Christmas Portrait (1978)
Having been released on October 13, 1978, “Christmas Portrait” was the follow-up album to 1977’s “Passage.” The album has gone on to become an all-time “holiday music” classic. Originally the album reached #145 on Billboard’s Top 200 Albums Chart in 1978 and was certified Gold by the RIAA on January 16, 1981. In 2012 the album reached a new peak position at #114 and repeated that position again in 2013 and 2014. Finally in 2015 the album made it into the Top 100 reaching #93. The album was certified Platinum in 1998 and is due to be certified 2x Platinum in the near future as it has now sold more than 2 million copies (in the US).
Regardless of a general lukewarm outlook toward Carpenters, critics agree that “Christmas Portrait” is an essential holiday recording. Rolling Stone Magazine music critic, Jon Dolan, has stated, “It’s almost like Christmas was invented for Karen Carpenter to sing about.”
Karen and Richard had a lifelong fondness for Christmas music. With the idea of recording a Christmas album simmering for several years, “Christmas Portrait” was finally realized due to the Carpenters’ preparation for their second television special, “The Carpenters at Christmas,” which aired on December 9, 1977. Beginning in the summer of 1977, Karen and Richard decided as they began selecting and recording the music for this special that the time was right to record, at long last, an album dedicated to Christmas music.
Richard commented, “…by the time Karen and I began recording for this album I was not interested in more than production work. So I turned over most of the arranging to veterans Peter Knight and Billy May.” He goes on to say, “Christmas Portrait is really Karen’s album, and should have been titled accordingly, not the Carpenters.” This was mostly due to Richard’s nadir dealing with his sleeping pill problem at the time.
Christmas Portrait was fourteen months in the making, and was released on October 13, 1978. At that point in time, this was their most expensive album to produce. The number of tracks recorded for this LP pushed the envelope for an album made during that time frame — it had a total of seventeen tracks, which was almost unheard of at the time, as a LP record seldom had room for that many tracks. Many songs cross-faded with each other, weaving an expansive medley and fine tapestry of textures, colors and moods of the season.
[As an interesting aside on why it took fourteen months to make this album and to provide context, the Carpenters actually took several breaks from recording to work on other projects. They taped their third television special “Space Encounters,” which aired on May 17, 1978. Karen and Richard also recorded several songs for an album which was to be released in 1979. Some of the songs recorded were: “I Believe You,” “Where Do I Go From Here?” the studio recording of “Thank You For The Music” and a full version of “Dancing In The Street.” Unfortunately, the album was never completed, but since then many of the tracks have been released on various compilations.]
“Christmas Portrait” features a varied selection of songs ranging from the sacred to traditional Christmas tunes to some lesser-known songs. Many of the tracks on “Christmas Portrait” are from the original Spike Jones Christmas album, which Karen and Richard have said is one of the best Christmas albums ever. The emotions on “Christmas Portrait” go from upbeat and cheerful to the thought-provoking, reflective and soul-stirring. The Carpenters did more than just sing these tunes — they woke them up and breathed new life into them. They restored seldom heard verses to classic tunes and added extra sounds and textures to give the feeling of actually being in Toyland or experiencing that first snowfall.
For “Christmas Portrait,” Karen and Richard retained the bulk of their regular backup band as well employing the best musicians available. The arrangement for most of the album is reminiscent of the style of classic 1940’s movie musicals. The majority of the musical arrangements were crafted with great inspiration and care by Peter Knight. Knight was previously known for his superb work on the Moody Blues’ classic album “Days Of The Future Passed.” Knight has also worked on many other Carpenters songs, including the 1997 hit “Calling Occupants Of Interplanetary Craft” and one of Karen’s favorites, “Look To Your Dreams.” Billy May also arranged many songs for “Christmas Portrait.” May is a veteran who has worked with Frank Sinatra, and constructed the beautifully intense arrangement for The Carpenters’ “I Can Dream, Can’t I?” Richard did the arrangements for “O Come, O Come Immanuel” and the classic “Merry Christmas Darling.” Each musical arrangement is unique, detailed, crisp, clean and multi-dimensional. The songs are filled with a thrilling and chilling mix of instruments including keyboards, guitars, bass, drums, harp, oboe, and Bob Messenger’s tenor sax. Messenger has the ability to create an emotional excitement with his inspiring sax solos, as he has done so beautifully on the songs “A Song For You” and “Rainy Days and Mondays.” Another wonderful example of Messenger’s finesse is on “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas,” which is a favorite from “Christmas Portrait.”
