December 22, 2009

Frosted Window Panes: The Carpenters Christmas Portrait

Richard and Karen Carpenter's Christmas Portrait was the culmination of the longest wait ever for a full length Christmas recording. Not just of the decade but by any recording artist. 


Billboard magazine ad for Merry Christmas Darling- an instant classic!

From the 1970 release of their first holiday recording Merry Christmas Darling, fans waited and waited for the Carpenters to complete an album full of old favorites and new songs dedicated to the season. The gorgeous song written by Richard and Frank Pooler achieved instant standard status upon first play, with Karen's deep and warm vocals played against Richard's lush arrangements and Frank's romantic lyrics. It was constantly on my turntable.

The near decade in between the single and the album had been far from unkind, however, with the duo turning out hit after hit. Things began to slow after the release of The Singles: 1969 - 1973, but Karen and Richard were still quite productive. A new arrangement of the seasonal classic "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" came in 1974 along with an appearance on Perry Como's Christmas special. (Find it and watch Karen perform "It's Impossible"- one of her most tender readings of a song ever!) "Please Mr. Postman" ended '74 as a worldwide smash.

Horizon arrived in 1975, with A Kind of Hush coming the following year. Although both discs contain some of their best individual recordings ("Only Yesterday", "Solitaire", and Desperado" from the first, and "I Need to Be in Love" and "One More Time" from the latter), neither produced the sales of years previously.

The duo's next album in 1977, Passage, was not the large hit they wanted and their career so desperately needed. The result was fun, playful, and largely uninspired. Even die-hard fans like myself started to move on to other interests.

I discovered that in the midst of recording Passage, the Carpenters were also beginning to record for another project at the same time this eclectic album was forming. Perhaps both the A&M Records executives and Karen and Richard expected the Christmas recordings to be completed in time for a 1977 release, as their second television special "The Carpenters at Christmas" was to air in early December.


Above- the photos that inspired Robert Tanenbaum's beautiful portrait


My personal life was taking a dramatic downturn as well. My post high school life had been an interesting mix of fear, loneliness, increasing depression, and anticipation. I began to search for greater meaning in life than what I could see. After years of looking into various world religions- and after a near disastrous automobile accident shortly after seeing the Carpenters in Las Vegas- I found myself at an evening gathering at Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa. A young evangelist, Greg Laurie, presented the truth to me as shared in the Bible: I was a sinner, a broken man, and the only way to a relationship with God and a restored life was through faith in Jesus Christ. God Himself reaching down to man and not man's efforts to reach Him. What a difference it made to hear about a god who loved his creation.
My heart jumped as I chose to make a decision to embrace Jesus and his sacrifice on the cross. I knew I'd have to live differently, and I was ready. As I prayed for a new beginning, I hoped for the best. The result was better than I ever expected. For the next six months, my depression was replaced with hope and joy. My friends and family could not believe the transformation. Neither could I!


Christmas was very different that year. Finally, all those hymns made sense- and watching and listening to Karen sing them touched me deeply. By this point, I was also smart enough to understand a Christmas album had to be coming soon.

Celebrating the Season's sales.
Billboard magazine ad from December 1978

As the following year progressed, many good things began to happen in my life. My job situation improved greatly, I formed some deep friendships, and even though life was more back to normal with expected ups and downs, I had peace and hope. Guess my faith "stuck", and I'd never go back to my old life.

On the musical front, things were fairly uninteresting. I was thrilled to finally hear something new from Karen and Richard. "I Believe You" was a terrific little single that got next to no airplay, but my lengthy wait was finally rewarded again when the Christmas Portrait album hit the shelves. Couldn't wait to get it home! Little did I know the album would end up being one of my favorites by them and a very personal one- one that would always touch me deeply.

Finally, the album was out of the sleeve and on the turntable. I patiently listened through the opening songs. Finally Karen came in singing "Frosted window panes"...


I was mesmerized. What an introduction Richard designed for his favorite vocalist! Thirty-two years later, hearing her opening to "Christmas Waltz" still signals the beginning of the season, and Christmas Portrait is the traditional first disc played in our house. (And one played only after Thanksgiving!)


The album, continued to sparkle. Hearing the Carpenters band sing on "Sleigh Ride" was great fun! The new single "Christmas Song" made famous by Nat King Cole and recorded by seemingly thousands of other vocalists, was a natural choice for Karen's voice. It was at that moment of first hearing it that I realized Karen was the new voice of Christmas for my generation. Considering the millions of copies sold, I am sure I am not alone in this assessment.

Richard was oft-quoted for his influences being the "3Bs" (the Beatles, the Beach Boys, and Burt Bacharach) but here on their first Christmas release, it is clearly Spike Jones, the 40s bandleader with his group, the City Slickers. (Does the name sound familiar? Remember their newer live show or the 1st TV special?) Check out Spike's holiday albums in its various rereleased forms, and you'll find similar song choices, medleys, and arrangements. That said, Richard's genius is evident here. Between the arrangements of Peter Knight and the concept of the album, not including his terrific playing throughout, Richard's contribution is unmistakable. This album is as solid and strong as any of their previous work, and it holds it own against any modern day releases.



There are plenty of additional gems on the disc. One of my personal favorites is "First Snowfall/Let It Snow". The playful arrangement is quite fun but when Karen's voice is overdubbed on the former and she emotes on the phrase "if you really hold me tight" on the latter, it's pure magic. Next, Richard's "Carol of the Bells" is stunning. The newly rerecorded "Merry Christmas Darling" is made even more beautiful by Karen's softer vocal approach. And it just keeps getting better. The disc's closing "Ave Maria" reveals how powerful and under control her voice was. It also shows how unmatched it is by those vocalists of her day and those of ours. How many other artists have dared to perform such a demanding piece?

Christmas Portrait was an instant success and became a radio staple for the decades. Beginning with the following season, recording artists began to mine the gold found by the recent success of Karen and Richard, and they recorded their own holiday albums. As with their earlier work, others once more followed the duo's instincts and groundbreaking lead.

Since Karen's untimely death, "I'll Be Home for Christmas" has taken on a poignancy stronger than its already heartfelt lyrics. Her passing means the end of an era. Beyond the later release of "An Old Fashioned Christmas" in 1984, there is not much Carpenters material left other than television show recordings, and the chance for additional Christmas albums is gone. Over and over again, Richard has started and stopped work on his own collection of holiday tunes. Will we ever see it? If only in my dreams...

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