On the morning of January 10, 1979, Richard Carpenter boarded a plane to Menninger’s Clinic in Topeka, Kansas, for treatment of his addiction to Quaaludes. At first Karen kept herself busy working on little projects here and there but soon she grew anxious to get back into the studio. She had mentioned in a 1978 interview that she had thought about doing a solo record (and Richard could score a movie). She thought it would be nice to get recognition as a solo artist. She had other offers at the time such as an offer from Gene Simmons (from the hard rock band KISS). He asked her to do a guest vocal on his upcoming solo album. Karen turned this offer down.
After Richard left for Topeka several of her friends and associates suggested that she take time off and get some help for her own issues. She became incensed by this and insisted that she didn’t have any problems, that she was just fine. Two weeks into his stay at Menningers Karen visited Richard to let him know of her plans to go to New York and record a solo album. This did not sit well with Richard. He did not want his sister flying off to New York to record without him. Maybe it was at this time that he realized she could sell more records on her own. He suggested that she go and check into an institute for anorexics. Karen quickly shut that idea down and eventually Richard did give her his blessings on doing a solo album with one stipulation, that she doesn’t do “disco.”
It was 1979 and Karen Carpenter’s voice had been a constant on the radio for an entire decade as part of a duo. When you saw Karen’s face you also saw Richard’s face. They were inseparable. Her voice had been played alongside the greats such as Carly Simon, Linda Ronstadt, Barbra Streisand and Diana Ross. Karen was equally great but was not receiving the recognition she felt she deserved. For quite some time Karen very much wanted to do her own thing. It was not that she had a problem working with Richard, she just had the desire to explore and develop different angles of her talent. Karen knew she was gifted and had quite a bit more to offer than just being the lead singer of Carpenters.
Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss (A&M) along with Carpenters’ manager Jerry Weintraub highly supported the idea of Karen dong a solo album (Hey maybe there was some money to be made here). After Richard left Menningers he was still not ready to get back to work and he ended up spending the rest of 1979 in Long Beach, CA, at the home of friend and band-mate Gary Sims. At this point in time Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss approached Jerry Weintraub about the solo album idea. They mentioned that Richard was not doing well and needed to take time off. The decision was a business decision. Carpenters were a major money maker for A&M and they did not want to miss out on any profits that could be made from Karen’s voice during this period while Richard was away. For Karen the idea of a solo album had more to do with her self-identity. Karen was ready to carve out an identity of her own. She wanted to be known as Karen Carpenter.
It was Herb that suggested Karen work with mega-producer Phil Ramone. Ramone had a protfolio more impressive than anybody else at the time having worked with Frank Sinatra, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Chicago, Billy Joel, James Taylor, Aretha Franklin, Barbra Streisand and several others. Karen went with Herb’s suggestion and set out to meet with Phil Ramone. Phil Ramone was one of those producers that dug deep into the musicians that he produced. He studied their characters, he would get to know their previous body of work. He was like a detective researching every angle of his subject. This helped Phil to assist his client in creating a sound unique to the person and their personality.
After several conversations with Phil Ramone Karen boarded a plane to New York on May 1, 1979. The night before she confided to Olivia Newton-John that she was excited about her new project but she was also uneasy about going on without Richard. They had always worked together and Karen had a great admiration for Richard’s talents as a musician, songwriter, arranger and producer. Karen had a deep loyalty to Richard, but at the same point she very much wanted to make a go of her new found independence. This was her opportunity to show her strength and be the person she wanted to be. On May 2, 1979, Karen Carpenter and Phil Ramone met for their first official production meeting. In this meeting Karen told Phil her vision. Karen mentioned that she loved Donna Summer and that her current favorite was Summer’s hit “Hot Stuff.” Karen said she’d do anything to do a song like that.
