Carpenters (the Band): The First Family of Sunshine Pop

All about the duo that ruled the '70s soft-rock scene

The Carpenters
The Carpenters. Getty Images

Who Were the Carpenters?

Jazz multi-instrumentalist Richard Carpenter and his sister, drummer and vocalist Karen, were the kings of "Sunshine pop," that eternally optimistic brand of early-'70s pop. But their other tracks hinted at some harder, more painful realities, which may have had some bearing on the mental disorder which silenced Karen's legendarily honeyed voice at the age of only 33.

The Carpenters' best known songs:

  • "(They Long To Be) Close To You" 
  • "Top of the World"
  • "Superstar"
  • "Rainy Days and Mondays"
  • "We've Only Just Begun"
  • "Merry Christmas Darling"
  • "Yesterday Once More"
  • "Sing"
  • "Hurting Each Other"
  • "For All We Know"

Where you might have heard them "Close to You" and "Top of the World" are so emblematic of the "Have a Nice Day" era -- and still such amazing examples of the innocence in love's first blush -- that you can never tell where they'll pop up with varying degrees of sincerity: the former can be found in "House of Lies," "The Simpsons," and a plot point of sorts in the classic sports comedy movie The Best of Times, and the latter in "Friends" and Shrek Forever After. That irony sometimes extends to a song like"Sing" ("That '70s Show") or "We've Only Just Begun" (the Borat movie!). 

Formed 1968 (New Haven, CT)

Styles Pop, Sunshine Pop, Soft-rock, Pop-country


Karen Carpenter (b. March 2, 1950, New Haven, CT; d. February 4, 1983, Downey, CA): lead vocals, drums
Richard Carpenter (b. October 15, 1946, New Haven, CT): piano, backing vocals

Claims to fame:

  • The most successful soft-rock act of the Seventies
  • Brought a new level of romantic sophistication to sunshine pop
  • Their lush arrangements and tight songcraft made them one of the more tasteful artists of their era
  • Karen Carpenter's voice is recognized as one of the greatest vocal instruments in the history of pop
  • Karen was also one of the first female rock drummers to make a name for herself

History of the Carpenters

Early years

A natural musician, Richard Carpenter mastered the piano at an early age, playing around his hometown of New Haven in a jazz trio and studying the instrument further at Yale while still only 15. The Carpenter family soon moved to Downey, CA, however, and Richard joined the local high school marching band. Although his sister Karen had no formal training, she also joined band to escape Phys Ed -- and found herself a natural at the drums. Before long the two formed the Richard Carpenter Jazz Trio with friend Wes Jacobs; after winning a Battle of the Bands contest at the Hollywood Bowl, RCA signed them.


That dream was short-lived, however, and the label soon dropped the trio, who then evolved into a sextet named Spectrum. After several more false starts, a poppier demo featuring Karen's voice found its way to Herb Alpert of A&M, who signed them immediately. A ballad rendition of the Beatles' "Ticket to Ride" made some headway on the charts, but a cover of the Bacharach/David song "(They Long to Be) Close to You" put them over the top the following year. Their next single came from an unlikely source: "We've Only Just Begun" was written by Paul Williams to be included in a TV ad featuring a California bank.

Later years

The duo ruled the pop charts in the early Seventies with hits penned by Williams, Leon Russell, and Richard himself, working with former Spectrum member John Bettis. By the middle of the decade, however, Richard had become addicted to pharmaceuticals, and Karen had begun to develop anorexia stemming from weight problems she'd had in her teens. By the time Richard got his problem under control, the disco craze was in full swing; by 1981, the duo managed a small comeback with the hit "Touch Me When We're Dancing," but before they could continue, Karen died in 1983 from cardiac arrest brought on by her anorexia.

More About the Carpenters

Other Carpenters fun facts and trivia:

  • Karen originally played glockenspiel before switching to drums, beginning with chopsticks on a bar stool
  • The duo worked at Disneyland before their big break, and appeared in commercials for the Ford Maverick
  • The group's official name is simply Carpenters, without "The," which Richard thought made them sound less hip
  • Alpert signed the Carpenters because Karen's voice reminded him of Patti Page
  • John Lennon was a big fan of Karen's voice and their rendition of "Ticket To Ride"
  • Performed for Richard Nixon at the White House in 1973
  • The family home in Downey, CA, serves as a shrine to many fans, but is scheduled for demolition

Carpenters awards and honors: GRAMMY Awards (1970, 1971), Hollywood Walk of Fame (6931 Hollywood Boulevard)

Hit Carpenters Songs and Albums

#1 hits
Pop "(They Long to Be) Close to You" (1970), "Merry Christmas Darling" (1970), "Top of the World" (1973), "Please Mr. Postman" (1975)

Top 10 hits
Pop "We've Only Just Begun" (1970), "Superstar" (1971), "Rainy Days and Mondays" (1971), "For All We Know" (1971), "Hurting Each Other" (1972), "Goodbye to Love" (1972), "Yesterday Once More" (1973), "Sing" (1973), "Only Yesterday" (1975)

Notable covers Sonic Youth made a sincere, dark, and noisy tribute pass at "Superstar" on a '90s tribute album (If I Were a Carpenter) that also featured covers by Sheryl Crow, Cracker, and the Cranberries; "Top of the World" has been reinterpreted by everyone from Jerry Vale to Shonen Knife to Stabbing Westward; "Close to You," their most-covered song, may be the only song ever covered by both Frank Sinatra and the Circle Jerks 

Movies and TV Karen and Richard appeared on episodes of both Della Reese and Bob Hope's short-lived '70s sitcoms, but they were ubiquitous all by themselves in television land, creating no less than four TV specials (two of them Christmas-themed) and a summer replacement variety show called "Make Your Own Kind of Music" in 1971