By 1965, the Carpenter family had been living in California for two years. Around a year after the original move, Karen started to develop an interest in music like her brother, but it would be some time before her talent as a singer or drummer surfaced. Initially Karen followed her brother into the school choir, although as Richard recalls, as a vocalist in these formative years, she displayed no talent. As a way out of gym lessons, Karen also joined the marching band and was assigned the glockenspiel. This however, like earlier attempts at the flute and the accordion, would be short lived. Karen joked years later that her association with the glockenspiel was destined to be short lived, because it was ‘always a quarter-step sharp to the band, which used to drive me crazy’.
Uniquely, for a teenage girl in the mid 1960s, Karen was instantly taken over by a love for the drums, which marched alongside her in the percussion line of the band. After much persuasion, her parents broke down and bought her a small set of drums. Richard recalled years later that ‘she took to them…all the exotic time signatures’. In the summer of 1965, with Karen’s talent as a drummer developing fast, they started as a trio with a friend, Wes Jacobs, on bass. One of the first pieces to be recorded was the Duke Ellington standard ‘Caravan’, a rare recording which surfaced 25 years later on the Carpenters box set of recordings.
The trio spent day after day, rehearsing and recording on Richards two track machine, and trying out a range of original and cover songs. Occasionally, Richard asked his sister to sing, and she would reluctantly oblige. But as Richard recalls, at that time she was much more interested in being a drummer. In 1965, Richard penned one of his first songs, “You’ll Love Me” and Karen sang this song.
At this time, Karen’s voice was still in its embryonic stages, as these recordings show. But within a matter of months, her voice had started to rapidly develop and through a friend of a friend, they were introduced to Joe Osborne, a top West Coast bass player renowned in the LA music scene. Joe believed in the duo’s talent, and especially in Karen and gave them the opportunity of using his garage recording studio free of charge, to experiment with their developing sound, and the overdubbing process that Richard remembered from childhood musical memories.
On May 13th 1966 Karen was signed to Magic Lamp, a small record label run by Joe Osborne and his partner. By this time, Richard believed that Karen’s voice, whilst still a little rough around the edges, had the commercial potential that might win them a break. Two original sides were recorded and released as a single, “Looking For Love” and “I’ll Be Yours”, both penned by Richard. Only around 500 copies were pressed and the single duly went nowhere. Today, this elusive single is considered the ‘Lost Ark of the Covenant’ as far as Carpenters releases are concerned, and copies are valued at around $4,500.
In the meantime, the trio was also active on the music front. In 1966, The Richard Carpenter Trio entered – and won – the Hollywood Bowl Battle of the Bands, wowing audience and judges alike with their technically complex renditions of “The Girl From Ipanema” and Richard’s own composition “Iced Tea”. Following their success in this contest, they were approached by Neely Plumb, West Coast Executive of A&R with RCA Victor Records, who believed there was a future in the trio’s jazz sound. Eleven sides were cut but the results were given the thumbs down by the label.
Around the same time, Richard met John Bettis in the school choir, and a firm friendship – as well as songwriting partnership soon developed. They began writing songs together, and many of those songs would feature on Carpenters albums in the years to come.
The following year, Wes Jacobs left the trio for a future at Julliard. Undaunted, Richard, his friends and Karen formed a new group, Summerchimes. Nine songs were recorded at a new studio called United Audio in Orange County. In May of 1967 “You’ll Love Me” was recorded. In the months that follows, Summerchimes evolved into Spectrum, adding Doug Strawn, and the group secured performances at well-known venues around LA, including the Troubadour.
By mid 1968 Spectrum had disbanded, but Richard and Karen had now set their sights even higher. On June the 22nd and 28th of 1968 Karen, Richard and a bass player appeared as Richard Carpenter Trio on ‘Your All American College Show’, where they performed “The Shadow Of Your Smile” and “Dancing In The Street”. Around this time there was a also group called The First Edition, who were auditioning for female vocalist, and Karen decided to audition. As Richard recalled in the 1993 BBC radio special, “I figured, once they hear Karen… Karen’s voice REALLY became magical when it was amplified. I mean, if she stood in this room and sang she was great, but it was very soft. So once it became amplified, it brought out just how terrific it really was… And I figured, here goes everything I’ve been working towards because they’re gonna sign her and that’s that! Come on, this was 1968, Karen sounded like KAREN! And they turned her down! I couldn’t believe it! I mean, you are talking about a BIG mistake!”
Undaunted, they continued to send out audition tapes of material which, by now, featured only the two of them overdubbing all of the vocal parts. They also decided to call themselves simply ‘Carpenters’. They were still touting their demo tapes around LA when they got a call, as a result of their TV appearance, to audition for The Going Thing, a group featured in the TV ads promoting the new Ford Mustang, and which was to be augmented and sent out on the road. They sailed through the audition and signed a deal, when out of the blue came the breakthrough they had been waiting for. As Richard recalled in the 1993 BBC documentary, “lo-and-behold – within DAYS of signing this contract, the A&M deal comes through. It’s like, either all or nothing at all, you know? Of course it was a big deal giving up $50,000 a year PLUS a car each… but that was to be in another group! Obviously what we were working towards was the two of us. And here was Herb Alpert…well, the people at J. Walter Thompson were all very nice about it, they let us out of the contract instead of being hard-nosed about it – and on we went to A&M.”
Contributed by: Stephen (Newvillefan at LeadSister Forums) Thanks!