A Carpenters Christmas album was inevitable virtually the day the duo signed with A&M in April 1969. Karen and Richard had grown up listening to Christmas albums by Percy Faith and Spike Jones, among many others. And both had sung in the choir in college, where they performed Christmas songs every year. So it was just a matter of time before they ventured into A&M Recording Studios to put their spin on the timeless songs of Christmas.
“We wanted to do a Christmas album right off the bat,” Richard says, “I’m certain if Karen had lived we’d be up to our fourth Christmas album by now.”
As it is, Karen and Richard recorded enough music for two Christmas albums, Christmas Portrait, released in 1978, and An Old-Fashioned Christmas, released in 1984. Richard conceived and produced both albums, striking an ideal balance of sacred and secular, familiar and obscure, cheery and wistful. Karen sings standards that are indelibly linked with such great vocalists as Bing Crosby, Nat “King” Cole and Judy Garland – and makes them her own.
The Carpenters and Christmas music make a perfect fit. Christmas music, like the season itself, is rich in emotion. The upbeat holiday songs, such as “Winter Wonderland” and “Sleigh Ride,” exude joy and excitement. But a surprising number of Christmas classics express a palpable yearning, a quality that was seemingly built into Karen’s voice. This is especially true of the World War II era ballads “White Christmas” and “I’ll Be Home For Christmas,” as well as the Carpenters’ own contribution to the Christmas canon, the 1970 release “Merry Christmas Darling.”
The albums downplay the Carpenters’ famed harmony sound, instead giving Karen and Richard separate showcases for their talents. Karen demonstrates her versatility on a diverse program that runs the gamut from the haunting Bach/Gounod version of “Ave Maria” to the homespun “Home For The Holidays,” which Perry Como introduced in 1955. Karen often sings in her rich lower register, which adds depth to light pop carols and drama to hymns.
Karen’s finest work here is on the mesmerizing “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.” The ballad, which Judy Garland introduced in the 1949 film Meet Me In St. Louis, is a bit off the beaten path as Christmas songs go; it’s a torch song, and one of the very best. Karen’s deeply ironic performance is both heartbreaking and hypnotic. The way she holds that last note on the line, “hang your shining star above the highest bough,” demonstrates her immense technical skills.
Richard plays five instrumental solos, which encompass pop and sacred music as well as light classical and light jazz. Richard brought his customary attention-to-detail to the task of producing the albums. He sought out lesser-knows songs, restored seldom-heard versus to vintage ballads, commissioned richly melodic overtures, and segued and reprised songs so the music would play as a suite.
This painstaking approach stands in contrast to the casual way many performers approach Christmas Albums. “We didn’t want to just pick the 10 most popular Christmas songs and go in and record them in a few sessions,” Richard says. “I had the album pictured the way I wanted it – and it took time to get it right.”
Because of all the studio time, plus the cost of a full orchestra and a large choir, Christmas Portrait became the Carpenters’ most expensive album to that point. Richard remembers that A&M at one point registered some concern about the mounting bills. “It will be worth it when it’s done,” he promised them.
The label hadn’t been keen on the idea of a Carpenters Christmas album in the first place. Christmas albums were viewed by many in the music industry in the 1970s as corny and old-fashioned. With a few exceptions (the Jackson 5 in 1970, John Denver in 1975), top pop stars of the ‘70s shied away from making Christmas albums.
“You had A&M’s initial resistance to the idea and then they saw what we were spending, so I can understand their concern,” Richard says.
The numbers-crunchers needn’t have worried. Christmas Portrait went platinum in the U.S. and became a hit all over the world. And it continues to do well. It is one of the few albums that has been a Top 10 hit on the Christmas charts in the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s.
The Carpenters have been a central part of Christmas since 1970, the year they became recording stars.
On Nov. 20 of that year, A&M released “Merry Christmas Darling,” a tender ballad that Richard composed in 1966, while a student at California State University at Long Beach. Frank Pooler, Richard’s (and later Karen’s) choir director at the school, had written the lyrics in 1946. Pooler gave the lyric sheet to his prize pupil, who came up with an appropriately cozy melody. The Carpenters finished recording the mixdown of the song on Nov. 16, 1970 – just four days prior to its release. “Merry Christmas Darling” topped Billboard’s survey of Christmas hits that year, and returned to the #1 spot in 1971 and 1973. Karen’s voice was deep and husky on the original. She chose to recut her vocal in 1978, when she sang softer and with greater ease.
In November 1974, Karen and Richard released a shimmering ballad version of “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town,” a holiday staple since 1934. Richard’s torchy arrangement was as unexpected as his 1969 ballad interpretation of the Beatles’ “Ticket To Ride.” Karen and Richard recorded the basic track and the lead vocal in 1972, and added brass, strings, the sax solo and background vocals two years later. They sang the song on a Perry Como Christmas special aired on Dec. 18, 1974. On the same show, they performed two pieces that would find their way onto Christmas Portrait. Karen sang the warm lullaby “Sleep Well, Little Children” and Richard played the brisk piano instrumental “Carol Of The Bells.”
