Christmas music and Karen Carpenter were made for each other. Clearly, a match made for the ages, a classic combination of artist and song as can be imagined. The first album of seasonal songs - one of two- a timeless work. Unfortunately, it was also the last great album recorded by the duo in a career tragically cut short.
Much like when Nat King recorded his album of holiday tunes, when Richard and Karen Carpenter released Christmas Portrait in 1978, it became the must have Christmas album for a new generation.
The original version is not found on any Carpenters Christmas disc.
The origins of the album begin with the release of Merry Christmas Darling in 1970 at the beginnings of their chart success. Fans and critics instantly realized it to be a powerful combination, wondering when more holiday themed songs would arrive. Darling was an instant classic. The Richard Carpenter / Frank Pooler song was followed by a mid-decade release of a jazz version of Santa Claus is Coming to Town.
When a full length album was finally released, a new version of The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire) became the newest 45 rpm release. It further cemented Karen's position as the female vocalist who owned the Christmas season. The album was originally planned to be a double disc, but for some reason, that was tossed aside by the executives at A&M Records.
Karen's untimely death in 1983 left fans wondering what was left in the vault to be released. Following the fall release of the excellent Voice of the Heart, Richard answered the question by giving fans An Old Fashioned Christmas. It only brought seven new songs by Karen, but it was well worth it. Both discs get much play during the season in our house, and the Christmas music always begins when Karen croons "Frosted window panes"- even when we lived in temperate Southern California.
On the set of the first Christmas television special.
With such a wealth of great songs to choose from, here are my Top Ten Carpenters Christmas songs in no particular order other than my memory:
1- Merry Christmas Darling
It may be a sacrilege to some fans, but this listener prefers the newer, sultry, and softer version found on Christmas Portrait over the huskier original. The multi-layered ending caps off the song perfectly. It's been recorded by many artists, but none compare.
2- I'll Be Home for Christmas
Admittedly, this one was hard to listen to after Karen's death. (Can you just imagine what emotions Richard goes through every Christmas season when their songs are constantly played? Pray for the man!) Wistful, sorrowful, and melancholy but perfect in execution.
3- Christmas Waltz
I had never heard this one on the radio prior to Christmas Portrait. As I mentioned, the opening lines are the "official" kickoff to playing Christmas music in our home. A romantic Christmas tune if there ever was one. Always made me want to dance with my wife or my daughters when they were little.
4- What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?
Speaking of romance, I find this to be the standout track on the second album, and it's one of my favorites by any artist. Her tender performance isn't as commanding as on the next song I mention, but there's something about the 40's big band sound with Karen's incredible voice that is just hits all the right notes.
5- Do You Hear What I Hear?
After a very effective opening by Richard, Karen comes in on this old classic with such presence, the listener remembers once again how powerful her voice was. Shades of Superstar and Rainy Days and Mondays. It's a majestic vocal performance befitting the pronouncement of the arrival of the Little King.
6- Santa Claus is Coming to Town
Two versions exist. The first features an upbeat saxophone solo by Bob Messenger. It's terrific, but it has yet to make it's way to a Carpenters Christmas collection. The second one premiered on An Old Fashioned Christmas with the sax replaced by another with Tom Scott. This way feels very different, and it depends on my mood as to which I prefer. Either way, Richard outdid himself with the arrangement. The audio versions are great, but watching Karen and Richard perform this on the Perry Como Christmas Show is even better.
7- Tie: Carol of the Bells / Nutcracker Suite / O Holy Night
Showing his skill on the piano, Richard takes the spotlight on both these pieces, and he absolutely shines. It only makes me wish Karen had sung O Holy Night, my favorite Christmas song.
8- First Snowfall / Let It Snow
A couple of playful tunes to break up the serious tone found in much of Christmas Portrait. There are two pieces to this medley that grab me: First the doubled vocal on Snowfall, "Folks put runners on their surreys and forget about their worries". Then on Let It Snow, when Karen coos "but if you'd really hold me tight", she melts the snow on a winter's day.
9- The Christmas Song
The Mel Torme classic perfectly presented in arrangement and execution. It really doesn't get much better than this. There's a reason this one remains on the radio year after year.
10- Silent Night
The real meaning of Christmas comes through. Hearing Karen sing "Christ the Savior is Born" still brings me chills after almost 40 years. How could it not? My favorite vocalist singing about the One True Son of God and using her God-given incredible lower register.
It's been said many times by Richard that Karen loved Christmas and its music. You can certainly hear the dedication to their craft in this music. By risking to record and release a Christmas album when it was out of vogue to do so, Karen and Richard continued to take risks as throughout their career- and in the midst created an enduring classic.