Many critics agree that “Christmas Portrait” is one of the finest holiday albums of all-time. When asked how she felt about recording the Christmas album Karen replied, “I enjoy doing this type of music all year round, which has been proved, because it took us 14 months to cut this album, and while people were walking down the aisles saying, ‘what in heaven’s name are you doing Christmas stuff in the middle of August, it never occurred to me, ’cause I could do it anytime of the day or night, anytime of the year.” Carpenters had such a good time recording “Christmas Portrait” that they recorded way too many songs for one album. The unused “extra” tracks and additional recordings by Richard were released later in the album, “An Old-Fashioned Christmas” in October 1984.
“Christmas Portrait” is truly Christmas music at its ultimate best, and has become a perennial holiday favorite.
Release Date: October 13, 1978
Catalog Number: SP-3210
Chart Positions: #93 (US), #104 (UK)
Certifications: Platinum (US), Gold (Canada)
- Karen Carpenter – Associate Producer, Lead Vocals and backing vocals
- Richard Carpenter – Producer, Arrangements and Orchestration (on “Merry Christmas Darling”), Backing vocals, Keyboards
- Joe Osborn – Bass (electric)
- Peter Morgan – Bass (Upright)
- Tony Peluso –
- Ron Tutt – Drums
- Cubby O’Brien – Drums
- Barry Morgan – Drums
- Bob Messenger – Tenor Sax
- Pete Jolly – Keyboards
- Dorothy Remsen – Harp
- Skaila Kanga – Harp
- Gayle Levant – Harp
- Ray Gerhardt – Engineer
- Roger Young – Engineer
- Dave Iveland – Engineer
- Arnie Acosta – Mastering Engineer
- Tim Bryant – Art Direction and Design
- Illustration: Robert Tannenbaum
- Ed Caraeff – Photography
- Jack Daugherty – Producer (“Merry Christmas Darling”)
- Peter Knight – Arrangements and Orchestration
- Billy May – Arrangements and Orchestration
- Nick Perito – Arrangements and Orchestration
- The Thom Bahler Chorale – Vocals (backing)
- The OK Chorale – Vocals (backing)
- Ed Sulzer – Special Thanks
The Following is the text from A&M Records Press Kit for “Christmas Portrait”
Twenty-two years ago, a young man received a Christmas present that (lifted??) his imagination. It was an album called A Christmas Spectacular by Spike Jones, his orchestra and choral group, and for once the … Mr. Jones set his … genius aside and created a lovely array of some (25)/(35) Christmas songs that for years helped canoe in the Christmas season.
By 1970, that same young man and his sister–which by then had achieved international stardom as Karen and Richard Carpenter–began thinking about creating their own collection of Christmas songs (“The album I had in mind”, Richard recalls, “would have that same warm choral sound, those tight harmonies, and would be different than the sound we were known for”). By then, however, the Carpenters were swept up in the cyclonic pace of their own success — with 17 gold records, three Grammy awards, and worldwide sales of some 30 million records. With regular concert appearances, recording sessions and TV spectaculars, the project, of necessity, had to be postponed.
But their determination carried through, and for Christmas 1978, Karen and Richard Carpenter have created Christmas Portrait, a stunning collection of songs recorded with a 50 piece orchestra and 48 singer chorus, which may well become a Christmas classic in years to come.
The album opens with Richard’s acapella chant, “Oh Come Oh Come Emmanuel” which segues into the overture. The album includes a Julie Styne/Gus Kahn song, “Christmas Waltz”, Victor Young’s “It’s Christmas Time”, “Sleep Well Little Children”, and the annual Carpenters classic, “Merry Christmas Darling”. Richard’s choral instructor at Cal State in Long Beach, Frank Pooler, wrote the words in 1946. Richard added the music in 1966, long before the world knew of the Carpenters.
Christmas Portrait includes the surely performed Bach/Gounod “Ave Maria”, as well as the more traditional “Sleigh Ride”, “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas”, “Carol of the Bells”, “I’ll Be Home For Christmas”, “Silver Bells”, and “Silent Night”, sung with a chorus of 96 singers. The arrangements and orchestrations are by Peter Knight, Billy May, and Richard Carpenter.
Christmas Portrait reminds us that the season of fragrance of evergreens and sparkling lights, of joyful reunions and ecstatic kids is upon us again.
“Christmas Portrait” (1978)
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Close To You (1970) Click Here
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Carpenters (1971) Click Here
A Song For You (1972) Click Here
Now & Then (1973) Click Here
Horizon (1975) Click Here
A Kind Of Hush (1976) Click Here
Passage (1977) Click Here
Christmas Portrait (1978) Click Here
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Made In America (1981) Click Here
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An Old Fashioned Christmas (1984) Click Here
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