Maybe it's because I came of age in the early '70s. Or because my parents had a "burnt orange" car. Or that I had an apple-green Schwinn Stingray. Or that our home was painted redwood. Whatever the reason, the Carpenters always take me back to a time when everything was changing, and not always for the better. But through it all—the striped bellbottoms, the tough kids in the suburbs and the gloomy news—Karen Carpenter's voice made everything seem just right.
If you also have a soft spot for the Carpenters, you should know that the drummer on just about all of their hits was the Wrecking Crew's Hal Blaine. What makes Hal's playing behind Richard and Karen Carpenter so special is his subtlety and the percussive textures he added in just the right places. There's the suspenseful delay of the drums on Close to You toward the end, just before Karen's overdubbed vocal chorus comes in. Or his tom-toms on Rainy Days and Mondays.
I called Hal a short time ago to chat Carpenters because I had just discovered a series of YouTubes where someone isolated Karen's voice on hit tracks, so it sounds like she's singing a cappella. More on these clips at the bottom.
Here's Hal Blaine, on the Carpenters...
JazzWax: When did you first meet Karen Carpenter?
Hal Blaine: I first met Karen when Fender bassist Joe Osborn [pictured] brought her and Richard over to Sound Recorders in Los Angeles. Joe and I were doing a Neil Diamond recording session. On a break, Joe said he wanted me to meet a couple of people. When we stepped outside the studio, Karen and Richard were there, wearing matching Western jackets with fringed leather. They seemed like nice kids, in their teens.
JW: What did Osborn say?
HB: He said, “This is Richard. He plays organ, and this is Karen, she plays the drums.” There was a little chitchat but the meeting was cut short when Joe and I were called back into the studio. Neil was ready to roll again.
JW: Why did Osborn want you to meet them?
HB: Joe said they had been recording in his garage and needed a producer. He wanted me to consider producing. I said, “Joe, based on what you’ve told me, they don’t seem to fit any specific genre. Besides, we don’t have time to go to the bathroom, let alone produce.” Joe shrugged and agreed.
JW: What happened next?
HB: I saw Ticket to Ride, their first album on A&M, when it came out and was happy for them. But nothing much came of it. [The album reached only No. 150 on the Billboard chart in the U.S.] About a year later I got a call from Herb Alpert of A&M Records. I had been the drummer on all of his Tijuana Brass hits. A&M was about to drop the Carpenters, and Herb wanted me to come in to play drums on a song Paul Williams had written with Roger Nichols.
JW: Did you go in?
HB: Yes. When I arrived, the Carpenters’ parents were there. You could tell right away they ruled the roost. We started to run through the song, We’ve Only Just Begun. But Karen was singing way too high. I stopped the session and took Karen aside.
JW: What did you say?
HB: I said, “Look, Karen, I don’t want to bug you with this, but you’re singing way up high. You speak mid-range, which is much better for your singing voice. Why don’t you try it?”
JW: Did she agree?
HB: At first her parents cut in and insisted that up high was the way she sang. I said to her, “Try taking it down three keys.” So she did, and the rest is history [laughs].
JW: Her parents must have been quite domineering.
HB: Her mother hated that I was there. Karen played the drums, and her mother didn’t like that I was playing on the session and not her. Her mother said, “I’ve seen many drummers on TV, and Karen can play just as good as they can.”
JW: What did you say?
HB: I said, “Of course she can. But she doesn’t have the studio experience. Playing in the studio is completely different.”
JW: How so?
HB: As a drummer, you’re sitting in a room at your kit in a tight space, and the mikes are highly sensitive. Most drummers are used to knocking the hell out of their set. But in the studio, at least back then, before the digital recording age, you didn’t do that. With all those mikes, you can’t be wailing away or you’ll hit one of the stands. You also have to develop a technique of playing in your own little zone of space. You have to play gentle. If a song calls for something a little heavier, you turn the sticks around so you’re using the thicker end. It’s like the difference between driving a little car and a semi-truck. There are different rules for maneuvering.
JW: So what did you tell her mother?
HB: I said, “Karen is a fine drummer, but there’s some things you have to know about playing in a studio, and you can only learn those things by spending years there and listening back to hear what’s right and what’s not working.”
JW: Did Karen ever play on those recording sessions?
HB: No. I played on all those dates. Karen liked to hang around a lot at A&M because I was always there recording for Herb. She loved the drums, which helped her a great deal as a singer in terms of her time and tempo.
JW: Why were her parents so insistent on her playing the drums?
HB: Probably because I kept insisting she was the natural voice for the group, not the drummer. Karen had an extraordinary voice, the kind you wanted to hear over and over again. To me, that translated into hits.
JW: Why did her parents oppose that?
HB: I don’t know. Her mother kept saying, “But Richard is the star, Karen is just the drummer.” I think part of that stuff pushed Karen over the edge eventually. The poor thing was playing her buns off on the drums, trying to do the right thing, and her parents were letting her have it.
