Over the course of 12 albums, the Carpenters manufactured one of the most potent fantasies of American music, as manicured as the front lawn of a suburban McMansion.
A brother and sister duo from Downey, Calif., Karen and Richard Carpenter were the best-selling act of the ’70s — but to critics, they were purveyors of radio fluff, out of step with KISS, Cheap Trick and other stadium acts of the day.
To their legions of fans whose fervor still runs to near-cult degrees, the Carpenters were visionaries of florid nostalgia, the eternal keepers of pristine pop. The fantasy was marred for good when Karen died in 1983 at age 32 from cardiac arrest after her long struggle with anorexia nervosa.
The Carpenters were attracted to music while young, with Karen gravitating toward the drums in high school and Richard, four years her senior, excelling on piano while a student at Cal State Long Beach. In 1967, they formed a band, Spectrum, with two other musicians, but it was short-lived.
The Carpenters signed with A&M Records in 1969, with Karen, at 19, requiring a co-signer. After a lukewarm response to “Offering,” the Carpenters delivered on their potential with 1970’s “Close to You” and its signature song, “We’ve Only Just Begun,” which kicked off a five-year chart run.
A slew of gooey singles transfixed pop radio for most of the decade, including “It’s Going to Take Some Time,” “Goodbye to Love,” “Yesterday Once More,” “Rainy Days and Mondays,” “Hurting Each Other” and “I Need to Be in Love.”
The Carpenters, who hosted many TV specials with John Denver and the like, popularized songs penned by the lead songwriters of the day, including Burt Bacharach, an early champion; Carole King, and the lyricist John Bettis, who had worked with the Carpenters since the Spectrum days.
Sales started to dip in the late 1970s, coinciding with Karen’s developing anorexia and Richard’s addiction to sleeping pills. After Karen’s death, Richard continued to release music, including a few studio albums.
In 1987, filmmaker Todd Haynes depicted the life of Karen Carpenter in “Superstar,” using Barbie dolls as the principals. The film has never been publicly released — Richard refuses to permit it — but its production demonstrates the kind of cult fascination the Carpenters inspired.