Initially Karen stayed in a suite in the UN Plaza Hotel in New York, though two weeks later Ramone suggested that she come and stay in Poundridge, Connecticut, with he and his then girlfriend Karen “Itchie” Itchiuji (Karen Ramone) in their home. This gave Phil the opportunity to get to know Karen better. He discovered that she had been overly guarded by A&M execs. He felt she was a tad bit immature for a 29 year old woman and that she never mentally left her parents nest. Ramone’s goal was to shed that image of immaturity and bring the world a glamorous and grown up Karen Carpenter. He felt it was time for her to stop making the cutesy-pie records. Karen agreed. Karen very much wanted to move on. She was tired of being viewed as the sad, lonely little girl. She wanted to grow up and be independent. She wanted the world to view her as a strong woman. With Phil Ramone she had her first opportunity to achieve something she had very much wanted in her life for the past few years. In the studio Phil was tough on Karen and he challenged her, yet he was also protective of her like her uncle. He really had a deep love for her as a person and a friend and he kept a watchful and protective eye on her.
After Karen made her move to the Ramone household in Connecticut, she and Phil began making the daily 43 mile commute to Ramone’s recording studio A&R, which was located in New York on 48th street. A&R was a major independent recording studio founded in 1958 by Jack Arnold and Phil Ramone (hence the A&R). Many artists recorded there including Clay Aiken, Burt Bacharach, Bobo, Laura Branigan, Ray Charles, Chicago, Natalie Cole, Aretha Franklin, Billy Joel, Elton John, Liza Minnelli, Quincy Jones, Madonna, Paul McCartney, Carly Simon, Paul Simon, James Taylor, Frank Sinatra and our own Miss Karen Carpenter as well as many others.
It was during these initial daily commutes that Karen and Phil took the time to listen to the stockpile of tapes that had been submitted to them. They went through hundreds of songs while driving toward their destination. While Phil drove Karen played the songs and rated each one on paper. As her producer Ramone was a beacon of change for Karen. Karen was the one from the beginning that wanted to do songs that were suggestive in nature but she also knew that she did have this image that would be very hard to shake. She was intelligent and diplomatic in the material she chose. She didn’t choose anything that she felt would be too far off base for her but at the same point she chose songs she felt expressed who she was as a young woman of 29. Phil Ramone gave Karen complete control over the songs she chose, he never forced her to record anything she didn’t want to record. She chose songs that felt natural to her. The songs she ended up recording were flirty without becoming too overt. There were a few songs that Karen wanted to sing which Ramone felt did go a bit too far with the explicitly sexual lyrical content. In one instance Phil told Karen, “You can’t sing those words.” Karen responded, “Well, that is what I would really like to sing.” Eventually Phil was able to convince Karen to drop the idea and remain somewhere in the middle with her choices. In those initial meetings Karen said she would do anything to make a record like Donna Summer’s “Hot Stuff.” Ramone helped Karen choose songs such as “My Body Keeps Changing My Mind” and “If I Had You,” which explored other avenues of Karen’s versatile vocal ability. Karen had an uncanny talent of being able to change her voice to suit the song. In these songs Phil recorded Karen in a more comfortable mid-range which gave her voice a joyous and tantalizing feel to it. Gone was the sad melancholic gloom. The basement voice was always going to be there and it is that basement voice that worked for Karen in the 1970’s, but they were moving into the 1980’s and what worked for Karen in the 70’s just was not going to cut it anymore. Some of the songs contained bits of Karen’s deep, dark tones as in “Make Believe It’s Your First time,” “If I Had You,” and the wonderfully lazy feeling “If We Try.” Several of the songs featured a bit of a higher ranged voice, but never too high pitched that Karen would be singing out of her comfort zone. Phil Ramone (and master vocal arranger, Rod Temperton) kept Karen squarely within her range of vocal comfort.
