Richard Carpenter has long been known as one-half of the legendary pop duo, the Carpenters, who were one of the most popular artists on the charts throughout the 1970s and the early ‘80s. The Grammy-winning duo consisted of renowned singer Karen Carpenter (who died in 1983 at the age of 32) and Richard, who was their record producer, one of their songwriters, arranger, pianist, keyboardist and harmony vocalist.
As a songwriter, Carpenter co-wrote (with John Bettis) four of the duo’s Top 10 pop hits, including their number one hit “Top of the World,” “Goodbye to Love,” “Yesterday Once More” and “Only Yesterday.” In addition, he co-wrote their classic holiday song, “Merry Christmas, Darling,” and he co-wrote many other songs for their albums.
Last month (December 2018), the Carpenters released an excellent new album called Carpenters with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (on A&M Records/Universal Music Enterprises). This album contains 18 new versions of Carpenters songs that feature new orchestral arrangements performed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (which is based in London). These arrangements were created by Carpenter, and he conducted the 70-member orchestra at Abbey Road Studios in London.
This new album contains many of the Carpenters’ classic hit songs, including “We’ve Only Just Begun,” “(They Long to Be) Close To You,” “Rainy Days and Mondays,” “Top of the World,” “Yesterday Once More,” “Goodbye to Love,” “For All We Know,” “Superstar,” “Hurting Each Other,” “Ticket to Ride” and “Touch Me When We’re Dancing.” Notably, the album also includes the Carpenters’ fine renditions of songs made famous by other artists such as “This Masquerade,” “Baby It’s You,” “I Just Fall in Love Again” and “I Believe You.”
Importantly, these versions not only feature new orchestral performances, but the original vocal and instrumental tracks have been sonically enhanced by modern studio technology. Therefore, Karen Carpenter’s outstanding lead vocals sound even better (in subtle ways).
We are pleased to do this new Q&A interview with Richard Carpenter. He discusses the making of the album, Carpenters with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. He also talks in-depth about his songwriting, and how he co-wrote the classic songs “Top of the World,” “Goodbye to Love,” “Yesterday Once More” and “Merry Christmas, Darling.”
DK: I like your new album with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. How did you come up with the idea to record this album with the orchestra?
Richard Carpenter: Well, Universal (Music) has been enjoying success with their projects with the Royal Philharmonic, with albums by Roy Orbison, Elvis Presley, Aretha Franklin and the Beach Boys. They asked me if I’d like to do one with the Carpenters. And I gave it some thought, because you always have the purists who don’t want anything changed at all. But then I thought about how much I’d really enjoy doing it, and things that I would’ve liked to change in the arrangements through the years. So I thought…the originals are still available (for the purists), so let’s go ahead and do this. And I’m really happy that I did it, because I’m delighted with the way the whole thing has turned out.
DK: Were there specific Carpenters songs that you always thought, that working with an orchestra would take it to a whole new level?
Carpenter: Through the years I heard some of our songs, and I thought…Wouldn’t it be nice to do, to add strings in this particular area, or change this other spot a little bit. Things like that, but I never thought there would be a reason or opportunity to do it. And along came this opportunity with the Royal Philharmonic, and it was like a dream come true. I didn’t want to overdo it (with the arrangements)—when you’re presented with an orchestra that size, you don’t want to find yourself overwriting. And there are some records like “Close To You,” that I felt needed almost no change in the original arrangement. So some of the songs are fairly close to what it was originally, with a few changes here and there.
DK: Which songs on the new album, do you think have the most dramatic changes or improvements with the new versions?
Carpenter: “Ticket to Ride” has always been one of my favorite Carpenters tracks that Karen and I liked. So there are some changes I wanted to make on it, and to me, it made quite a bit of difference. And it wasn’t just the orchestra that we could make changes with. You had the opportunity now to improve the overall sound. Back then (in 1969), “Ticket to Ride” was an eight-track recording. Eight tracks…that’s it! So the piano was recorded in mono, so you had room to do other things. Well now of course, you can re-record it in stereo, which opened the whole thing up right there. So I think “Ticket to Ride” and certainly “Baby It’s You” sound better. And with “Superstar”…I added a few more horns in the interlude, and got the ending the way I’ve always wanted it. And I’m very happy with “Rainy Days and Mondays” for a number of reasons.
DK: What were the reasons that you’re happy with the new version of “Rainy Days and Mondays”?
Carpenter: The orchestration itself, although I kept a lot of the original parts, such as Tommy Morgan’s original harmonica track. Tommy Morgan…he was the best and you weren’t going to get it any better. So of course that stayed. But the drums were re-recorded in stereo, and the piano, and the actual strings…it’s a bit different than the original in the intro and in the outro. So on this song, I think it’s certainly for the better.
