Monday, December 14, 2015

Close to You: Remembering the Carpenters (PBS, 1997)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I wanted to watch one of the “My Music” specials on KPBS. The show was an hour-long PBS tribute called Close to You: Remembering the Carpenters, which according to was actually produced as far back as 1997 (considerably closer to the Carpenters’ own era — their success stretched from 1969 to Karen Carpenter’s death in 1983 — than we are now), and it’s a rather whirlwind portrayal of the Carpenters and their era. The appeal of this show lies exactly where you think it would: in the astounding crystalline purity of Karen Carpenter’s voice. She may not have been the greatest singer in the world — though, like Doris Day, she was surprisingly good at phrasing and soul within the bright, wholesome context of her music — but she had such an incredibly beautiful voice her records appealed to me despite their lack of “edge.” It’s especially amazing that the Carpenters became as popular as they did given what else was going on in music at the time — they first signed to a major label (Herb Alpert’s A&M, largely I suspect because Alpert had himself had huge hits with middle-of-the-road music in the rock era and therefore not only had a good ear for quality MOR but knew how to “break” it commercially) in 1969, the year of the Woodstock Festival and a period when the music industry was dominated by edgy hard-rock acts like the Beatles, the Stones, Dylan, the Doors, the Who, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin.

What I hadn’t realized until I watched this was the Carpenters actually began as a jazz act — their first audition for a record contract (with a minor L.A.-based label) was as a jazz trio, with Karen on drums (there’s enough footage of her as drummer to show she was actually quite good, and in the Carpenters’ first live performances she insisted on playing drums and remaining behind the drum set throughout the show until her brother Richard — the arranger, producer, sometimes writer and second vocalist throughout the Carpenters’ recording career — pointed out that at 5’ 4” (still four inches taller than Judy Garland!) Karen was too small for anyone to see her behind the drums and therefore they should hire a drummer for the touring band and she should stand in front and sing. She compromised; she agreed to stand in front as a featured singer on ballads, but on fast songs (and the Carpenters did do fast songs, even though almost all their trademark hits were ballads!) she insisted on remaining behind the drums. Richard says Karen never thought of herself as a singer, but always as a drummer who sang (just as Nat “King” Cole,” who began as a piano player and one of the finest jazz musicians on that instrument in the 1940’s, always thought of himself as a pianist who sang). The Carpenters are an example of a celebrity phenomenon who were huge in their day — one of the musicians in the Carpenters’ touring band recalled seeing them mobbed in Nashville during their 1972 tour as if they were boy-band rock idols — who have been largely forgotten now.

Partly that may be due to how little they left behind — oddly, Richard Carpenter in his interview doesn’t mention One from the Heart, the album they were working on when Karen died and for which (at least according to what he said when the album was released) she had completed all her vocal parts, though he was still working on some of the additional instrumentation, but there doesn’t seem to have been the huge backlog of material that fueled “new” releases by Buddy Holly, Jimi Hendrix and other prematurely deceased musicians for years. Partly may also be due to the essential nature of middle-of-the-road music, which appeals to audiences based on an anonymous sort of “beauty” — though Karen Carpenter’s voice was considerably better than the MOR norm it was still most definitely an MOR voice, not the kind that a cult forms around (as one did around Whitney Houston’s, a singer with a similarly pure instrument who was active in a quite different sort of music), though in its own right it had soul. The film takes us on a whirlwind tour of the Carpenters’ career, from the amateur contest they won in 1966 and their first records for a tiny label to their signing with A&M (which wasn’t yet a really major label; it was still basically the independent project of Herb Alpert and his manager, Jerry Moss, who were the “A” and “M” in the company’s name) in 1969. They were allowed to make a full album, which was called Offering (which helps explain why a rumor went around that, even though the act was built around a brother and sister named Carpenter, they had chosen the name “Carpenters” — billed on the records without the definite article — in honor of the profession of Jesus’s [step]father), and released a single from it, a cover of the Beatles’ “Ticket to Ride” which Richard Carpenter mentions on the show. He recalls that after the record came out, someone came to him and said, “You changed the melody all around and had it end on a major seventh.” “I love major sevenths,” Richard added, but I’d never liked the Carpenters’ version of “Ticket to Ride” and that was precisely what I didn’t like about it. Richard Carpenter’s major-seventh ending is acceptable, comfortable, safe; the original dissonant chord with which John Lennon ended the song leaves you hanging uncertainly, and the difference between two versions is yet another example of the difference between talent and genius.

