Sunday, August 26, 2012


Downey, CA 

August 5, 2012

Ever heard of the Carpenters? Go ask your grandparents.

"Weren't those the fellas who pulled off Watergate?"
"No, Grandpa, those were the plumbers."

The Carpenters were Karen and Richard Carpenter who along with a small combo of sidemen, produced a series of hit singles and albums in the early 1970s. The Carpenters sold over 100 million vinyl records, dined at the White House and spent a few years at the top of the pops before the public taste shifted to disco. In 1983, Karen died tragically at the age of 32 from the complications of bulimia. Karen's plight created a public awareness of bulimia, which was not there before her passing.

The Carpenters second album, "Close to You," released in 1970 sold more than 2 million copies and is listed at number 175 on Rolling Stone Magazine's 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. This album featured the hit songs, "Close to You," written by Burt Bacharach and  Hal David, and "We've Only Just Begun," (video embedded below) written by Paul Williams and Roger Nichols.

"We've Only Just Begun," was originally written for a TV ad campaign for the Crocker Bank of San Francisco, who were looking to rejuvenate their customer base. The ad campaign worked: many, many young people opened new accounts with the bank. However, as most of these new customers had no collateral, the ad campaign was summarily canceled! Later, Crocker Bank was acquired by Wells Fargo.

Having seen the ad on TV, Richard Carpenter got in touch with Paul Williams and Roger Nichols to see if there was more to the song than was revealed in the ad. Together, they produced the hit single that became the Carpenter's signature tune.

BTW: it is hard to write about Karen and Richard without calling them THE Carpenters, even though their intention was to call the musical group, Carpenters, to be consistent with, Cream, Chicago and others who had singular names, without "the." This is why the album cover above reads, simply, Carpenters.

Karen's singing voice had an incredibly pleasant tone, which was most popular when she sang in her lower register or "chest voice." Technically, that made her a contralto, although she referred to this range as her "basement." She also used a contemporary style of phrasing that slightly delayed the last syllable or syllables of many lyrics to put emphasis on the tone.

From "We've Only Just Begun"
We've only just begun to live
White lace and promises
A kiss for luck and we're on our way
Listen for the delay in "our way," and then the crescendo on the "ay" syllable.
You don't hear this style with the Beatles, compare the Beatles singing, Ticket to Ride with the Carpenters' recording of the same song, but you do hear this style with Anne Murray and later with Paul Davis and others.

I'm not certain where this style came from and I'd like to learn if anyone knows the answer. Does it borrow from the big band singers from the 1930s and 40s, thereby, from Louis Armstrong? You'd be surprised about how far back some influences can go and sometimes they are so deeply embedded into the art form that the contemporary artists can't imagine performing outside of that style. Then, along comes a genius like Armstrong who shows everyone a new, and contemporary way to express themselves.

You can also hear the Southern California accent in "We've Only Just Begun,"
Sharin' horizons that are new to us
Watchin' the signs along the way
Talkin' it over just the two of us
Workin' together day to day, togethah
The Western Canadian accent, my accent, says, sharing, watching and so on. Is that why some people have stopped conversations to ask me if I'm from Canada?

The last word, I deliberately misspelled as togethah as the "ah" syllable is more pleasant to hear than "er" in the final note of a stanza and they sing "ah" with an crescendo.

So, there's a lot going on here. Many people write off the Carpenters as the musical equivalent of mayonnaise on Wonder Bread or vanilla ice cream. As Paul Williams once said, "yes, but what an exquisite flavor of vanilla." Say what you will, but it takes a tremendous amount of musical acumen to make a song sound so pleasant that people would want to hear it over and over again. Richard has that acumen, Karen's talent was delivering on Richard's arrangements. What a team!

For example,
1.) Exceptional Performance Skills: Listen to how Karen nails the first song in this medley from Bacharach and David's musical, "Promises, Promises."

The Carol Burnett Show was the big time on prime time TV in 1971 and Karen was 21 years old when this was shot. Her timing is impeccable. Try singing along to the first song. Not easy, is it.

2.) Exceptional Arranging Skills: Listen to the original version of Superstar as sung by the songwriter, Bonnie Bramlett, who co-wrote the song with Leon Russell, and then compare it to the re-arrangement done by Richard Carpenter.

Delaney and Bonnie:


Richard Carpenter was widely criticized for changing the lyric, "...sleep with you again," to " with you again." But that change pulled this song from the underground onto the mainstream media. In 1971, nobody said, "...sleep with me" on the Carol Burnett Show, for example. Nobody who hoped to be invited back.

Also, while Bonnie Bramlett sings the following,
Long ago, so far away
I fell in love with you, before the second show.
Your guitar, it sounds so sweet and clear, but it's just a radio,
and you're not really here.

Karen sings:
Long ago, and, oh, so far away
I fell in love with you, before the second show.
Your guitar, it sounds so sweet and clear, but you're not really here.
It's just the radio
The "o" in radio, let's Karen show off her tone and add a crescendo on the vowel, if they had kept "here" at the end of the stanza, that would have denied that opportunity to embellish the sound.

