At one time, the music of Richard and Karen Carpenter—the handsome brother/sister duo out of Downey, California—was considered by and large uncool. Hindsight reveals that while this period was brief, it was damaging to the Carpenters’ legacy. Occurring immediately in the wake of Karen’s untimely death in early 1983, the cynical rock music press was only too happy to seal off the pair’s music as some sort of ubiquitous relic from the decade in which it rose to popularity: the 1970s.
However, things turned a corner for the Carpenters as the 1980s gave way to the 1990s. Everyone from contemporary recording artists, to music journalists and more began to remark on Richard’s gorgeously detailed arrangements and Karen’s incomparable singing style. Today, the Carpenters are far and away from being dismissed or diminished. Instead, the body of work they created from 1969 to 1982 is rightfully venerated as an indispensable canon of classics.
What played a major role in changing attitudes and opinions toward the Carpenters rests solely on the shoulders of several key stewards of the duo’s legacy; one such notable custodian is the Dallas, Texas headquartered music educator and author Randy L. Schmidt. A longtime devotee of the twosome, Schmidt put his affection into book form in 2010 with the release of the acclaimed Little Girl Blue: The Life of Karen Carpenter. While Schmidt followed that effort with other books on a range of subjects, he has once again turned his pen back to the Carpenters with a clever twist. Recently published by Mascot Books, Carpenters: An Illustrated Discography is an erudite study and critical conversation about every Carpenters album ever drafted.
I recently sat down for a chat with Mr. Schmidt to discuss how collaboration made this current project stand apart from Little Girl Blue: The Life of Karen Carpenter, the vitality of the Carpenters’ output today, how his role as an educator informs his writing, and that supposedly controversial Karen Carpenter solo record.
Congratulations on Carpenters: An Illustrated Discography! What inspired you to craft this book in such an expansive, stylish format?
Ever since Little Girl Blue was published back in 2010, I’ve had the desire to do something more, I guess you might say, image or photo based. As I was putting that book together, I was encountering these amazing archives from different photographers. When you do a book, a traditional biography like that, you can only choose a few pictures to represent different stages of a performer’s life. I was having so many photos I had to pass up just because of space; you can pick, they (the publishers) told me, forty max. I think I was able squeeze in quite a few more than that in Little Girl Blue, if I’m not mistaken.
But, I had kept all of those (research) contacts and I knew this was something the fans wanted.
Luckily, Little Girl Blue kind of rippled out beyond the diehard fans and went more to music lovers and people who love pop culture, it really got a much bigger audience than I was expecting at first. With Carpenters: An Illustrated Discography, I think this kind of book caters to the audiophiles, the diehards who own every recording or those who want to get into the Carpenters. It’s an in-depth exploration.
Taking it back to your first book for a moment, what was your goal with Little Girl Blue: The Life of Karen Carpenter?
With Little Girl Blue, my goal was to celebrate Karen as an artist—both as part of the duo of the Carpenters, but also individually as a drummer and a singer. I felt that even after having read the Raymond Coleman biography on the Carpenters—which was of course endorsed by the family and was very well received and very well written—I still felt that there were a lot of questions. I think I was left with more questions than I had going into it after I really started to think about all that I had taken in from that book.
So, my curiosity sent me on these little chases for information, not at first with the idea of doing a book myself, but just for my own curiosity and exploration as I mentioned. I got the opportunity to interview some of Karen’s childhood friends and it (Little Girl Blue) kind of grew from that. I didn’t know what I was going to do with those interviews, but I had the opportunity and didn’t want to pass them up. From those interviews, they kind of prompted me to do more and I realized I had amassed this wealth of information that wasn’t common knowledge even to diehard Carpenters fans. And so, I kept waiting for someone to write the book I was waiting to read, and I finally realized I was working my way there without having known it. [Laughs]
So, the research for Little Girl Blue armed you for the creation of Carpenters: An Illustrated Discography?
Yeah, absolutely. The contacts and things I made doing Little Girl Blue really made it easier for me to go to people and explain what I was doing with Carpenters: An Illustrated Discography and get a positive response back from them. The thing about Little Girl Blue was that I was unknown as an author and when I would reach out and make these contacts for interviews, I didn’t have anything to go on. I couldn’t say “I’m Randy Schmidt, the author of Little Girl Blue” or whatever. I just had to kind of go on whatever I could, mostly word of mouth, “this guy is doing this book; he’s respectable and doing a nice job.”
Talk about the collaborators that joined you in the journey through the Carpenters’ canon for this venture.
With this book, I had a core group of people I felt I could now reach out to and bring together as commentators, people that I respected. Some are household names and others are unknown, but they all have these amazing biographies and have done really well for themselves—from GRAMMY nominees, to music directors for Burt Bacharach and Dionne Warwick, vocalists and journalists, I think it’s a really nice mix.
Can you talk about your own enduring connection to Karen and Richard’s music?
You know, they (the Carpenters) were on my radar somewhere, I grew up with a lot of country music, I guess country-pop, from the early 1980s. I can’t say that I didn’t hear the Carpenters “Top of the World,” but I was probably more familiar with Lynn Anderson’s version of “Top of the World” just because of what my parents listened to at the time. So, the Carpenters were on my radar, but they just hadn’t clicked with me until I was thirteen years old when The Karen Carpenter Story aired on CBS back in 1989. From the opening strains of “Rainy Days and Mondays,” I was pulled in and over the course of that hour and a half I was just mesmerized.