As the days and weeks went by Karen (Itchie) Itchiuji and Karen Carpenter became close friends. Itchie was somewhat a mentor for Karen in that she helped her to loosen up a bit and enjoy her beauty and versatility. Itchie was also a constant in the studio many times as a voice of support for Karen. The Ramone household welcomed a new resident from Europe who ended up staying in the guest house. This guest was one that would become an integral part of Karen’s solo album. His name was Rodney Lynn Temperton (better known as Rod Temperton). At that point in time Temperton had been successful with his disco/funk/jazz/soul band Heatwave who had scored the major hits, “Boogie Nights,” “The Groove Line” and the classic, slow jam “Always and Forever.” Ramone invited Temperton to come to New York to write for Karen. He moved in with only a keyboard and a set of headphones. Before long the Ramone household became Karen Carpenter’s musical commune. Almost immediately Rod offered Karen his songs “Off The Wall” and “Rock With You,” which Karen turned down. At that point the songs were in very raw form and lacked direction. It was Phil Ramone that introduced Rod to Quincy Jones which led Rod to offer the songs to Michael Jackson. Karen visited Michael Jackson in the studio while he was recording “Get On The Floor” for his “Off The Wall” album. This led to another connection of bassist Louis Johnson (of the funk band Brothers Johnson), Louis co-wrote “Get On The Floor” with Michael Jackson. Subsequently Louis Johnson was hired to play bass for Karen’s solo album and in the process he developed a huge crush on Karen Carpenter. Initially Phil was upset that Karen did not want to record Rod’s songs. Though soon enough Rod wrote a few songs tailor made for Karen’s voice. The songs that transpired were: “If We Try,” “Lovelines” and the unreleased “Midnight Never Lets You Down.” Despite having written some great songs for Karen, Rod’s biggest contribution to the success of Karen’s album are the vocal arrangements (acrobatics) he crafted specifically for Karen to sing. Rod came up with some very challenging vocal parts, quite a bit more complex than what Karen was used to singing with Carpenters. Temperton had Karen singing six, seven, eight part harmonies with notes very close together. Karen nailed it to perfection, most parts she got on the first take. As time progressed Rod and Karen developed an excellent working relationship and friendship. They spent many hours together as Rod was the second most major contributor to Karen’s album after Phil Ramone (and, of course Karen). He had a way of making Karen crack up with his sense of humor and his ever present cup of coffee. Rod Temperton was known for always having a cup of coffee with him.
Finally it was time to lay some tracks in the studio and Phil was every bit a perfectionist as anybody that is as successful as he was in the industry. He was tough as nails on Karen and this was exactly what she needed to grow as a vocalist and as a human being. In one session Phil brought Karen to tears over her pronunciation of the word “love.” He said for a Carpenters record that pronunciation works, but for your solo record it does not. He said you’ve got to really feel the word not just sing the word. He said, “No one’s asking you your personal life in the studio, but when you give it up to a record and you say, ‘I wanna the spend the night with you,’ you can’t have a vague veil up in front of you. If you want to withhold it from your audience that’s up to you, but I can’t have you do that for me.” With this sort of direction and nurturing Phil was able to bring a side of Karen’s voice out that I suspect even she did not know existed. It was a side much more in touch with her intuition and emotions as a woman as opposed to her feelings as the innocent girl next door. This was a time of evolution and change for Karen Carpenter. At times she was determined and resolute and at other times she was ready to crawl back into her shell. Though Phil (and Itchie) were always able to coax her back and she moved forward. Despite his, at times, firm way of handling things in the studio, Ramone always kept Karen’s feelings in mind. He was the ultimate teacher and mentor, his patience for detail and eye for perfection ensured that the end result would be satisfactory. He was very gentle and sensitive with Karen. He nurtured her and she felt secure working with Phil. He supported her vision 100% from the start to the very end.
The next major player on Karen’s album was smooth jazz legend Bob James. He’s a master jazz keyboardist, composer, arranger, orchestrator and producer. Bob was brought in to compose and conduct the orchestrations for Karen’s album. The combination of Bob James’ musical arrangements and Rod Temperton’s vocal compositions laid the basis of the sound for Karen’s solo album which was steeped in smooth jazz with underlying hints of funk and pop. By the time James began working on the Karen Carpenter project he had a huge catalog of successful works with several other artists along with eight of his own albums. Despite his major successes he was still very much in awe of Karen Carpenter so much that he was starstruck by her. He considered it the highest honor to be able to play piano for “thee” Karen Carpenter. In quoting a paragraph from Randy Schmidt’s book ‘Little Girl Blue,’ Karen felt challenged by the intricate background vocal arrangements, many of which took on a brass-influenced instrumental feel. Bob James was responsible for several arrangements, including ‘If I Had you,’ the most funk-filled, demanding and ambitious of all. Like Ramone, he felt obligated to move Karen out of the Carpenters mold. “I wanted to give her something different and challenging,” James explains, “I was very intrigued to find out how she would react to an arrangement that was deliberately moving away from the Carpenters sound.” Karen’s inimitable style on the sophisticated “If I had You” resulted in an original and captivating piece of ear candy with a complex, mulit-layered call-and-response ending, the brainchild of Rod Temperton. Karen immersed herself into the song and the result was staggering. “If I Had You” along with several others from the album had the potential to zoom right into the Top Ten. Karen’s solo album was full of hit single potential starting with the staggering “If I Had You,” to the flirtatious “Guess I Just Lost My Head” and moving into the power pop “Making Love In The Afternoon,” which featured Peter Cetera on harmony vocals.
