Karen and Olivia and the girl-group sound...

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Karen Carpenter! Karen and Olivia in '66
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Bev, Efficient 1960s

by Chuck Mallory

Any pop music fan knows the names Karen Carpenter and Olivia Newton-John. These two exquisite singers skyrocketed to fame in the 1970s, but their real start was the 1960s. In fact, their roots are in the girl-group sound!

Karen Carpenter in the era of "big hair."

Both women had their first singles released in 1966, near the end of the girl-group era. Both songs reflected the times with a knockout girl-group beat. These obscure tracks recently came to light, and reveal an interesting story.


Though in the 1990s much hoopla arose over the posthumous release of a Karen Carpenter solo album, Karen's first solo recording preceded all of the Carpenters' famous hits, like "Close to You" and "We've Only Just Begun."

The incident was aptly portrayed in the TV movie of a few years ago, "The Karen Carpenter Story." In 1966, when Karen was 16 years old, she, her brother Richard, and a third band member, won the "Hollywood Bowl Battle of the Bands" for their jazz music. Karen's place was definitely in the background. The group was called The Richard Carpenter Trio, their mother Agnes Carpenter was devoted to making Richard famous, and they sought a record contract for their jazz recordings.

Karen and Richard Carpenter as teens.

It was Joe Osborn, a well-known session bassist in the L.A. area, who noticed Karen's striking alto voice. He owned a small record label called Magic Lamp Records and offered a contract--to Karen. It was in his small studio that Karen, backed by Richard, recorded her songs, "I'll Be Yours," "Looking for Love," and "The Parting of Our Ways." The first two songs were released on a 45 rpm vinyl single in summer 1966.


In her 16th year, everything changed for Karen Carpenter. She became interested in music by accident. To get out of gym class, she joined marching band. She was stuck with the glockenspiel because at first she didn't care what instrument she played and had experience in none. Since it was a percussion instrument, she marched with the drummers. Her eyes were on the drummer Frankie Chavez, who played drums. She convinced him to switch instruments, and her love of playing the drums was born.

At the same time, she said in a later interview, Richard was becoming more interested in vocals, so, ever the dutiful sister, she did, too. Initially they sang songs by the Beatles, their favorite group at the time. Their first single for A&M as the Carpenters, in 1969, was a slow remake of "Ticket to Ride."

Unfortunately, Karen's 1966 solo, "I'll Be Yours," didn't chart and only received very minimal airplay in L.A. The song was buried for years, almost to the point of obscurity. According to journalist Steve Harvey, who interviewed the Carpenters in 1976, "Karen actually denied making the single." He added, "Even the fan club disclaimed it."


Now the song appears on the Carpenters' collection From the Top and can also periodically be heard on the Spectropop Internet radio station on Live365.com. Only 500 copies of this rare single were made, and a mint condition copy is valued at $2,500.00.

The story of the Carpenters as a group is well-known. After "Ticket to Ride" tanked, A & M Records gave them another chance. "Close to You" was a Burt Bacharach/Hal David song that Dionne Warwick had recorded as an album track several years before and had hated. The song was gold for Karen and Richard Carpenter.


Olivia Newton-John started even earlier than Karen Carpenter. At age 12, she won a local Haley Mills lookalike contest in Melbourne, Australia. By late 1965, she had won a TV talent contest, and the prize was a trip to England.

Olivia in the girl-group era.

Jackie DeShannon had just had a hit with "When You Walk in the Room," which was recorded by the Searchers. She flew to London to find singers for her songs and decided her song, "Till You Say You'll Be Mine," would go to young Olivia Newton-John. With a one-shot deal from Decca, Olivia recorded the song, which was described as merging "Motown overtones with a stomping rhythm section." The B-side of the 45 rpm vinyl single, "For Ever," was more like Olivia's early 1970s soft country-rock hits. It was released in May 1966, about a month before Karen Carpenter's single.

Olivia Newton-John in 1966, before big fame.

The record flopped, and shortly after, she joined Toomorrow, a band that was supposed to be a sort of British version of the Monkees (and which was developed by Don Kirschner). There was even a sci-fi film, Toomorrow, which, like the single, faded into history. Olivia stayed afloat, however, because the exposure gave her a spot on Cliff Richard's TV series. In 1971, she recorded a song by Bob Dylan called "If Not For You," which blasted her into superstar orbit.

Label of Olivia's only girl-group hit.


Karen Carpenter and Olivia Newton-John were close friends, and Karen's solo album, recorded in 1980, was partly inspired by Olivia's transition from country songstress to bitchin'-babe in the movie "Grease." Olivia was a bridesmaid at Karen's wedding to Tom Burris, a real estate developer. Karen also recorded a Jackie DeShannon song, "Boat to Sail," on the group's "A Kind of Hush" album.

Though Olivia had formed a girl group in 1963 with two other friends, called "The Sol Four," they never achieved any fame or recorded, and Olivia abandoned the girl-group sound after her 1966 hit. Karen never gave it up, however, filling half of the Carpenters' 1974 hit album with girl-group songs like "Da Doo Ron Ron," "Our Day Will Come," and "Johnny Angel." The group even released a 1976 single of "Please Mr. Postman."

Today many fans of the girl-group sounds happen to be lovers of both Carpenters and Olivia Newton-John music. Ironically, the two sweet songbirds got their start in that innocent time.

Karen Carpenter and Olivia Newton-John in later years.

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