Q&A: Inside the New ‘Carpenters: The Musical Legacy’ Book with Richard Carpenter & Authors Mike Cidoni Lennox/Chris May

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Rock Cellar Magazine

“Close to You,” “We’ve Only Just Begun,” “For All We Know,” “Rainy Days and Mondays, “Goodbye to Love,“ “Yesterday Once More,” “Top of the World” —  Carpenters’ legacy of exquisitely crafted and consummately produced and performed soft rock classics grows immeasurably year in and year out, garnering new legions of followers to their musical magic.

An extraordinary new book, Carpenters: The Musical Legacy, by Mike Cidoni Lennox and Chris May with Richard Carpenter, eschews the tragedy surrounding the band with the untimely passing of Karen Carpenter in 1983, and instead focuses on what really matters: their sublime catalog of timeless songs, songs graced by Karen’s blue heartbreak-infused voice and the picture-perfect arrangements and production by Richard Carpenter.

Richly illustrated with over 200 images culled from Richard’s personal archives and a dazzling array of rare ephemera, the book’s text is based on over 100 hours of interviews the authors conducted with Richard. Join us for a conversation with Richard Carpenter and author Mike Lennox Cidoni and Chris May for a portrait of the Carpenters in song.

Rocok Cellar: Richard, in “Yesterday Once More” you regale the power of radio and memory and nostalgia. What are your memories of hearing Carpenters’ first giant hit “Close to You” on the radio? Were you and Karen together when that happened?

Richard Carpenter: I remember we were together when we first heard songs form The Carpenters, our first album on the radio, because the disc jockey Johnny Magnus let us know he just loved the album and at a certain time in the early evening he was going to debut it.

As far as “Close to You,” I can’t honestly remember whether we were together, but we probably were because we would go back and forth from the studio in one car and were in the car quite a bit in between runs to the studio. So I would say so.

The impact of hearing our music on the radio is impossible for me to put into words. There’s a feeling that you’ve gone against what a lot of people on the way up said was going to happen … which was, not much was going to happen with our demo for one reason or another, with the sound. But we believed in it. And of course, Herbie Albert did.

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And it was like a vindication, if you will. It sounded really damn good for AM radio. Of course, it was compressed when you go into the second verse and the rhythm, the bass and the drums kick in, you could hear the kick drum being sucked in. But that didn’t make all that much difference, at least on AM radio.

Rock Cellar: During that period when Carpenters first hit it big, what vinyl albums were in the heaviest rotation on both of your stereos?

Richard Carpenter: Well, around that time, this would have been a little later, the Beach Boys Surf’s Up, the newest Chicago albums and Paul McCartney’s Ram, without a doubt. There was also Carole King’s Music album and before that Tapestry, too. It came out right around the time of “Rainy Days and Mondays.” 

Rock Cellar: There’s an interesting photo of you and Karen from the early ’70s and you’re photographed with your record collection and Karen’s holding and looking at the inside of the Ballad of Todd Rundgren album. Do you remember if you and Karen were fans of that Todd Rundgren album?

Richard Carpenter: Oh, yes, very much. Todd is a talented guy. Some people said about my songs as well that you think they’re going to make a certain turn, they’re going to go to a particular chord change and it doesn’t go there and yet it makes perfect sense when it does make the change and (Burt) Bacharach’s music takes that far and away. I mean, he’s the king of that, and Todd Rundgren was the same way.

It was a different progression of chords, a different structure of the chords. It was a unique sound.

Rock Cellar: I’d imagine his biggest album, Something/Anything, that followed the release of Ballad of Todd Rundgren, an album with songs like “I Saw the Light” and “Hello It’s Me,” would have been in your wheelhouse.

Richard Carpenter: Oh yes. Karen and I were both fans of Something/Anything.

Rock Cellar: I’m very impressed with your work not only as a songwriter, but especially as a producer and arranger. How in the world did you have the knowledge and expertise so early on to create a picture perfect record like “Close to You” both as a production and with the arrangements? Who were those producers and arrangers that inspired you at that time?

Richard Carpenter: Karen and I were both old souls. I just happened to hear “Close To You” yesterday on the radio and I thought, what a remarkable record. It really is. It’s almost the perfect record.

There’s not much I would do to change it and Karen had barely turned 20 when she sang it, and yet she was way beyond her years as far as interpretation. I think some of it was in my DNA and that Karen and I were old souls. But we had listened to a number of older recordings that my father had in his record collection or that he’d buy as they came onto the radio in the early ’50s and mid ’50s and all of that.

