Yesterday Once More: Fifty Years of the Carpenters

By Keith Mason, Ph.D.   

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We’ve Only Just Begun: Introduction

The article title comes from their 1973 hit “Yesterday Once More,” one of their most popular songs internationally and my all-time favorite song by them. It captured a type of nostalgia for the 1960s during the era of American Graffiti. The Carpenters were popular in the 1970s and 1980s. They began recording in 1969, next year marking their 50th anniversary. The Grammy Award-winning group was popular for Richard Carpenter’s rich orchestrations, the choral effect of overdubbed vocals and the distinctive lead vocals of Karen Carpenter.

Their music was very influential to me, particularly the “choral effect,” whereby they recorded all their vocals, creating an impressive set of harmonies on many of their recordings. Richard got the idea from Les Paul and Mary Ford who would use multi-track recording for both instrumental and vocal recordings. The Carpenters’ music encouraged me to participate in school choral groups. In elementary school, our chorus performed “Top of the World.” In junior high, our choir director, Mr. David Christensen, would often refer to the Carpenters recordings during rehearsals of their songs. He would say to a specific voice group, “if you listen to the recording, that’s Karen’s part” or “that’s Richard’s part.” Our girls’ choir performed with the Carpenters at a New Jersey venue and my choir director knew them.

Sing: Carpenters’ Contributions to Choral Music

Both the vocals and orchestrations of Carpenters’ music are distinctive. Classic songs include “Close To You,” “We’ve Only Just Begun,” “Hurting Each Other,” “For All We Know,” “Top of the World,” “Sing,” “Yesterday Once More,” “I Won’t Last a Day Without You,” “Only Yesterday,” and “I Need To Be in Love.”

Top of the World: The Carpenters’ Success

They received three Grammy Awards, an American Music Award and have scored #1, #2 and top 40 hits during their peak years and appeared in a few television specials. The Carpenters released ten albums while Karen was alive. A number of compilation and greatest hits albums have been released after Karen’s death, some of which include unreleased songs. Both Richard and Karen studied music at California State University at Long Beach.

Concert tours were exhausting for the Carpenters. Karen became very thin and developed anorexia nervosa, a condition few knew about at the time. Because of the condition’s negative effects on her heart, Karen died on February 4, 1983 at the age of 32.

For All We Know: Learning Scenarios

The following learning scenarios can be completed alone or with others and can be completed in class or out of class. Students can perform a Carpenters song as a solo or ensemble. Consider adding a curricular component in your assignments such as the Multiple Intelligences, differentiation, habits of mind, cooperative learning, project-based learning or learning styles.

Karen Carpenter

Karen had a magnificent voice range, yet she seldom used her higher soprano register. What was the rationale for her using her contralto range? In which Carpenters songs can you hear Karen’s higher register? According to Richard, Karen considered herself a drummer who could sing. On which tracks did Karen play drums?

Richard Carpenter

Richard Carpenter is a virtuoso on keyboards and a masterful arranger and orchestrator.  What characterizes the “Carpenters’ sound” in terms of arrangements, instruments and vocals. Students can present their findings as an essay, video, oral presentation or digital slideshow.

Carpenters and Harmonies

Many of the Carpenters’ songs exhibited obvious examples of harmonies. Students can explore the Carpenters’ recordings and find one or more songs for analyzing harmonies and share their findings with the class.

Carpenters Hit Singles

In 1973, the Carpenters released their album The Singles: 1969-1973. A later compilation was The Singles: 1969-1981 and many other hits albums have been released through the years. Students can become familiar with their hit singles. A specific hit can be chosen for musical analysis. What form does the song have (ABAB, AABA, etc.)? What instruments are included in the orchestration? Is there a signature choral effect in the song? What is the song’s main message?

Yesterday Once More/Oldies Medley 

In concert, the Carpenters began performing an oldies medley in 1972. Richard wanted a nostalgic song to introduce and finish the oldies medley. Richard wrote “Yesterday Once More” with lyricist John Bettis, released in 1973. What is the main message of the song? Which oldies were included in the medley? Who performed the original songs?

Technology and the Carpenters’ Choral Effect

The Carpenters’ choral effect was possible because of the ability to do multi-track recording. Research the process of multi-track recording with your students.

A Song for You: Summary

The Carpenters’ music is definitely a part of the soundtrack of many of our lives. My childhood was happy partly because of Karen and Richard’s music. A favorite Carpenters song likely exists for everyone. By exploring the Carpenters’ music and taking a fresh look at it, we can all discover why it is yesterday once more.

Keith Mason, Ph.D. received eight Paper Mill Playhouse Rising Star Awards for educational impact for integrating musicals into the high school curriculum. He is currently writing a book Musicals across the Curriculum.

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