On a lot of these records, we were on a hell of a schedule, because we had to be out on the road for a lot of touring. In hindsight of course, we never should have gone out and toured as much as we did. Because of the type of records we made, since I picked the material and did the arrangements, and Karen and I did all the vocals and then we mixed it…tt took a lot of time. And there were times when we were in the mix room finishing up, and we had to go from the mix room to the airport to get on a plane to go out on tour. So there are certain things (in the studio) that I let go. There’s certainly nothing wrong with them, but they weren’t exactly the way I wanted them, due to lack of time.
DK: On the new album, there are a few songs that were not hits for the Carpenters, but are good songs that Karen sang well, such as “This Masquerade” and “Baby It’s You.” Were these songs favorites of yours and Karen’s?
Here’s the video trailer with Richard Carpenter for the new album,
Carpenters with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.
Carpenter: Yes. “Baby It’s You” is such a strong song, that it can be done any number of ways and successfully. Of course, the Shirelles did the original, and the group, Smith, had their take on it, which was quite different than the Shirelles. And then my arrangement was certainly different from that. I thought “Baby It’s You” could have been a hit for us as well, but “We’ve Only Just Begun” and “Close To You” were the singles off the Close To You album.
With “This Masquerade,” we recorded it several years before George Benson had a hit with it. But our arrangement was a little over four minutes, and forget Top 40 radio if it goes over four minutes (laughs). But I always thought that song was going to be a hit, and I think it was a perfect song for Karen. It’s a really good track, and she’s drumming on it too.
DK: I noticed on your Philharmonic album, some of your big hits were not included on it.
Carpenter: I didn’t want to pull every hit and put it on this album, just in case there may be a second one someday. You never know. The other reason is that there are some album tracks that I think are stronger than some of the singles. So yeah, “Baby It’s You” and “This Masquerade” immediately came to mind. And then (A&R exec) Matt D’Amico, who is my liaison at Universal, asked for a Christmas song. And so we included our song “Merry Christmas, Darling,” which is a favorite.
DK: In recent years, the Beatles have released excellent, remixed versions of some of their albums, which made the Beatles’ recordings sound even better. And so with today’s modern technology in the studio, were you able to make your new album sound better, and enhance Karen’s vocals, too?
Carpenter: Yes. There’s nothing one can do to make Karen’s actual talent and voice sound better. However, there was always ambient room noise, even in the best of studios. For example, in the beginning of “Yesterday Once More,” before the drums and the bass come in, you hear some low humming going on. It’s from the air conditioning in Studio C, where we recorded it. And we didn’t notice it at the time.
For years, when we were doing reissues or compilations, I would ask, “Is there any way to get rid of this hum? And for years, the answer was no. But now you can, and there’s so much you can do now. So the hum is gone, and there are other things we’ve corrected. So it makes Karen’s voice sound that much more present, and the background vocals sound better too. So with this Philharmonic album, it’s not just the orchestra, but there are sonic improvements as well.
Here’s the video of Richard Carpenter conducting the Royal Philharmonic
Orchestra for the Carpenters’ hit, “Superstar.”
DK: I want to ask you about your songwriting, and how you wrote four big hits (“Top of the World,” “Yesterday Once More,” “Goodbye to Love” and “Only Yesterday”) for the Carpenters with hit songwriter, John Bettis.
Carpenter: Yes, I wrote those songs with John, although I wrote “Merry Christmas, Darling” with Frank Pooler.
DK: When you wrote with John Bettis, did you mainly write the music and he wrote the lyrics?
Carpenter: Yes. I would come up with a melody, and usually I would hear a title and a couple of words myself. Then I’d get together with John and I’d play it, and he would write the lyrics and toss some ideas at me, and that’s how it happened.
DK: Would you sit at the piano, and come up with the chords and most of the melody?
Carpenter: Yeah, I had it all ready. The melody and chords came right along with it, and the idea and title. I had met John around 1966, when we were students at Long Beach State and we were both in the a cappella choir. And I was writing songs at the time…nothing all that special. I knew my lyrics were pretty corny. So when I heard some of the songs that John had done, I thought we could work well together.
DK: The first hit you wrote for the Carpenters was “Goodbye to Love.” How did you write this song?
Carpenter: With “Goodbye to Love,” there was a Bing Crosby movie (in 1940) called Rhythm on the River. In the movie, he plays a ghost writer for a famous songwriter who had lost his muse. The big hit that this fellow in the movie was supposed to have written, was called “Goodbye to Love.” In the movie, you never hear a song called “Goodbye to Love”…they just refer to it. And as I watched the movie, I imagined what the song could be and sang, ”I’ll say goodbye to love, no one ever cared if I should live or die.” I kept writing the melody, but my lyrics stopped right there (laughs). So I got a hold of John, and we finished it.
DK: How did you write “Top of the World” and “Yesterday Once More”?
Carpenter: With “Top Of The World,” I’d just seen that title sitting around, and I [started writing] ”I’m on the top of the world,” and the melody kept going, and the lyric stopped.
