Karen Carpenter: She Had Only Just Begun : Pop: New Carpenters' album features four songs from Karen's ill-fated solo collection. The album suggests she might have had a career as a soloist.

K arenandRichard.

Those names were linked so often in the 1970s, when the Carpenters were the hottest duo in pop music, that many pop fans came to think of the pair as one.

That was fine early in the decade when the Downey brother-and-sister team was turning out instant standards such as "We've Only Just Begun" and "Close to You," but it started to bother Karen in the late 1970s when the duo's fortunes declined sharply.

In an effort to establish an independent identity at last, Karen moved to New York in 1979 to record a solo album with Grammy-winning producer Phil Ramone, whose credits include hits by Billy Joel, Paul Simon and Barbra Streisand.

But the album was never released. Instead, Karen and Richard reteamed to record a traditional Carpenters album, which failed to reverse their downward career momentum. And in 1983--after a brief, failed marriage--Karen died at 32 of complications from anorexia nervosa, an eating disorder which had plagued her since the mid '70s.

With her death, the "lost Karen tapes" became even more of a source of mystery among fans. But they remained unavailable--until now.

Four songs from that shelved 1979 album are featured--along with eight previously unreleased Carpenters recordings--on a just-released Carpenters album, "Love-lines."

The recordings--released to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the Carpenters' signing with A&M; Records--suggest that Karen could work effectively outside the Carpenters' mellow pop sound and could have gone on to a thriving solo career.

The big question: Why was the solo album put in limbo?

The bigger question: If the album had been released and been successful, would things have turned out differently for Karen?

The suspicion in some music industry quarters has been that Karen shelved the solo album out of loyalty to Richard, who was anxious to get back to work in 1979 after recovering from a Quaalude dependency. (Richard's dependency was revealed in CBS-TV's "The Karen Carpenter Story," the highest-rated TV movie of the 1988-89 season.)

In an interview tied to the release of the new album, Richard Carpenter, 43, was candid about the conflicts within the Carpenters in the late '70s.

"Karen would mention every now and again that it would be nice to receive some accolades as a solo singer," he said in an A&M; office in Hollywood. "Of course, that made me feel badly, because we were a duo. Lord knows, she was the star of the duo, but that's not quite the same."

Richard said that he had a less-than-supportive reaction to Karen's announcement--just after he had begun a six-week drug rehabilitation program--that she was planning to record an album without him.

"I probably said something like, 'You're just abandoning ship, just taking off and doing what you want to do.' I was feeling sorry for myself," he said. "It was a combination of feeling I was being abandoned--which was anything but the case looking back on it--and thinking this was a perfect time for her to get some treatment for her disorder. So I was not happy, and I told her as much."

Richard, who produced and arranged the Carpenters' long string of hits, also acknowledged that he felt threatened by Karen's teaming up with another producer.

"I'm human and it did cross my mind that something could come out of this and just explode at which time I would be going through a number of emotions. I'd be happy for Karen because I always felt that she should have been in the Top 5. On the other hand, being sensitive and feeling I'd done a good job for the Carpenters I would have been a little bit upset."

In a separate interview from his New York office, producer Phil Ramone discussed his and Karen's objective on the album. "We were thinking two things: How do we make a record that doesn't sound like the Carpenters, and what could we say lyrically in these songs that has a more mature attitude?"

The solo album included a spare, intimate reading of the sexually direct "Make Believe It's Your First Time" and a bluesy version of Paul Simon's "Still Crazy After All These Years"--though Karen, mindful of her prim image--had Simon change the line, "4 in the morning / crapped out / yawning" to the more demure "crashed out."

"Karen was frustrated by the Goody Two-Shoes image, but she was torn," Ramone said. "She wanted to do try new things, but then she'd turn around and say, 'We're going to do another Carpenters Christmas special.' I kept saying, 'The (Andy) Williams family even got past that one.' "

Ramone still remembers the day in early 1980 when he and Karen played the album for Richard and A&M; founders Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss.

"The silence was deafening," he said. "Richard didn't say much and still hasn't. He's accepted these songs kind of like stepchildren. Karen was always the sweetheart of A&M;, and Herb and Jerry reacted almost like it was their teen-age daughter I was messing with."

Alpert, who wrote the liner notes to the Carpenters' debut album and found the team's breakthrough hit, "Close to You," declined to be interviewed for this story.

Richard Carpenter remembers giving Karen a mixed, but essentially lukewarm, review of the solo project.

"I probably said it was very nice," he said. "It certainly is well-produced and well-assembled. But some of it was disco, and I'm not a disco fan, and I thought she was singing a little bit too high on some of the songs."

And Carpenter applied some not-so-subtle pressure on Karen by telling her how eager he was to begin work on the next Carpenters album. "I was much better by then and was kicking myself for what I had done to my life," he said. "So I mentioned that whenever she was ready, I was ready. I had all the tunes set to go."

The deciding factor came when A&M; executives asked Karen and Ramone to go back into the studio to record a few more songs for the solo project.

"It was up to Karen to decide if she wanted to spend more time on it or not," Richard said. "She didn't and that was that. I've gotten a lot of letters through the years since Karen passed on kind of accusing me of not releasing the solo album. It's not my doing at all. It's Karen's wishes I'm honoring."

In a 1981 interview, Karen said that Richard's desire to get back to work took precedence over completing the solo project. But Karen added that she valued the solo experience. "It was fun cutting it and seeing that I could do all that--sing a different type of tune and work with different people. I was scared to death beforehand. I basically knew one producer, one arranger, one studio, one record company and that was it. . . . I'm used to being part of a duo. Richard's like a third arm to me."

Stung by the cool reception at the playback session, Ramone and Karen went to Mexico for a vacation. "I watched this girl disintegrate in front of me," Ramone said. "It was hard for her to express anger, but sometimes she'd be sitting there and she'd say, 'Why is this happening? What did I do wrong? Should we listen to the tape? Is it the mix?' "

But Ramone said that Karen was ultimately proud of the album: "It was the first step to her standing on her own and also the last chance.

"I truly believe that if she had made it through this she could have gone on to have a long career," Ramone said. "A lot of the pop songs and movie songs and duets of the '80s would have been hers.

"A voice like Karen's--rich, womanly--comes along once every 20 years. Voices like that should have a chance to do a variety of things."

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