JW: Did Karen respect you?
HB: Yes, especially as their records became hits. She understood.
JW: Richard Carpenter is quite a player-arranger, yes?
HB: Definitely. He was and still is. But he understood.
JW: Whose idea was the intro to Close to You?
HB: Richard came up with the intro, but at first it started too slow and ran too fast. He was rushing it, and I told him. Sometimes even the greatest solo pianists will start at one tempo and wind up at another. This is fine in a club, but on a record, the listener notices little things like that.
JW: Why is that?
HB: Because in a club, the audience listens with their eyes, distracting the ear. But when it comes to a recording, even an average listener can hear the slightest imperfections. It’s like what happens when you watch a home video. Even if you know nothing about film, the average eye has been so well trained by watching TV that you become frustrated when a home movie isn’t smooth and there aren’t edits and cuts. The ear is the same way with recorded music.
JW: What did you do to help Richard Carpenter?
HB: I suggested he use a click track. This is an electronic click in a headset. You hear the band on one side and the click track on the other. Jack Daugherty was producing and agreed.
JW: What about the drums you used on the sessions?
HB: Back in 1963, I had been experimenting with a larger drum set and used it on Frankie Laine’s recording of Don’t Make My Baby Blue. Then I had a full kit made, which gave me a rack of eight concert tom-toms suspended above the bass drum. It was a monster set. After I appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show playing them, every drum company in the world jumped on it. I gave the idea to Ludwig, thinking they would name it after me. Instead, they called it the Octaplus. I used this kit on all of the Carpenters’ sessions.
JW: Tell me about the drums.
HB: My long-time drum tech, Rick Faucher, worked with a guy named Hal Blaemar, who made the fiberglass shells. I introduced the set on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964. I played a drum solo with Nancy Sinatra singing Drummer Man.
The fellow who made my drums made two sets for me; one for Ringo [Starr]; one for himself, and one for Karen, who wanted them when they toured.
JW: Who engineered the Carpenters dates?
HB: Larry Levine. He set up the mikes so they had an intimate, warm feel. Behind Richard and Karen was Joe Osborn on electric bass and me.
JW: Your subtlety on Close to You is amazing.
HB: That’s what I was known for. I always wanted to hear a song before I played it. My role was to keep time but also add just the right subtle flavor in the right places. A lot of that is because of my schooling. I studied arranging and harmony when I was young and could hear the way I should sound in my head, before the recording started.
JW: Your drums always seem to be Karen’s heartbeat.
HB: That’s the way I wanted it. My drumsticks are my paintbrushes. I was painting a picture. Certain colors coming in and going out. That’s why I loved my Zildjian cymbals. There are nuances I wanted that only those cymbals could produce.
JW: Did Karen overdub her lead vocals?
HB: No. She overdubbed herself to fill out the choral parts, but she always sang the lead line live with us in the studio.
JW: Who wrote your drum parts?
HB: I did. There were no major charts. My goal was to accompany her in the gentlest way. I’ve always been an accompanist.
JW: Did you do a lot of takes?
HB: Yes. Joe and I always were in the pocket, and Richard knew he could do whatever he wanted to. Herb took the trumpet solos. But everyone there was a perfectionist, and we wanted it to be just right.
JW: As the years went on, could the studio musicians tell that Karen Carpenter had an eating disorder and was having health issues?
HB: Not at first. Everyone who came to Hollywood back then and became a star thinned down. It was the style out here and probably still is in many ways. The rule of thumb, sadly, was if you’re going to be on film or TV, you had to be 15 pounds underweight to look normal. It’s crazy, I know, but that’s how it was.
JW: No one could tell there was an issue?
HB: There were times when I’d give her a hug at the studio and I could feel her rib cage. She was like a little bird that had fallen out of a tree. For me, the saddest thing of all came in the later years. Karen had finally met a guy she liked, and he just took her money. He broke her heart completely. It was so damn sad. Her face was so hollow.
JW: When you think back, what do you think of Karen?
HB: How sad her life was. Years after she died in 1983, Richard called me to update some of the older tracks, for remastering. We were in the studio for about six hours, and I cried all the way listening back and playing over the parts. What a shame.
JazzWax tracks: If you're looking for a high-end collection of Carpenters hits, Singles 1969-1971 is coming in June from Universal Japan in SHM-CD.
JazzWax clips: Here's Hal Blaine and Joe Osborn with Karen Carpenter, isolated on Close to You. Dig what's Hal's doing on the hi-hat and the Octaplus tom-toms. And catch that telegraphing of cymbal and sock drum toward the end before the vocal chorus comes in...
And here's Rainy Day and Mondays, done the same way. By the way if you want more, just type in "Karen Carpenter + a cappella." There are a bunch...