I think part of it was seeing her story unfold in such a dramatic way and the weaving of all those hit songs. And part of it was the choral music sensibility, that may have had something to do with it as well, because I was just getting into choir at school and that sound just resonated with me on so many levels. But mainly it was Karen’s voice, I’d never had a voice touch me so deeply and at such a young age, it was so unusual. There was just some sort of connection that I still haven’t had with any other artist. There are lots of singers that I like to listen to, but there’s never been one that has touched the same depths that Karen has and continues to do.
I also think that this book has helped send me back to the music with new ears, because you think you’ve heard a song so many times that you couldn’t hear anything different when you listen to it. But the perspectives from these commentators throughout the book sent me back to the music—sometimes immediately after we finished the conference calls (for the book)—I would go back to listen for what someone was talking about. That’s my hope with Carpenters: An Illustrated Discography, that it does that for other people.
How would you describe the relevance of the Carpenters in 2019?
I think the Carpenters’ music is still riding this retro-hip wave that’s really kind of been going on since the early 1990s, because shortly after Karen’s death, for a number of years, everybody associated their music with Karen’s tragic passing and with anorexia. It was something that was sort of reconsidered, like when the If I Were a Carpenter (1994) tribute album came out and people started re-examining their recordings and saying, “Hey, these are pop masterpieces,” that appreciation has been constant since that time. Something comes along every five or ten years that revives the Carpenters in people’s hearts and minds—to fans from back then and to a new generation.
I kind of felt that once Little Girl Blue started doing its thing back in 2010. I was getting so many messages from people all around the world who had “We’ve Only Just Begun” played at their wedding or who saw the Carpenters in concert and they were their first concert their parents took them to; they had a memory attached to them in some way. I think we still have to rely on those musical memories because there isn’t a lot of new Carpenters music being released. We did have the Carpenters with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra that came out last year and it was a huge success in the U.K., but it was not promoted here at all in the United States. My hope is that we get something that resurges the interest of the Carpenters here in their home country at some point.
Do you think your books Little Girl Blue and Carpenters: An Illustrated Discography are leading the charge for that resurgence?
I do think that Little Girl Blue did that. I see Carpenters: An Illustrated Discography as a continuation of that—there was so much new fan interest after Little Girl Blue started getting quite a bit of national press, it’s been nine years since that book came out. I don’t think that this new book will necessarily bring out a whole new wave of fans, but the thing for those people following my work for the last nine years, it’s something they’ve been waiting for. It was kind of like, what’s next? A lot of Carpenters fans have also wanted something of this caliber on their group and so once I knew it was going to happen, I was excited to see what the fan response was going to be. I’m happy for them to see the Carpenters presented in this manner, in a coffee table type of book that they can share with their friends and families.
Talk to me about your role as a steward of the Carpenters’ music.
It’s such an honor to be associated with Karen’s legacy in any way whatsoever—and with the Carpenters’ legacy as a whole—and I kind of realized the magnitude of that when I started to see my book in public and research libraries. Realizing that it (Little Girl Blue) is going to go on long after I’m gone, it’s a big responsibility and it’s a special responsibility. But, I’m not the type of person to say that I’m the authority of everything, I’m one that very often has to run back to my own book to look for answers for people when asked a question. [Laughs] I always want to have something to back my information up, whether it’s an interview I’ve conducted or an article in a dusty bin of an archive I’ve dug up.
Your role as a music teacher seems to inform your attention to detail in your books, is that intentional on your part?
I had never really thought of it that way, but you’re probably right! Education is not a territorial profession, we’re all in it for the same goals of learning and inspiring, and I think that does carry through in my writing and my outreach to fans.
What are your plans for the rest of the year with Carpenters: An Illustrated Discography?
I’ve been trying to think of ways to launch this book in different locations, the initial launch was at the Carpenters 50th Anniversary Celebration back in April in Thousand Oaks, California. I was able to get advance copies for that captive audience of fans at the convention and I told the people gathered that day that we needed them to be like a “street team” to share the book with others. Now, I’ll be going to several cities over the next few months; being a teacher, I have my summer to travel and promote and expose this book to different audiences, I’ve gotten great responses for New York, London and other events back here in the States and local events here in Dallas.
Out of all the Carpenters albums you cover in this project, which one do you think will benefit from Carpenters: An Illustrated Discography most?
Let me think on that…
The first one that pops into my mind is Karen’s (eponymous) solo album (from 1980). Hopefully these discussions within the book will send people back—like I said—to listen to this record with new ears. There are some diehard Carpenters fans that cannot stand the album or act like it’s a musical stepchild or something. I think it’s so good in so many ways, even if it’s not meant to be the ultimate Karen Carpenter solo album. It’s a springboard for what could have been, she could have gone in so many directions after that. I do feel that it’s overlooked.
What are your five favorite albums of all-time?
The Carpenters’ A Song for You, Judy Garland’s Judy at Carnegie Hall, Dolly Parton’s New Harvest…First Gathering, Sandi Patty’s Artist of My Soul, and Reba McEntire’s For My Broken Heart.
Randy L. Schmidt is the author of the critically acclaimed Little Girl Blue: The Life of Karen Carpenter, a New York Times Editors Choice and Wall Street Journal bestseller. His latest publication is Dolly on Dolly: Interviews and Encounters with Dolly Parton, a title in the Musicians in Their Own Words series from Chicago Review Press. He also compiled and edited Yesterday Once More: The Carpenters Reader and Judy Garland on Judy Garland: Interviews and Encounters. Schmidt has served as creative consultant for several television documentaries on the Carpenters, including the E! True Hollywood Story, A&E’s Biography, and VH1s Behind the Music. More recently, he contributed to Karen Carpenter: Goodbye to Love and Autopsy: The Last Hours of Karen Carpenter, both produced for ITV in the United Kingdom and Reelz TV in the United States. A music educator for more than twenty years, Schmidt teaches elementary music in Denton, Texas.