Richard Carpenter

For the past couple months we’ve been stepping away from the Irving Berlins and Cole Porters and featuring some of the under-appreciated composers of the pop era. Like our recent article about Frank DeVol, Richard Carpenter is better known for his skills as an arranger. While he did create some of the most incredible music of the 1970s in that capacity, some of his own compositions were phenomenal. And in one of the songs he wrote, Richard Carpenter single-handedly changed the course of the Great American Songbook.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Burt Bacharach was arguably the leading composer of songs that were quickly recognized as “standards.” The Carpenters were probably the foremost artists of the day, and often looked to composers such as Bacharach, Paul Williams, Carole King, and others for their material. These were songwriters in the great American tradition, which was the music Richard Carpenter wanted to present. Having grown up listening to the likes of Perry Como, Ella Fitzgerald, and then the Beatles, Carpenter had a range of tastes. He was not a rock and roller, yet he found things in all forms of music that would comprise his art.

One of the more notable Carpenters’ performances is Lennon/McCartney’s “Ticket to Ride,” which was simply a great mid-tempo rocker until Richard got hold of it. Using sister Karen’s extraordinary vocals as his primary “instrument,” Carpenter more than anyone else put this song on the map. Although there had been “Hollywood Strings” versions of Beatles’ songs, this was the first performance of a Lennon/McCartney composition that was done in the tradition of a “standard,” and was the first to be taken seriously. It had to be; the performance was superior to the original. Richard slowed it down, rewrote some chords, and improvised some new melodies to segue the parts. Ask someone to hum a few bars of “Ticket,” and most will slow it down Carpenters-style. The interesting thing is that this was done prior to The Carpenters’ rise to fame; it was originally on their first album. Very impressive.

Of course Richard Carpenter’s musical ear and arranging skills don’t really require more recognition. So let’s move on to his “under appreciated” contribution; his talent as a songwriter.

For a while it appeared that Richard’s most significant addition to the Great American Songbook would be “On Top of the World.” This was his only composition to reach number one on the Billboard pop charts, and the only one to go Top 10 on the country charts. Carpenter himself refers to this as one that “almost got away.” Not feeling that the song was all that strong, he resisted having it released as a single. Meanwhile, Lynn Anderson (who performed the now-standard “Rose Garden”) jumped on the song and made it #2 on the country charts, and even made some noise on the pop charts. When the duos’ single finally did come out, its appeal immediately soared with an even wider audience. Carpenter’s melody was pleasant but simple; we can safely say that John Bettis’ catchy lyrics had a lot to do with its success.

As good as “Top of the World” was, it has not had the lasting impact of another 1972 number that Richard penned.

The song that did, “Goodbye to Love,” was written over a lengthy period of a few months. He worked on parts of the song overseas. All in all it gives some interesting insight into how Carpenter approached the art of composing. He had a title in mind — inspired by a line from a vintage Bing Crosby movie — and turned the finished music over to Bettis for lyrics.

The song was a good one, possibly great, but it was Carpenter’s arrangement that made it one of the most influential recordings of the past 40 years. He was inspired by a guitarist who performed with Mark Lindsay; Lindsay toured for a time with the Carpenters after he left The Raiders. Lindsay had moved into a more adult contemporary style and even did a superb version of “We’ve Only Just Begun,” yet he still performed with a slightly edgier sound dating back to his garage band roots. Carpenter liked a particular distorted or “fuzz” guitar style that was used, and asked Lindsay’s guitarist to do a solo for the end of “Goodbye to Love.”

The song began innocently enough, well-orchestrated and with Karen’s ultra-smooth vocal styling. Carpenters fans loved it…until it kept building. Suddenly it became something other than a Carpenters song; here was a hard rock fuzz guitar solo! Some fans were shocked, some were thrilled, and the music world quietly took notice: Fuzz box guitar sounds on an adult-contemporary type ballad — this was something entirely new.

Prior to this, a ballad was a ballad. Some artists would goof around and do hard rock versions of ballads, but nothing that was “mainstream.”

For better or worse, by grafting grungy garage band sound to Bing Crosby, Richard Carpenter had created the first “power ballad.”  Today, having survived power ballads by everyone from Celine Dion to Air Supply, there are certainly a few music fans who might say that Carpenter unleashed a monster that has led to some stagnation in popular song. While there have been some monotonous dirges in the aftermath, the fact is that the art form has expanded, and offerings by artists ranging from Mariah Carey to Journey have all been influenced by “Goodbye to Love,” whether they know it or not.

Was — sorry, is — Richard Carpenter a great songwriter? The answer is yes, although he was not prolific enough to be put in league with people from his era like Elton John or Brian Wilson. Although he may not be remembered in that rarified air, he did leave a huge and important mark with that song. In the end, he was a better arranger than songwriter, one of the best of the modern era. The recordings he created — using his sister as his lead instrument — will be studied for centuries to come.