So I think a lot of that inspiration came from those records, and I need to thank him. The overdub harmonies of Mary Ford, the Les Paul and Mary Ford records, it’s tight voicing, and they’re overdubbed and of course, when “Tiger Rag” came out, it had the biggest influence on me.

I’d say that was 1950, maybe 1951, so I would have been four and a half, and it had such an impact on me.

Rock Cellar: Your choices as producer and arranger on “Close to You” are stunning, every choice you made was the perfect choice and to be able to do that so early on in your recording career is remarkable.

Richard CarpenterWell, it is. When I got down to thinking about this — because I was not only in charge of selecting or writing the material, but also arranging it — the arranger is the unsung hero of the business. You could have a proven singer and a proven song, let’s say, or a song that will prove to be a big hit, and if it doesn’t have the correct arrangement, it’s not going to go anywhere.

Yes, we listened to so many different things and “Close To You” is definitely influenced, even though I never heard Burt’s [Bacharach] arrangement until after ours was done.

That’s why it has Bacharach-ish influence.

Rock Cellar: In terms of creating those lush harmonies that you and Karen would do on a song like “Close To You,” can you run us the process you employed to build those trademark Carpenters harmonies?

Richard Carpenter: Well, on the first album, we used eight track, so we were severely limited because I wanted to do all these overdubbed vocals. But starting with the Close to You album, we had 16 tracks, but we still had to do a lot of bouncing.

What we did on a typical Carpenter chord is like the end of “Close To You.” It’s four-part harmony, and we triple it. So there are twelve of us singing the four parts. The opening chord of that is an inversion of D flat major seven.

Because we didn’t have that many tracks with Karen and I singing together on the outer harmonies, she’d take the top, I’d take the bottom and we’d get it until we were satisfied and then double it, and then triple it, and then go into the inner two harmonies, which we call BGs, background. So BG One was the outside harmonies and BG Two was the inside harmonies. That’s how we worked it.

But think about that record. I also wanted some strings on it. I wanted the overdub trumpets, Chuck Finley. Of course, we had the track and there’s a little bit of Wurlitzer electric piano near the end and of course, we quickly were running out of tracks.

Carpenters (Photo: NBC)

Carpenters (Photo: NBC)

Rock Cellar: Were you, Hal Blaine [drums] and Joe Osborne [bass] cutting live?

Richard Carpenter: Yes, but only the rhythm track.

Rock Cellar: Were you able to nail a track fairly quickly?

Richard CarpenterFairly quickly. Except when one came along that took a little more concentration or attention.

Rock Cellar: Do you recall a Carpenters recording that was more challenging to get a really great basic track?

Richard Carpenter: Yes, “Close to You.” It’s a very deceptive song and a very deceptive arrangement. The whole thing makes it sound like it’s an easy song and the trouble with that one is it was so strict with timing and rhythm. It was very easy to start rushing. Ultimately, you never want to admit that you need the click track, but on several of them you do, and that was one of them. We finally said, okay, we need a click track so “Close to You” took around 40 takes to get that basic track with bass, piano and drums — but that was an exception.

Rock Cellar: Your collaboration with lyricist John Bettis on “Goodbye to Love,” “Yesterday Once More” and “Top of the World” among others worked very well. What was the inherent magic of your collaborative work, the spark that fueled the creativity?

Richard Carpenter: We were introduced to each other in 1966 by our university choir director. The director knew that I was writing pop songs and I had met John briefly and knew that he was writing songs, too. But to me, his lyrics were the special thing and I thought we could work well together, which we did in the formative years, and then he took off for parts unknown before the Carpenters hit.

And then we did. And I wanted to be writing some songs. So of course, publishing at A&M Records were saying, “Well how about working with Paul Williams or some of our other writers?” And I said, “I know this guy. I feel we work well together and I need you to find him for me.” We didn’t know where he was. I think he was up in Northern California or Central California, but the people from A&M tracked him down and brought him to L.A. and he signed with them. And it’s a good thing I have an actual talent to see certain talent in other people.

Rock Cellar: An example of that is “Goodbye To Love,” can you share its back story?

Richard Carpenter: I was watching The Late Late Show or The Late Show and there was a Bing Crosby movie from the early ’40s called Rhythm on the River. And in it, he plays a ghost songwriter and he’s ghosting for a famous songwriter — this is all fiction.