Phil Ramone hired Billy Joel’s backing band to record most of the songs on the album. The band consisted of Russell Javors, Liberty DeVitto, Doug Stegmeyer and David Brown. The guys were currently working on Joel’s “Glass Houses.” They worked on both albums simultaneously and both albums were slated to be released in March 1980. The band, which called itself “Le’ Band,” was an entirely new experience for her. Karen was accustomed to working in a musically controlled environment where every part was laid out for the musicians and they recorded what was written for them. Not much was left to spontaneity while recording those Carpenters albums. Phil Ramone took a different approach, the band was a real band. They were more like a garage band, they had fun doing what they did. They joked around a lot, but they had an immense amount of respect for Karen Carpenter. The band had a raw energy which worked well with the ebullience in Karen’s voice. Some of the stuff that ended up being recorded was worked out during the process of the recording. There was a good amount of spontaneity in doing Karen’s solo record than in doing a Carpenters record.
Karen had a blast in the studio with “Le’ Band.” She didn’t see them as much as some of the other musicians (like Rod Temperton or Bob James) as most of the band’s tracks were laid at one of A&R’s other studios. Though when they did work together it was a great time. Karen very much enjoyed this environment but she did let the guys know that she did not appreciate them using the “f” word so much. Phil even made it a rule that when Karen was around the guys were not supposed to use curse words. Liberty DeVitto played drums on Karen’s album and they bonded on many occasions talking about drum techniques and such. Karen asked if she could sit behind Lib’s drum-kit, which of course he obliged her and she did that great Carpenters tom-tom fill. Though, Karen maintained the attitude that Liberty was the drummer for the album and that she was the singer and never once interfered with what he was doing. She had complete respect for his work. Liberty and Karen developed an amusing friendship in the studio. He had a crush on her and took delight in poking fun at her and making her laugh. One time he brought a copy of the Carpenters’ “Christmas Portrait” album into the studio with mustaches drawn on Karen’s and Richard’s faces. Karen cracked up over this. Liberty’s favorite track from the album is “Remember When Lovin’ Took All Night. “It’s all there,” he said, “The groove, Karen’s lead vocal and those amazing backing vocals.” He recalls how hard she worked on that song: “Karen was a perfectionist in the studio and wanted the vocals to be perfect. She worked so hard on ‘Remember When Lovin’ Took All Night’ that she began hyperventilating and passed out while doing the backing vocals. Her vocals were amazing and she did them all: lead, backing and harmony.” Karen confided in Liberty and told him she was ready to move on, that she wanted to break away from recording those cutesy-pie songs. Karen ended up recording three songs written by Russell Javors, including “All Because Of you,” “Still In Love With you” and the unreleased “Truly You.” He was absolutely thrilled that Karen Carpenter liked his songs enough to record them. There was a fourth song “Room At The Top,” which was commissioned for Karen to record, but Karen never got around to that song. Russell worked more with Karen than the other Billy Joel band members primarily for the fact that she recorded the songs he wrote and composed the arrangement for “Still In Love With You.” Javors commented that “Still In Love With You,” was not an easy one for Karen to sing; it was an attitude she had never explored before in a song. Javors said, “At one point I was in the vocal booth with Karen, and I lip-synched the lyrics while she was recording her vocal because she wanted to duplicate my phrasing. I was impressed on how hard she worked to put her stamp on it and make it her own.” Javors also mentioned how surprised he was at how soft she sang. She was this little tiny voice coming out of the vocal booth, it was kind of like a whisper. “But when you heard her voice on a record it was big and full,” Javors said, “Karen’s voice was so rich and textured. Her voice was powerful without having to belt it out.” The atmosphere in the studio was that of a team, everybody worked together and Karen was involved in every step of the process. Phil Ramone made sure that Karen was “one of the guys,” part of the team. Javors said the most challenging part of this project was creating songs and sounds that didn’t sound like Carpenters. This was tough because Karen’s voice and sound was so recognizable at the time.