Anyway, it was once said that when comparing Billie Holiday to Ella Fitzgerald, when Holiday sang, "My man is gone," you can imagine a boyfriend beating her up, stealing her money and heading out to see another woman. When Ella Fitzgerald sings the same line, you're not sure if she means the same thing or if her husband has gone to the corner store for a quart of milk!

You might compare Bonnie Bramlett to Karen Carpenter the same way, and Karen once did a TV duo with Ella Fitzgerald singing, "This Masquerade." Richard and Karen knew their audience and were handsomely rewarded.

Not to knock Bonnie Bramlett, she and her husband, Delaney Bramlett had a wide following that included fan and guest performer, Eric Clapton. There's was a different audience than the Carpenter's who perhaps didn't value the mainstream media. And it is also worth noting that the Carpenters had another hit with Leon Russell's, "A Song For You."

Anyway, I knew that the Carpenters had grown up in Downey, CA and every time we passed through Downey on the I-5 heading to Disneyland, Orange County or elsewhere on vacation, I always thought it would be a good idea to learn more about where the Carpenters had lived. And by following the path taken by a famous resident, you get a deeper sense of the area than if you only visit the famous tourist locations. I had no intention of finding Richard and asking for an autograph for example. From what I can find, Richard now lives in Thousand Oaks which is an hour northwest of Hollywood when you take the 101.

The Carpenter family's first house was in this Downey neighborhood. Today, nicely kept houses: a pleasant place to visit. Probably just as nice in the 1960s.

However, if you want to see the house where Karen and Richard grew up, you can't. It was demolished to make way for the Century Freeway (I-105). Nothing remains except this wall.

Upon seeing this, I was thinking, "Gee that story sounds familiar." Below, is yours truly at the Beach Boys' Monument in Hawthorne, CA, on a previous trip, where the childhood home of Brian, Carl and Dennis Wilson was also destroyed by the same freeway!

The relief on the Monument is based on this album cover, but ads Bruce Johnstone and Al Jardine who were not part of the original Beach Boys when the album cover photo was taken in 1962.

On the map, A is the former Carpenters home, B is the former Wilson's home.
Same as above with a close up.
3 questions,
  1. Couldn't they have built the freeway one block north or south to preserve these homes?
  2. How many other childhood homes of famous celebrities were also taken out by the same freeway or other freeways? Is freeway just another word for nothing left to see?
  3. Why stop within LA, maybe they could have extended the freeway to Utah and Indiana to take out the childhood homes of the Osmonds and Jacksons. 
You know, the Osmonds did live in LA for a big part of their childhood when they appeared on the Andy Williams Show and so did the Jacksons when they were with Motown. I wonder...

Soon after the release of "Close to You," the Carpenters bought this house, which is in a more upscale part of Downey: Upper Downey, if you will. The house was for the whole family, parents, siblings...

The house is featured on the cover of their album, "Now and Then."

What strikes me as interesting, is the front door is like 15 feet from the sidewalk. You could knock on the door, "Girl Guide Cookies," "Trick or Treat," "Please give me your autograph." Weren't they hounded by fans? Even after the Now and Then album came out?

I admire them for living in a pleasant neighborhood and likely they wanted to keep in touch with their church and its community and live a comfortable, but familiar lifestyle, rather than in secluded luxury. Having said that, you'd think they'd have wanted more privacy and security.

BTW: this house is about 1/2 mile from the I-5 and the freeway noise at the street level was almost inaudible.

Recently, half of the house was demolished to build this monstrosity.

I wonder who lives there, Sigfried and Roy?

Not too far away is the Methodist Church where a teen age Richard made a name for himself. He packed them in to here him play. When he was 12, music teachers told his parents that he was destined to become a professional musician.

After becoming successful, they purchased these two apartment blocks as an investment.

These are less than 2 blocks away from the church.

Later, Richard bought this house, also in Downey, with his family. A house that he designed complete with a recording studio and movie theatre. Still not as secure as you'd imagine for an international recording, TV and live performing star.

The Carpenters were early pioneers of music videos (actually using video tape) shooting, "Please Mr. Postman" at Disneyland, and "Only Yesterday" at Huntington Gardens. I had not heard of Huntington Gardens before learning of that fact, and that became my next place to visit after my brief trip through Downey. Please see my post on that visit.

In closing, this is how I like to remember Karen and Richard. Breezing through the set like a neighbor coming over to sing around the piano. She looks healthy and happy and what a great ensemble they were.

Almost 30 years ago, I was driving to work at 6:30 on a Sunday morning during a summer between university terms and "Close to You" played on the radio. Before, then I hadn't found the Carpenters all that interesting. But, listening carefully as a captive audience in the car, with the bright clear sound coming out of the radio, it hit me how lovely Karen's tone was and I've been a fan ever since. This is before auto-tune devices and other studio tricks became available. Her voice was honest and true.

For this essay, I owe a lot to this site, which had all of the address locations: Carpenters Tour.  I contributed back the knowledge about the Beach Boy's family house being destroyed by the same freeway as the Carpenter's early house in Downey. I also looked some items up in Wikipedia and remembered accumulated data from many sources (mostly PBS fund-raising TV specials) over the years.

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