Stepping Into the Spotlight
Connecticut natives Karen and Richard Carpenter hit it big 50 years ago
By Joel Samberg
Harold Carpenter didn’t like the cold New England winters. His wife Agnes feared that living in New Haven could impede her musically talented son from building the career she knew he deserved.
So, in 1963, Harold and Agnes sold their little house on Hall Street and took their two children and all their belongings to southern California. Seventeen-year-old Richard was excited. Thirteen-year-old Karen was sad to leave her friends.
Today we can only wonder – though never truly know – whether “Close to You” and “We’ve Only Just Begun” would have been the monster hits they became exactly 50 years ago had the Carpenter family stayed put on Hall Street for a few years longer.
“Close to You,” which debuted at the end of June 1970, and “We’ve Only Just Begun,” released in August of that year, hit #1 and #2 on the charts (respectively) and stayed there for nearly two months each. Millions of copies were sold. Both were certified Gold. The Carpenters became superstars. Idols. Innovators. Millionaires. Their string of follow-up hits included “Rainy Days and Mondays,” “Top of the World,” “Only Yesterday,” “Superstar,” and several others.
For the most part, fans, critics and industry observers agree that the singularity of Karen’s rich, plaintive contralto singing voice, matched with the distinctiveness of Richard’s lush, layered arrangements, would have found some measure of fame even if Harold and Agnes remained back east. The key was the combination of their skills and their motivation to make a mark – regardless of their zip code.
What remains a mystery is why Connecticut in general, and New Haven in particular, does not fully feed its pride by planning various Carpenter tributes, exhibits, and events. It cannot be denied that this is where it all began: Richard’s earliest lessons were with top pianists from the University of Hartford and the Yale School of Music, and when he was 16, he played on a 45-rpm record cut by the popular New Haven doo-wop group, The Barries. New Haven is where Richard had his debut as a professional musician.
Arguably more than anyone else in the state, retired special education teacher Sam Goldenberg has tried to schedule tribute concerts in New Haven. Each effort, however, has fallen through due to circumstances beyond his control.
“I have to give Richard Carpenter credit, though,” says Goldenberg, who grew up in Hartford, lives in New Haven, and now puts on exhibitions in conjunction with special needs students. “He wanted to work with us, but we were unable pull it all together with the commitments of other key participants. Richard is a perfectionist, and when we couldn’t finalize the plans, he felt the need to drop out.” That happened more than once.
Richard is indeed a perfectionist, as anyone who worked with him in the studio, on tour, or on television would attest. And that’s one reason why Goldenberg is among the majority who believe we’d be celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of “Close to You” and “We’ve Only Just Begun,” even if Harold and Agnes remained closer to the interstate than the freeway. Richard never gave up.
“Close to You” was written by the famous songwriting team of Burt Bacharach and Hal David. It was first recorded by actor Richard Chamberlain in 1963 and by Dionne Warwick in 1964. Neither version was particularly striking. Herb Alpert was the one who suggested to Richard that he put his own spin on the song. Alpert – the famous trumpeter and front man for the Tijuana Brass – founded the company that signed the Carpenters in 1969, A&M Records. For “Close to You,” the third time was the charm.
While the song played on radios around the world, the group the Carpenters (which included several studio professionals and highly skilled musician friends of Richard’s) had not yet cut an album on which the hit single was featured. Before they got around to that, Richard heard a commercial on television for Crocker Bank that featured a short jingle written by Paul Williams and Roger Nichols. Something about it made Richard think it would be a perfect follow-up to “Close to You.” That’s how “We’ve Only Just Begun” became the Carpenters’ second smash hit. Thanks to the Carpenters, an incidental TV jingle became one of the most popular wedding songs in the history of matrimony.
As their fame continued to rise, Karen stayed in touch and occasionally visited a few New Haven friends, and the Carpenters played some local concert halls while on tour. But other than having many devoted fans in the state, a more solid Connecticut connection essentially faded out. One musical exception was when Richard decided to perform a song written and recorded by a band based out of Windsor, CT. He heard the tune, “And When She Smiles,” on the radio in 1971, performed by the Wildweeds (whose lead guitarist, Al Anderson, went on to a measure of distinction with the jazz quartet NRBQ). In 1972, the Carpenters recorded the song – renamed “And When He Smiles” – for a television special in England. The video of that live performance remains popular on YouTube. The song was later included on a Carpenters compilation album released in 2004. Sadly, that was 21 years after Karen passed away, at age 32, from heart failure brought on by her struggle with the eating disorder anorexia nervosa.
“It was a perfect song for Karen because it is so melodic, and she had such a melodious voice,” says Ray Zeiner, a Simsbury resident who played keyboards for the Wildweeds. “She projected sheer honesty, which is imperative for the success of any song about love and devotion.”
Both Zeiner and Goldenberg believe it was that perfection and honesty that would have enabled Karen and her brother to ultimately sign a record deal, even without the California connection. After all, Herb Alpert first heard the siblings on a demo tape that was handed to him by a friend of a friend. Richard and Karen could have been living anywhere at the time.
“It was the quality and the promotion that were important for their success, more than anything else,” Zeiner adds.
Carpenters fan Kevin Forsyth, now of Plainville, vividly remembers meeting Richard and Karen a year before they left for the West Coast. His late sister Jean once played a piano solo at Wilbur Cross High School in New Haven. Jean’s schoolmate, Richard Carpenter, turned the sheet music pages for her. “When I met Karen later that day,” Forsyth recalls, “she was outgoing, delightful, and simply unforgettable.”
Forsyth, a music teacher who became an ordained priest in 1986, first heard “Close to You” when it debuted in 1970 and fell instantly in love. “Oh, that voice…” he reflects. “I always like to remind people that the Carpenters grew up in New Haven. I’m so proud to be from the same town as them.”
One additional reason Father Forsyth appreciates the Carpenters is because they recorded quite a number of religious tunes for their two Christmas albums (Karen was enormously fond of Christmas music), and he always wanted to use several of them at church. He asked for – and received – Richard’s permission. Among the recordings he’s shared with his congregation are “Ave Maria” for the Feast of Mary, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” during a Christmas homily, and “Little Altar Boy” at a Reconciliation service.
Forsyth appreciated Richard’s kindness, and Goldenberg is philosophic about his own attempts at a tribute concert in which Richard would participate. For Goldenberg, it seems to be one of those things for which fate, for some reason, has other plans. One year there were the logistical roadblocks. But even if those roadblocks had been lifted a few seasons later, Richard may have had to postpone anyway because of the wildfires that ravaged his neck of the woods at the time. This summer, he may have had to cancel once more because of the coronavirus pandemic.
If it ever happens, it will be a homecoming 57 years in the making. The Carpenters left Connecticut in 1963. Their first two mega-hits reached the airwaves 50 years ago this summer. It’s been almost four decades since Karen died. But as Goldenberg gratefully notes, their music lives on.
“Well, we can’t have the concert we want in Connecticut,” he says wistfully, “but there’s nothing, absolutely nothing, that can ever stop us from playing Carpenters songs whenever we want.”
Joel Samberg, a frequent Seasons contributor, is the author of the book Some Kind of Lonely Clown: The Music, Memory, and Melancholy Lives of Karen Carpenter.