The First Lady was presumably fair game, but would CBS's Morley Safer have asked Mrs. Agnes Carpenter how she'd react if her daughter, Karen, had a premarital affair? Or—damn the double standard—what if her son, Richard, were messing around? The singing Carpenters are probably the most popular brother-and-sister act since Fred and Adele Astaire. But it is their curse to be grooved in a middle-of-the-road musical bag and life-style at odds with much of their own generation.
Richard, 29, lived at home with his folks (in suburban L.A.) until two years ago. Karen, 26, is just now in the process of moving out. Bette Midler has rudely parodied their Goody-Four-Shoes persona in her show. A deejay, figuring they were too pure to be real, once charmingly asked Richard in a phone interview if their thing was incest. And, for their contemporaries, perhaps the most ruinous rap ever laid on them came at a White House performance in 1973 when Richard Nixon hailed them as "Young America at its very best."
In truth, the Carpenters now fess up, neither of them is a virgin. Both favor legalization of marijuana. "It's no worse than alcohol," observes Karen, an iced tea freak herself. But, as Richard protests gloomily, the two of them just can't kick their "squeaky-clean, milk-drinking image. We make Pat Boone look dirty." And, unfortunately, dirty is in these days. Movie porn queen Andrea True moans an explicit piece of trash—More, More, More—and it becomes a gold record. She will almost certainly never have another one; yet Andrea is getting more, more, more attention than the Carpenters, who simultaneously collected their 17th gold wall plaque for their current LP, A Kind of Hush.
Among the previous 16 are half a dozen bona fide standards, including two composed by Richard, Top of the World and Goodbye to Love. The Carpenters' first two hits, Close to You and We've Only Just Begun, are now memorialized as names of apartment house complexes they built in L.A. They also have interests in a baby carriage company and at one time owned a shopping center. But they have toured as many as 250 days a year along the way, and their lives were not as silky or upbeat as their art.
They were hardly immune from the debilitating, disorienting effects of the road. "Several years went by," as Richard put it, "and we lost contact with any personal life—it all become professional, and we were losing our identity." "It was sickening," adds Karen. "Suddenly it wasn't fun anymore." Last year it finally all got to her. Though she usually has to diet to keep at her playing weight of 110, Karen dropped worrisomely to a gaunt 90 pounds. Quickly, they canceled a tour to Europe and Japan and a command performance for Queen Elizabeth—their first blown gigs in six years. Karen was suffering from "physical and nervous exhaustion," and it took two months of bed rest at home to recuperate.
Then when they got back into business, the Carpenters fell into another hassle and their first bad press (except from the rock critics) ever. Seems they fired their opening act at Vegas, Neil Sedaka, who was upstaging them. Lately they've made peace—putting Sedaka's Breaking Up Is Hard to Do on their last LP. And this year the Carpenters have also gotten their own live act together. Reports Richard: "Nobody ever told me to get rid of my Dutch boy haircut or Karen to cut her bangs. By the time I woke up, our act was boring." It has been restaged by Joe Layton, who ironically also directed Bette Midler's raucous extravaganzas. Among the few holdover numbers are a drum solo by Karen and Richard's rendition of The Warsaw Concerto.
Young Rich did after all study classical piano in his early teens at the Yale School of Music. The Carpenters, only children of a printer, lived in New Haven until 1963, when they moved to the L.A. suburb of Downey. "I never missed the East for a day," says Richard. An unathletic, nearsighted boy (he wears contacts on stage, thick specs off), Richard was turned on first by Liberace's TV show, then by what he calls his "Three B's—the Beatles, Beach Boys and Burt Bacharach." Karen got into music when she enlisted in her high school marching band in Downey to get out of gym. "I couldn't stand track at 8 a.m. or a cold pool, so they put me in the band and gave me a glockenspiel. It was a horrendously smelly instrument tuned a quarter note sharp to the band. But it was percussion and it got me on the drum line."
Two years later, with a friend on bass, the Carpenters won the 1966 Battle of the Bands in the Hollywood Bowl. They beat out hundreds of competitors but couldn't parlay it into record success until 1969. Along the way, with various groups, they played everyplace from the Whiskey a-Go-Go to Disneyland. Karen and Richard then trimmed down to heavily overdubbed duos—they now often record 12 vocal tracks—and were spotted and signed personally by A&M Records president Herb Alpert. Richard, whose canny orchestrations and keyboards added lush backing to Karen's rich and soothing alto range, had two straight goldies. They also won the 1970 Grammy for Best New Artists in contention with other rookies like James Taylor and Elton John.
Richard clearly has a golden ear for the commercial, if he is not quite, as collaborator John Bettis anoints him, "a full-on genius, the Gershwin of his age." Bettis, a classmate of Richard's during his brief stay at Long Beach State College, is the lyricist on all of Carpenter's compositions. Richard, in his own defense, notes, "Our music shouldn't be compared to rock. It's pop, and it's progressive in its own pop way. We're not your average 'easy-listening' act by any means. Easy-listening artists will only record what has already been done."
Bettis admits that their latest work, the single I Need to Be in Love, is "autobiographical for all three of us," meaning Karen, too. Both Carpenters are between romances. His fling with his ex-manager's daughter, Randee Bash, is kaput, and Karen's last on-and-off affair ended six months ago. She's distracting herself, when not on the " road these days, renovating a condominium in Century City. Her bedroom, I like the living room in Richard's tract home in Downey, is being designed around a seven-foot-wide Advent TV screen. Both Carpenters are video addicts, with a couple of sets burning all day. Other sublimations include needlepoint for her, French wines and 13 cars for him.
Both think love could be around the corner. Karen, who hasn't had time to read Mr. Right is Dead (among other books), says, "I still firmly believe The Guy is going to show up." Like Richard, Karen is counting ultimately on having a family outside music. "It's really hard to meet people in this business. But," she cautions, "I'll be damned if I'll marry somebody just to be married." Richard complains that "with my girlfriends now and then Karen pulls the old 'She's-not-good-enough-for-you' Jewish mother routine." Richard, Karen admits, tends to be more tolerant of her choices. "There are fewer of them," she says. "I have a harder time finding somebody. The problem is we were growing professionally during the years most people were concentrating on being a person. That," Karen declares, "has to change."