July 25: New Haven-born Duo Tops the Charts with a Four-Time Retread

 

Today in 1970, The Carpenters, the iconic pop music duo consisting of New Haven-born siblings Richard and Karen Carpenter, experienced the first major breakthrough of their musical careers. They did so with a song that had previously been recorded by a host of other performers. The pair achieved “overnight stardom” (after a decade of effort) with their rendition of “Close to You,” a song previously recorded and released by Richard Chamberlain, Dionne Warwick, Dusty Springfield, and the song’s co-composer (with Hal David), Burt Bacharach. Unlike those previous efforts, The Carpenters’ version of “Close to You” reached #1 on the Billboard charts and remained there for the next four weeks.

Born in 1946 and 1950 respectively, Richard and Karen Carpenter enjoyed a happy childhood in their suburban New Haven neighborhood. There, they attended local public schools and frequented nearby Lighthouse Point and Fort Nathan Hale parks. From an early age, Richard displayed an extraordinary talent for music, becoming a predominantly self-taught piano virtuoso. At 14, he began taking advanced piano lessons at the Yale School of Music with the intention of becoming a professional performer. Karen Carpenter idolized her older brother and, following in his footsteps, developed her own musical talents, first as a singer, and later as a percussionist. The two often practiced together in the basement of their New Haven home.

In 1963, the Carpenter family moved to southern California, and six years later, A&M records signed a deal with them after hearing a demo tape. Richard’s talent for musical arrangement and performance coupled with Karen’s smooth, soulful contralto voice proved to be a winning combination. Following the success of their “Close to You” album, they remained a dominant force in the American pop music scene for well over a decade. They earned three Grammy awards, performed at the White House, starred in their own television series, and toured worldwide before Karen’s tragic death from anorexia nervosa in 1983.

To date, the Carpenters remain one of the best-selling duos of all time, having sold over 90 million albums. It’s a stellar achievement sparked by “overnight success” a decade-in-the-making, and a song making its fifth attempt at the charts.

Further Reading

Suzie Hunter, “Revisiting the Carpenters’ New Haven Roots,” WTNH News 8

Randy L. Schmidt, “Little Girl Blue: The Life of Karen Carpenter (excerpt and book review),” New York Times