In November 1977, the Carpenters released a third Christmas single, “Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire).” Karen’s tender reading of the Nat “King” Cole classic pointed up similarities between the two artists. Both were understated vocalists who sang in warm, pure tones. And both projected a kindness and modesty that echoed in their music.
On Dec. 9, 1977, Karen and Richard starred in their first Christmas Special, The Carpenters At Christmas. They previewed five selections that would appear a year later onChristmas Portrait, including the jaunty “Sleigh Ride,” the baroque piano/vocal piece “It’s Christmas Time” and the nostalgic “Winter Wonderland” “Silver Bells” / “White Christmas” medley. The Carpenters closed the show with the stirring “Christ Is Born,” which Perry Como had introduced in 1968. They were backed on the hymn by the University Choir from their alma mater, conducted by Pooler.
Richard selected all of the music for the special. He also split arranging duties with Billy May, who served as music director for the special, and Peter Knight, who went on to do the majority of the orchestrations on both albums. The Carpenters had first worked with Knight in 1974 when he orchestrated the overture for their televised concert appearance with the Boston Pops. They had first worked with May in 1975, when he orchestrated and teamed with Richard to arrange the Carpenters’ dreamily faithful remake of the Tommy Dorsey classic “I Can Dream Can’t I.”
The music that the Carpenters had pre-recorded for the special gave them a head-start on the Christmas Portrait album. They resumed the sessions at A&M in early 1978, taking occasional time-outs to record some pop sides (“I Believe You,” “Where Do I Go From Here?”) and to tape a TV special (Space Encounters, which aired on May 17.) Karen and Richard recorded so much Christmas material (“We went crazy,” Richard says) that they toyed with the idea of releasing a double album. Instead, they released a fullsingle disk. They packed nearly 50 minutes of music onto the album – which was pushing the limits back in the days of vinyl LPS.
The album was released on Oct. 13, 1978 and became an immediate hit. Its success helped to revive the market for Christmas albums, paving the way for best-sellers over the next several years by Willie Nelson, Anne Murray, and Kenny Rogers & Dolly Parton.
A second holiday special, Carpenters – A Christmas Portrait, aired on Dec. 19, 1978. Four songs from the special were taken directly from the album. These included the elegant “Christmas Waltz,” which opened the show, and “Ave Maria,” which closed it. The Carpenters’ guests included Gene Kelly, who joined them on “Adeste Fideles,” the original 1740 version of “O Come All Ye Faithful.” Nelson Riddle served as music director for the hour. He also shared arrangement chores with Richard and Knight.
In 1984, the year after Karen’s tragic death, A&M released An Old-Fashioned Christmas. The album features the best of the overflow from the Christmas Portrait sessions as well as newly recorded pieces. Richard cut the new material at EMI “Abbey Road” Studios in England – which was a thrill for the life-long Beatles fan.
An Old-Fashioned Christmas features seven tracks on which Karen sings lead, ranging from Frank Loesser’s coquettish “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” to the soul-searching “Little Altar Boy,” which Richard ranks among his all-time favorite vocal performances by his sister. Karen and Richard are both featured on “Do You Hear What I Hear?” which had been a favorite of theirs since Bing Crosby introduced it in 1963.
The album includes two piano pieces that Richard had performed on the Christmas specials – the sacred “O Holy Night” and the light-classical “Selections From ‘Nutcracker,” by Tchiakovsky. Richard also performs a theme and variations of “My Favorite Things,” the Rodgers & Hammerstein classics from The Sound Of Music.
Richard and his long-time lyricist John Bettis wrote the wistful title song for An Old-Fashioned Christmas in 1984. That same year, at A&M’s request, Richard combined highlights from the two albums into one release, Christmas Portrait – The Special Edition. Richard modified some of the cuts, such as adding the choir to “Ave Maria.” Knight had written the choral parts during the recording of Christmas Portrait, but they were misplaced in the rush to complete the album.
In the early ‘90s, the first album was remixed and both were digitally remastered.
In the two decades since its release, Christmas Portrait has become a holiday perennial. That stands to reason: Christmas music is timeless and universal – just as the Carpenters’ music has proved to be. Both appeal, to borrow a line from one of the best Christmas songs ever written, “to kids from one to 92.”
- Paul Grein June 1998
It is with distinct pleasure that A&M Records and I present Christmas Collection- a deluxe two-CD set containing both Carpenters’ Christmas albums: Christmas Portrait and An Old-Fashioned Christmas. Each album has been digitally remastered and is presented in its entirety – for the first time on compact disc. We have for years been receiving a number of requests (and at times outright demands) for a set such as this and are delighted to finally make it available.
- Richard Carpenter