarded and never finding someone to love (almost an anti-love song), that did not stop the song from climbing up the charts. The song went to #7 on The Billboard Hot 100.
This prototypical power ballad was the first hit written by Richard Carpenter and John Bettis. The melody has a very classical edge to it and of course Karen sings it to perfection. The harmonies through out the song and in the outro especially are very compelling and add to the melancholia of the tune. The song appears on the 1972 album A Song For You.
# 2 – Rainy Days And Mondays
A Roger Nichols and Paul Williams masterpiece of melancholy pop. It was released as the first track on the 1971 album called Carpenters. Karen’s vocal is very immediate sounding (apparently she sang it in one take) and the simple instrumentation perfectly supports the singer’s lonely mood. L.A. session musician Tommy Morgan plays the sad harmonica licks and Bob Messenger blows the jazzy, memorable alto saxophone solo.
The descending bass part against the rising melody adds to the existential sadness in Karen’s voice. The upward modulation going into the last verse is filled out with those trademark Carpenters harmonies. The effect is chilling. And once again the song peaked at only #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart!
# 1 -We’ve Only Just Begun
The Carpenters first heard an edited version of this song in a television commercial for Crocker National Bank in California in the winter of 1970. Roger Nichols and Paul Williams with Williams singing the commercial, are the composers. As fate would have it Richard Carpenter ran into Williams on the A&M Records lot and asked for a full demo of the song. He selected the composition for the duo’s third single and included it on the 1970 LP Close to You.
The song features many key modulations and warm harmonies that solidified the Carpenters sound and is considered by Karen and Richard as their signature song. The track rose to #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 and stayed at #1 on the Adult Contemporary chart for seven weeks. The song also helped them to win two Grammy Awards in 1971 for the Best New Artist. In 1998, the recording was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame for recordings “of lasting quality or historical significance.”
The Carpenters Songs (The Singles)
“Looking for Love” 1966
“Ticket to Ride” 1969
“(They Long to Be) Close to You” 1970
“We’ve Only Just Begun” 1970
“Merry Christmas, Darling” 1970
“For All We Know” 1971
“Rainy Days and Mondays” 1971
“Bless the Beasts and Children” 1971
“Hurting Each Other” 1972
“It’s Going to Take Some Time” 1972
“Goodbye to Love” 1972
“Yesterday Once More” 1973
“Top of the World” 1973
“Jambalaya (On the Bayou)” 1974
“I Won’t Last a Day Without You” 1974
“Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town” 1974
“Please Mr. Postman” 1974
“Only Yesterday” 1975
“There’s a Kind of Hush” 1976
“I Need to Be in Love” 1976
“Breaking Up Is Hard to Do” 1976
“All You Get from Love Is a Love Song” 1977
“Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft 1977
“Sweet, Sweet Smile” 1978
“I Believe You” 1978
“Touch Me When We’re Dancing” 1981
“(Want You) Back in My Life Again” 1981
“Those Good Old Dreams” 1981
“Beechwood 4-5789″ 1982
“Make Believe It’s Your First Time” 1983
“Your Baby Doesn’t Love You Anymore” 1984
“Little Altar Boy” 1984
Carpenters Studio Albums
Offering/Ticket to Ride
Released in 1969
Close to You
Released in 1970
Released in 1971
A Song for You
Released in 1972
Now & Then
Released in 1974
Released in 1975
A Kind of Hush
Released in 1976
Released in 1977
Released in 1978
Made in America
Released in 1981
Compiled by John Tabacco