The “Ticket to Ride” single stalled at #54 in the Billboard charts and Herb Alpert told the Carpenters that they couldn’t record another album; they could put out a single, and if it was a hit then they could make another album, but if it wasn’t they were going to be fired from the label. Burt Bacharach came to them with a song called “(They Long to Be) Close to You,” which he had written in the mid-1960’s for a vanity project featuring actor Richard Chamberlain, who since he was starring in the MGM TV series Dr. Kildare got a contract to make an album for MGM Records. The record went nowhere commercially and Bacharach still had the song in his files, so he gave it to Richard and Karen Carpenter, they recorded it and it was an enormous career-making hit. Then they got a follow-up song from a jingle Paul Williams had written for a TV commercial for the Crocker Bank — it was called “We’ve Only Just Begun” and in a minute it showed the entire life of a married couple, from their wedding to buying a house and having kids, with the Crocker Bank helping them out with loans all along the way. Williams recalled Richard Carpenter asking if he had a full-length version of the song — one that could be a three-minute record instead of just a one-minute commercial. “Well, I would have lied through my teeth if there wasn’t, you know,” Williams said on this show (incidentally he looked even more sinister and gnomic in 1997 than he had 20 years earlier when his career was at its peak), “because to get a Carpenters’ record at that point was going to be a big deal.” I remember having been very familiar with the song from the original commercial and being a bit jarred when I heard Karen Carpenter on the radio, though I must admit she took what was a charming but pretty straightforward piece of material and made it quite intense and soulful.

Later there’s an interesting example of what I call “first-itis” on the show when guitarist Tony Peluso, who came in on the Carpenters’ session for a song called “Goodbye to Love” (written by Richard Carpenter and inspired by a 1940 Bing Crosby movie, Rhythm on the River, in which he played a songwriter who’s blocked on a new score; the film makes several dialogue references to a song called “Goodbye to Love” that was supposedly the greatest song Bing’s character ever wrote, but we never actually hear any of it) and ended up in their touring band, said he was asked to play a guitar solo on “Goodbye to Love.” He first came up with a quiet little solo that he thought would fit the song and the Carpenters’ style — and Richard told him no, he wanted him to play a loud electric rock solo with fuzz tone. Peluso said he was convinced this was the first time fuzz-tone guitar had been used on a ballad record, but of course it wasn’t; earlier today I was dubbing some Donovan recordings and noticed that Donovan had used fuzz-tone guitar on one of his mystical love ballads, “The Hurdy Gurdy Man,” earlier (and what about all the Jimi Hendrix ballads like “The Wind Cries Mary” and “Angel” in which he played in his all-out electric style?). The best aspect of this show is how much of Karen Carpenter’s radiant voice it features — including a fascinating clip of a song I’d like to hear all of, Leon Russell’s “This Masquerade” as sung on one of the Carpenters’ TV specials as a duet between Karen Carpenter and, of all people, Ella Fitzgerald (and, caught 10 years before her retirement and 15 years before her death, Ella’s voice had lost much of its agility and flexibility, but she had responded by becoming a deeper, richer and more emotionally intense singer — she even made an album around the same time called Fine and Mellow in which she poached surprisingly successfully on Billie Holiday’s territory) — and the knowledge that both women were nearing the ends of their careers, Ella’s through natural age and Karen’s through the ravages of anorexia, makes the clip even more poignant.

The film mentions merely in passing Richard’s prescription drug abuse (and its effect on Karen, since right when she needed him he was in rehab and she made a solo album which A&M refused to release) and Karen’s anorexia — and it totally dodges the issue of what sort of romantic and/or sexual lives the Carpenters could have had when each of them was working and spending so much time with their sibling. (Their obvious emotional as well as physical closeness led a lot of people, including me, to assume at first that they were husband and wife, not brother and sister.) The film not only mentions Karen Carpenter’s wedding just a few months before she died, but offers film clips (including our only glimpses during the entire program of the Carpenters’ parents!) — but it doesn’t even mention who the man was, much less how they met, how and under what circumstances they dated, or how he reacted when she died. Needless to say, there’s no mention at all of Richard’s romantic or emotional life either (a lot of rumors about his sexuality have circulated through the years), or of what — if anything — he’s done professionally since Karen’s death. Perhaps the longer version of the show PBS promises as a premium package to contributors may delve into these matters more, though I suspect the long version mostly just offers longer performances of the songs than the clips shown on this one. Be that as it may, Close to You: Remembering the Carpenters is a nice souvenir of a musical act that deserves to be remembered far more than they are!