He’s played by Basil Rathbone and Basil Rathbone’s character was going through a dry spell and Bing, the ghost songwriter, was taking care of that. But they kept referring to Basil Rathbone’s biggest hit in this movie and it was called “Goodbye to Love” and you never heard the song “Goodbye to Love” in the film. It was just referred to.

And when I heard that I imagined, [sings words] …”I’ll say Goodbye to Love, no one ever cared if i should live or die …” I kept the melody going and that’s where I ran out of lyrics and got ahold of John and we sat down together and finished the lyric.

Right around the same time we met Tony Peluso, he was the leader of a group that opened the show for us on one tour. I heard him go into a guitar solo on one particular song every night, usually a college gymnasium, and I’d hear him lay into his solo on this particular song. He’s not just playing a lot of notes. It was improvisation, but it was musical.

Photo: Richard Carpenter Collection

Photo: Richard Carpenter Collection

And that’s when I got the idea about the guitar solo for “Goodbye to Love.” Karen and I had a number of people around us saying, “Why are you doing with an unknown? Why don’t you just get someone like Louie Shelton?” and I said, “Because nothing against Louie or anyone else, but I like the way Tony plays and I just think he’s the guy,” and he was the guy. We asked him to come to Studio B, and he sat out in the middle of the floor. He had this little fuzz unit called a Big Muff that got just the right sound that I wanted.

He said, “I have to tell you, I don’t read music,” and I said, “I don’t need you to read.” And I said, “Here’s what I want.” I gave him a chord sheet and I sang him the melody. This is not at the end. This is the break in the middle of the song. And I said, “I want this much of the melody,” and I sang that much of the melody and then I said, “Take it with the chords.” Tony got the whole thing with the exception of one spot near the end of his solo in one take.

Rock Cellar: With that, you pretty much created the template for power ballads to have this gonzo hard rock fuzzed out guitar solos. 

Richard Carpenter: Yeah, I guess so. [laughs]

Rock Cellar: You and Karen were big Beatle fans. Carpenters famously covered “Help” and “Ticket to Ride.” tell me about when you and Karen met Paul McCartney at 10cc’s studio, Strawberry Studios?

Richard Carpenter: Well, we were touring the UK in ’74 and we got a message from him that he was recording with his brother, actually. They were recording the Mike McGear album. And he asked if we would like to stop by? So of course, we’d like to stop by. So we stopped by [laughed] and just watched him with his brother Mike. And then after a while, excused ourselves because of course, they were busy, but it was really nice of him to ask.

Paul complimented us and said some really nice things about Karen’s singing, too.

Rock Cellar: Knowing Karen was not as confident as she should have been about what a wonderful singer she was, didn’t she have a run-in with Paul’s songwriting partner, John Lennon?

Richard Carpenter: Yes. She told me about it on a phone call. She and her beau were heading into a particular restaurant in Beverly Hills. John was coming out and in passing, John said something to Karen, “a lovely voice, luv,”  or “a beautiful or a great voice, luv,” and Karen was flabbergasted. I spoke with her and said “Karen, of course, all these people are going to tell you that you’re great because you are a great singer!”

I don’t think she ever realized just how damn great she was. With Barbra Streisand, the same thing. They’re kind of bumping into each other and she said, “I think you have a lovely instrument,” or something to that effect. 

Rock Cellar: “Rainy Days and Mondays” is a classic Carpenters song merging beauty and melancholy. There was a deep melancholy that Karen was able to bring into her singing. Where do you think that wellspring of her ability to connect with the melancholy comes from?

Richard Carpenter: It’s a combination of what you’re made of with your genes and of coming back to the cellar where Dad kept his music, that’s where we listen to music. And whenever I went down there, if I wasn’t playing classical, she wasn’t all that crazy about it. But if I was playing any other sort of record, she would come down and listen to the records with me.

Our dad had quite a diversification in the types of music he liked. So she heard the older singers, the Nat King Coles and Perry Comos, and that all just sank in. She was a receptacle, but a natural one. She was just born to sing all this stuff. And as Tom Nolan wrote in his cover piece for Rolling Stone magazine about her life, he said, out “comes that marvelous voice live as it is on record.” And he said it was “youth combined with wisdom.”

Carpenters (Photo: Jim McCrary, A&M/UMe)

Carpenters (Photo: Jim McCrary, A&M/UMe)

Rock Cellar: You forged a particularly close relationship with Herb Alpert, the A&M Records. It wasn’t just a co-head of the record label relationship. It really seemed that he cared and connected with the ethos of Carpenters. What was it about that relationship that really flourished both in a professional and personal way?