There was an abundance of young talent brooding in New York at the time and Phil Ramone was one to capitalize on the freshness of youth. One such young novice was Rob Mounsey, Phil brought him in to work on Karen’s album but Rob was more than just a novice. This guy at the young age of 26 was seriously talented beyond his years. Karen’s solo album was the first project on which Phil included Rob Mounsey. Karen immediately took to Rob’s tender and gentle nature. The soft spoken Rob Mounsey had a huge amount of respect for Karen as he got to know her. He said she was one of the greatest people he had ever known. “Karen was very smart, very gifted and accomplished,” Rob commented. “She gave me the ultimate compliment when she likened my talent to her brother Richard.” Rob took much care and patience in working with Karen. He presented his song “Guess I Just Lost My Head” to Karen for possible inclusion on her album. She loved the song and decided to record it. Rob says he was elated when she decided to record his song. He immediately went to work on arranging and orchestrating the song. This song was 100% Rob’s song from beginning to end including the electronic keyboard solo in the middle of the song. During the recording of this soulful smooth jazz tune it came to their attention that the song had been written from a male’s perspective and one line in particular just did not work for Karen. Rob sat down to attempt to rework the lyric which originally read, “I was only watching the flower in your hair,” but he was stumped. Rob just could not come up with an alternate line that would be fitting from a female perspective. Finally, it was Karen herself that came up with the alternate line, “only trying to memorize you there.”
Another young musician from New York, Glenn Berger, was invited by Phil Ramone to work on Karen’s album. Glenn worked on the technical side of things. He was only 24 years old in 1979/80 but was already advanced in the area of recording engineering. Berger had apprenticed with Ramone since 1973 from the age of 18. Phil felt Berger’s attention to detail and youthful exuberance would suit Karen’s solo project perfectly. Berger was brought in to mix and master Karen’s album. “Karen had an obsession with everything Disney,” Berger commented. “She wore a Mickey Mouse t-shirt and a Goofy wrist watch.” Berger says, “Karen Carpenter was such a sweetheart and working on her album was such a prestigious project. The minute Karen got behind the microphone I was blown away,” Berger commented, “She had an amazing voice, a truly amazing instrument. She not only had a great sound, but her precision of time and pitch were impeccable.”
The recording process of Karen’s solo album was a huge undertaking. Initially it was planned to be a double album release with an offer to purchase a “Behind the Scenes Making of the Album” video tape. A&M Records invested $100,000 for the project while Karen Carpenter invested $400,000 of her own money. This was going to be a half million dollar project which was unheard of at the time. Karen’s solo album was going to be released with a good amount of fanfare.
Along with the change in sound part of the making of Karen Carpenter’s solo album was creating a new image to fit the new sound. The wide-eyed, sweet, girl-next-door look was not going to work as Karen Carpenter entered into the 80’s. Other female (and male) artists successfully experienced such a transition from 70’s to 80’s. Olivia Newton-John, Crystal Gayle and Donna Summer all underwent stylistic changes as they entered the 80’s. Karen Carpenter’s evolution was a natural next step for her as an artist and as a lady soon to turn 30 years old. The first step Phil Ramone took was to hire Phyllis Posnick as Karen’s fashion coordinator. Phyllis came highly recommended and at the time she was working as a fashion and sport editor for both Vogue and Glamour Magazine. Posnick was one of the finest in creating an atmosphere. She spent hours sketching out ideas for clothing, hairstyles, props, furniture and the overall culture of the photographs and images to be used for Karen’s solo album as well as images and settings to be used for the promotion of her album. Phyllis set the atmosphere and the culture of Karen’s new image. With her husband Paul Posnick, Phyllis created the concept of Karen Carpenter Solo. Paul Posnick’s collaborative nature worked extremely well with Karen. He took the time and patience to develop and communicate the core idea of what would be known as the Karen Carpenter brand. Posnick knew exactly how to establish a concept that would compel people to react with their heart, mind and emotions.