“Yesterday Once More” was a different story. We had done an oldies medley on our Now & Then album, and I felt it needed a song to bookend it, to set the whole medley up. So I came up with “Yesterday Once More.” So I wrote the lyrics, “When I was young I’d listen to the radio, waiting for my favorite song,” and the hook. That’s my lyric and melody. But there were certain words in the verses that didn’t come to me, so I got together with John and he finished the lyric.
Here’s a video of the Carpenters’ hit “Top of the World,” which was
co-written by Richard Carpenter.
DK: Your song “Merry Christmas, Darling” (co-written by Frank Pooler) has become a holiday classic. How did you write this song?
Carpenter: At Long Beach State I was in the a cappella choir, and the director was Frank Pooler. It was in 1966, and he heard these songs that I was writing. These songs didn’t sound anything like hits, but they were pretty. Frank came to me and said, “I wrote a song 20 years ago—I like the lyrics, but I never liked the melody. Would you take a crack at writing a melody to it?” I said, “Yes, of course.” So he gave me the lyric, and I wrote the music and I put it together in a practice room at Long Beach State.
Then years later (in 1970), when Karen and I hit with “Close To You” and “We’ve Only Just Begun,” we were getting close to the fall, and I thought we could make a record of ”Merry Christmas, Darling.” So we did, and then we invited Frank up to the studio and played it for him. He loved it and said, “This may be the greatest day of my life” (laughs). That’s one of our favorite tracks that Karen and I did. She sings it beautifully, and the harmonies on it are really lush.
DK: “Top of the World” was a number one hit for the Carpenters, but I read it was a country hit first for Lynn Anderson. Is that correct?
Carpenters: Yes. Karen and I and all of us, we really underrated that song & record. It was on our A Song For You album (released in June 1972), which ended up having several hits on it. We thought “Top of the World” was a pleasant album cut, and our label thought so, too. But the public liked it more. We were hearing that people liked it, and then we ran into (country singer) Lynn Anderson at an event (around November 1972), and she said, “Oh, so good to meet you. I’ve just recorded “Top Of the World.” And we said, “Oh that’s great.” Then I heard the record, and it’s a clone of ours…the arrangements were identical. She sang it very well, and it became a big country hit. And then it started to cross over.
At that point, I realized that I’ve made a mistake (laughs), because originally I didn’t pick it as a single. I had now changed my mind and wanted to release it as a single. But our record label said we had released enough singles from this album, so we shouldn’t release “Top of the World.”
Then some time passed and the song kept getting cover versions…people were singing it on The Tonight Show, and we were getting inundated by letters from fans. So finally we said, “We’re putting this damn thing out,” even though it was 1973 and we’d already released our next album, Yesterday Once More. Also, Karen was never happy with her original lead vocals on “Top of the World,” so we redid part of it. She re-sang the lead vocals, and then I changed the steel guitarist to Buddy Emmons for the intro, and we remixed it. Then it finally came out as our single, it went to number one (laughs).
Here’s the video of the Carpenters’ hit, “Rainy Days and Mondays.”
DK: Your sister Karen has long been regarded as one of the great pop singers. She had a wide vocal range, but to me, she really sounded great when she sang the lower and midrange notes, when her voice would sound deeper and sensual. Was that something that you and Karen were aware of, that you would write or select songs that would bring out Karen’s unique lower voice?
Carpenter: Yes and yes. And Karen realized it too. The common misconception, was that hitting the high notes was more impressive. But actually, singers can run into trouble when they sing the low notes. Karen [was special], because she could sing the lower notes wonderfully. A perfect example is the bridge to “Rainy Days and Mondays,” (he sings) “Funny, but it seems I always wind up here with you…” And Karen [could easily sound great in the lower range]. She was actually a contralto…not just an alto, her voice was lower.
A lot of our Carpenters songs certainly are rangy, like “Close To You.” It starts with the lowest note in the melody. And Karen’s voice is all out in the open—the piano’s holding from the intro, and she sings, “Why do birds suddenly appear,” and it was just second nature for her. There’s an appeal about it. It’s not only in the way she interprets it, but just in the lower, deeper sound of it.
DK: Richard, it’s been about 35-40 years since the Carpenters had their great run of hits on the charts, before Karen passed away in 1983. A lot of time has passed. So as you look back on those days, what are some of the things that come to mind?
Carpenter: Well, just how blessed we were. I’m not a religious person, but I don’t know what other term to use. To be able to do for a living what you enjoy doing, what you were born to do. I think back…when we signed with A&M Records, Karen was 19 and I was 22. It was remarkable to be at a major label and to record at one of the great recording studios on the planet, and do what you wanted to do. And when you heard something in an arrangement, you could hire the best musicians to play what you heard. And to work with Herb Alpert (co-founder of A&M Records)—he’s not only a hell of a talented musician, he’s a talented A&R man. He heard the talent, and he let us do what we wanted to do, and he brought us the song, “Close To You.” So that’s what I think of, and just how exciting it all was.