Richard CarpenterWell, I have to say, first off, Herb and Jerry Moss as heads of A&M were different than just about any other one in that [industry]. If they signed an artist, they believed the artist should do what he or she wants, with the exception of what he or she thought was best for them. So you had quite a free rein anyway, but with us, Herb heard the demo with all the vocals stacked and, of course, Karen’s lead, and he just went half carte blanche.

And even after the first Carpenters album didn’t happen and there were rumblings from other people at A&M, he said, “No, I’m going to give them one more chance.” And that was one of the great decisions of his life. [laughs]

He believed in us big time, and it was marvelous as a pair of young people that we were to be given carte blanche. He didn’t say, “I don’t want you to waste money on strings, you’re a new act.” 

Rock Cellar: Let’s close with a hypothetical question. If you could be with Karen again, even for an hour, and you were told you can you talk about things and you can play piano and she can sing a few songs with you, what would you talk about and what songs would you choose to have her to sing?

Richard Carpenter: Well, I would once again let her know just how damn great a singer she was. One of the songs I would do with her would be “But Beautiful.” It’s from one of the Bing Crosby road pictures and went on to be a standard.

Rock Cellar: And is there a Carpenters song you would love to hear her sing one more time with you?

Richard CarpenterThere are two that had she lived we were going to redo, because she was only 19 when we did our first album, and I was 22, and in the next two to three years that followed, our voices changed in that they weren’t as husky as they were originally.

That’s why she wanted to redo the lead on “Merry Christmas Darling” and “Ticket to Ride,” the remix  from ’73, because she wasn’t all that wild about how husky her voice was. So there were two that happened to Bettis/Carpenter songs, and one that she wanted to redo.

One of them was “Eve” and and that’s an album cut on the first album. Actually, the other one was on the first album, which is called “Sunday.” She mentioned it several times. She wanted to redo them, and I wanted to redo them as well.

SIDEBAR: Mike Cidoni Lennox and Chris May, authors of Carpenters: The Musical Legacy

Rock Cellar: Carpenters: The Musical Legacy is a beautiful book. What makes this new book different from the others on the Carpenters? 

Mike Cidoni Lennox: Our mission was to shift the focus away from where it has been since Karen’s death in 1983, which has been Karen’s tragic death. In fact, Apple Music dubbed Carpenters as “the most tragic story in the history of pop,” and I beg to differ with that. I brought it up to Universal Music when I was working on the RPO album in marketing and publicity, and then brought that up to Richard, and he agreed. Chris [May] and I then approached Richard and said, let’s put the focus back on the music as much as we could. And that’s exactly what this book does.

The reason that we continue to talk about Carpenters isn’t because Karen died. It’s because Karen and Richard left an incredibly strong legacy not only of hit singles, but of some really powerful concept albums, from the first one in 1969 through to at least 1975’s Horizon, as well as Christmas Portrait in  ’78.

Rock Cellar: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is often picked the greatest Beatles album. What album in Carpenters’ catalog is their Sgt. Pepper?

Chris May: We’re probably going to have a different answer here. Well, I would say because it’s more of a true concept album. It would be Now and Then from 1973, in terms of Side One being a number of individual singles and album cuts and then Side Two is an oldies medley, which is all beautifully crafted together and linked with DJ sound effects, a lot of that kind of thing. So when I think Sgt. Pepper and a lot like with Brian Wilson’s Pet Sounds, which comes to mind I’m sure for all of us, I would say that conceptually in terms of the links, a lot of the sound effects and just the overall concept cover to cover it would be the 1973 Now and Then album.

Mike Cidoni Lennox: My pick is also Richard’s, which is A Song For You. This is an album with a distinct beginning, middle and end, and it truly has an emotional arc. I remember putting it on in 1972 when I first got it, and it’s just a chiller from that very first piano chord of “A Song for You,” Leon Russell’s song to Karen’s vocal.

And we’ve never heard them perform like this before. They were swinging like a late night jazz band playing for late night jazz musicians. We never heard them sort of get that down and dirty before and the first side with “Goodbye to Love” and Tony Peluso. That album had more singles on it than any other.

To end that first side with “Goodbye to Love” and to be a teenager, my head almost exploded. It was extraordinary. I believe that there were seven singles ultimately off of that album and then to end with it really eerie reprise of “A Song For You” especially in light of what happened to Karen [recites lyrics] ... “and when my life is over, remember when we were together, we were alone and I was singing this song for you.” How prophetic and eerie. I remember just sitting and going, you’ve created a masterpiece here.