After the concept was developed the finer details were brought into play. Joe Tubens was hired to craft Karen’s new hair styles. Tubens had recently designed the hairstyles for the lead characters in the movies “Saturday Night Fever” (1977) and “Hair” (1979). Taking from the Posnick’s basic concepts of who Karen Carpenter solo was Tubens proceeded to give Karen her new coif. He took Karen’s long, layered, semi-curly wavy hair style, which exemplified that down home girl next door style, to a shorter, stylish, wash-and-wear, permed look that suited the aura Phyllis Posnick was looking to create for Karen. The shorter style could be fluffed out for a fuller, flirty look, which suited sophisticated yet flirtatious songs such as “Guess I Just Lost My Head” and “Still In Love With You.” The chestnut brown coloring brought dimension to the layered shag cut with medium to dark auburn highlights.
Max Henriquez, who also worked on the films “Saturday Night Fever” and “Hair,” was brought in to do Karen’s makeup. The make-up was sophisticated and smooth; never heavy, but natural looking. Earth tones were primarily used to accent Karen’s distinctive facial features with shadowing and accents for darker glamor effects in some shots. Her eyebrows were thinned and sculpted to flatter her face and bring about a sophisticated Vogue styled look.
The hair was in place, the makeup was applied, the chic wardrobe was tailor made to fit, the props and furniture were strategically placed. Now it was time to take some photos.
Phil Ramone had contacted Claude Mougin to do the photo sessions, which were all done within a two hour session on February 2, 1980. Karen had been accustomed to Carpenters photos shoots which were pretty much run of the mill get the lighting right and smile. This photo shoot was more of a Vogue style session. The concept of this entire photo session had been created by Phyllis Posnick, who had been working for Vogue for nearly 15 years at that point. Photographer Claude Mougin had also done work with Vogue as well as Glamour and Harper’s Bazarr. This photo session was very much a Vogue type event. Karen Carpenter was pampered in a way that was exotic and unusual for her. She was not used to this sort of glamour and attention. Karen was quite nervous about the whole event and had a hard time relaxing for the photos. Itchie recognized that Karen seemed panicky so she suggested a cup of herbal tea to calm her down. Itchie brought Karen a cup of chamomile tea spiked with some honey and five milligrams of Valium which in short time brought Karen to a level where she was able to relax and enjoy the photo session. By this time she felt confident and beautiful and the photo session went smoothly.
After the album had been completed Phil and Karen presented it to a listening party in New York at which the response was ecstatic. The aura in the room was that Karen Carpenter had a solid hit on her hands. Karen and Phil then took the album to Herb Alpert, Jerry Moss and Richard Carpenter at A&M Records in Los Angeles, CA, and it was at that point Alpert, Moss and Richard Carpenter decided that the album should not be released. Against Karen’s wishes they shelved her album in favor of working on a new Carpenters project. Finally in 1996 (thirteen years after Karen’s passing) the album was released with the following dedication: “Dedicated to my brother Richard with all my heart.” – Karen Carpenter
The Unreleased Songs:
There were nine extra songs Karen recorded for her solo album which were not released.
Click on each of the images below for more information on each unreleased song.
Little Girl Blue by Randy Schmidt Click Here for “Little Girl Blue”
The Carpenters: The Untold Story: An Authorized Biography by Ray Coleman Click here for Ray Coleman’s Book
The Carpenters Online Interviews Expanded Edition by Rick Henry Click Here to see Online Interviews Expanded
“Guess I Just Lost My Head” is my favorite from Karen’s solo album – Rick Henry
We Love You Karen Carpenter