Rock Cellar: As writers, researchers and music historians, what were the greatest challenges, rewards and surprises you experienced while working on the book?

Chris May: Mike and I laugh about it all the time is that we very much are Yin and Yang. We come from two very different places, but there are a lot of similarities and overlap. But then yet again, for me, because mine will probably be a little quicker, I’m more of a minutiae guy in terms of the production, the arrangements and that kind of thing. So for me, it’s less about the arc of the story and more about the details, a lot of the things that are hidden on album tracks, things, certain production techniques that Richard utilized and pioneered for generations to come in terms of pop music.

As far as challenges, I would say initially, the first year of these last two years, working hands on with Richard was primarily doing recording audio tape interviews. I think it took us almost a full year for all three of us to lock into and come together with some cohesiveness in terms of what the final vision of this book was going to be.

I think in terms of a lot of the ephemeral related items and some of the more arcane things, that took a little while for Richard to warm up to some of that. And rightfully so, you think that a lot of times your general audience doesn’t understand a lot of this, but that’s why we have a master who knows how to write in a comprehensive way. But for me, that was probably the most challenging thing, really getting into some of the more archival images, ephemera, photographs and a lot of the details and picking Richard’s brain for things like the discography and some of the more data reference sections in the book.

Carpenters (Photo: NBC)

Carpenters (Photo: NBC)

Mike Cidoni Lennox: The most interesting moments of it for me were when we were able to present things to Richard, who has an incredibly sharp memory, and when he doesn’t remember things, he has the archive to go look things up. I was able to present to him facts about his own act that he did not know, and that was really extraordinary.

For 50-plus years, he’s been telling a story about the Academy Awards and why he and Karen were not invited to perform “For All We Know” — but his story was incorrect. I found out because I called the Motion Picture Academy; I cover film for the Associated Press. So I have those connections and during COVID I went through their archive and found out that they actually could have been invited when he’d been saying, no, we couldn’t be invited because we didn’t perform it in the film and we weren’t motion picture people. That wasn’t the reason.

It was great to inform him about his own stuff. The most challenging part was trying to tell this in a concise way. We live in a 300-word universe now, and these are all 3000-words stories. We wanted to tell the story of every single track and every single thing and it was Richard himself who said, oh, this is painfully long. We had to cut so much out.

Rock Cellar: What can you tell us about the enormity of Richard’s archive? What were the finds/discoveries that surprised and excited you?

Chris May: Richard’s home houses a 2,500 square foot media underground, which contains approximately 5,000 color slides and another 5,000-6,000 photos, all meticulously organized in photo books, not to mention a massive record collection, dating back to the mid-20th century. Included are Carpenters reference tapes, acetates, and every Carpenters release in all (or most, I should say) formats.

He also has a large warehouse about 20 minutes from his home, where he stores his renowned automobile collection (many seen on Carpenters album covers), as well as rare artifacts like recording contracts, musical orchestrations, fliers, posters, articles and other memorabilia.

Rock Cellar: Is there a Carpenters Holy Grail item that you wish he had or Richard wished existed?

Chris May: There’s not much that doesn’t exist! He and I did both asked each other early on if the other had a copy of his and Karen’s original recording contract with A&M Records from April, 1969. Unfortunately, neither of us do.

Rock Cellar: What’s the greatest misconception about Carpenters?

Mike Cidoni Lennox: That they were a singles act — as many of their detractors would like to believe. They sold many millions of albums, worldwide.

Rock Cellar: In the book I was surprised to hear Richard harbored regrets of Carpenters as a touring entity. Can you share your insight into that thinking?

Mike Cidoni Lennox: Richard’s feeling is that the music is “in the grooves” as they say. The records sold themselves, and management did them a terrible disservice by placing them on the road as much as they did. Richard feels they didn’t need to be doing all of that touring, as it made no difference when it came to selling their albums — and he’s right.

A sidenote: he’s not a fan of concerts in general.

Rock Cellar: Working on this book with Richard, in recounting Carpenters history, what were the happiest moments that put the biggest smile on his face and by contrast, the downside of fame that impacted him?

Mike Cidoni Lennox: This would have to do with the early days — all of the excitement of finally securing a recording contract, having carte blanche in the recording studio (a freedom A&M gave to all of their artists) to create with no limits, and of course hearing “(They Long to Be) Close to You” on two 50,000 watt radio stations in Los Angeles, at the same time!

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