One Great Cover looks at the greatest cover songs ever, and how they got to be that way.
You know that old TV and movie trope where the shy wallflower with “potential” gets a makeover and is miraculously transformed into the coveted bombshell? Think of the Carpenters’ 1970 cover of “(They Long to Be) Close to You” as the sonic embodiment of that notion. Okay, it’s more of a get a new hairstyle, dress cooler but leave the glasses on version because you know, this is the Carpenters we’re talking about here, but you get the idea.
But seriously, when it comes to angst-ridden, idealistic love ballads about unrequited desire and quietly lustful appreciation, they don’t get much better than “(They Long to Be) Close to You.” Written by the legendary songwriting team of Burt Bacharach and Hal David, “CTY” (let’s just call it) is that contradictory but always revelatory musical combination of sugary and majestic, cut from the same frothy, infatuated, occasionally eye-rolling cloth as Stevie Wonder’s “My Cherie Amour” while eliciting “Dancing Queen”-levels of respect for its production and execution. From Richard Carpenter’s iconic opening piano flourishes to sister Karen’s towering vocal (understatement), it expertly straddles that line between non-threatening pap and soul-crushing tearjerker with consummate skill (’tis the eternal mystery-magic of the Carpenters).
The duo so completely inhabit the song, which is to say they freakin’ own it, that it is easy to forget they were not the first artists to record it. No, the first “CTY” out of the gate wasn’t even by an actual musician, but by a hot and debonair actor playing a doctor on a TV show. Yup, welcome to the glorious state of pop music in the USA in 1963.
In the early ’60s, prior to The Beatles washing things clean and saving the world, the pop charts were full of moonlighting TV and movie stars singing anodyne songs of love. As clean-cut heartthrob Richard Chamberlain, then the star of TV’s highly rated Dr.Kildare, had a pleasantly mellifluous singing voice to go with his hotness, it was only natural that he would end up in the recording studio to cash in on this trend. And so it was, in the year of 1963, that “Dr. Kildare” recorded the very first version of “CTY.” Its introduction to the world was as the B-Side to another Bacharach and David track called “Blue Guitar,” which peaked at #42 in the U.S. pop chart. The Chamberlain version of “CTY” is a big ol’ cheese, schmaltz, and vibrato sandwich. Are you ready? Okay then, here it is:
Most of the YouTube commenters agree that the Carpenters version is better (I concur). Still, let’s hear it for the author of the blurb that describes Chamberlain’s voice as “velvety and masculine,” a characterization that deserves a big thumbs up for managing to sound demure and filthy.
In Chamberlain’s wake came two decidedly better renditions of “CTY,” performed by actual dyed-in-the-wool divas. But while both are fine and sweetly soulful, neither Dionne Warwick’s 1964 version (listen here) nor Dusty Springfield’s, recorded in ’64 but released in 1967 (listen here), are what you would call seminal or definitive. The former features a typically handsome Dionne vocal, but is marred by a slushy string arrangement and somewhat melodramatic production (hey, it was the ’60s). And while Dusty’s vocal soars on the latter, the track is swamped in syrupy instrumentation and set at a brisk tempo ill-suited to the song
After this initial flurry of attention, it looked as if “CTY” was headed for “storage,” destined to live out its days peacefully lost in the pile of equally pretty deep cuts in the Bacharach/David archive. But in 1969 came a fateful request. Herb Alpert, co-founder of A & M Records and a recording artist in his own right, was looking to record a follow-up to his 1968 #1 hit ballad “This Guy’s In Love With You” (another Bacharach/David song, which featured one of the most “hell, I could sing better than that,” regular-guy vocals in the history of pop music: hear it here). Hal David suggested he take a listen to Dionne Warwick’s version of “CTY,” as he thought it might suit Alpert. While Alpert liked it enough to record it, he was unhappy with the result and decided not to release it, adding that he found its description of how the angels “sprinkled moondust in your hair” to be corny.
But it wasn’t over for “CTY.” In February of 1970, The Carpenters, who were signed to A & M, were scheduled to open a benefit show Alpert was planning and wanted to include a Bacharach-David medley within their setlist. Alpert thought “CTY” might work as a part of the medley and so brought it to Richard Carpenter, who gamely attempted to incorporate it. Alas, it didn’t fit in as seamlessly as it needed to (man, “CTY” couldn’t get a damn break). But Richard recognized the song’s potential, and with Alpert’s blessing, he worked up his own arrangement a few weeks later. Yes, “CTY,” that’d be a Carpenter-shaped light you see poking through those clouds.
The Carpenters recorded three versions using Richard’s arrangement. The first featuring Karen belting it out, as described in several bios, “Harry Nilsson style.” Not only was Alpert not into the vocal affectation Karen had applied, but he also didn’t care for her drumming, feeling it wasn’t powerful enough because of her “slight build” (FYI–watch this). As a result, members of studio band extraordinaire the Wrecking Crew were brought in to punch things up. With the Crew’s Hal Blaine on drums, Larry Knechtel on piano, and Joe Osborn on bass, another take was attempted…and it still wasn’t quite right.
The issue this time was Knechtel’s piano, which Richard thought sounded too hard ‘n’ heavy (go figure). This led to Richard himself stepping in and taking over the keys (and playing immaculately, because you know, Richard Carpenter). By the third take, Karen had found her vocal footing, and with the added multi-tracked trumpet of Chuck Findley, “(They Long to Be) Close to You” was ready for the world.
All the persnickety fussing was worth it.
Besotted, insecure, and ever so slightly passive-aggressive, “(They Long to Be) Close to You” does not come from a place of winning, which is to say, it is right in Karen Carpenter’s wheelhouse. As pop history has proven time and time again, few singers can convey “longing” quite as convincingly as Karen freakin’ Carpenter.
The vocal on “CTY” is extraordinarily intimate. It is lovelorn yet oddly sensual. Listening to the opening verse on headphones can feel as if someone is whispering directly in your ear, a sensation both disconcerting and gloriously chill-inducing (true confession: it literally, physically startled me once). But make no mistake, Karen knew what she was doing. Early in the duo’s career, when asked about how she settled into singing in her lower register, she legendarily replied, “the money is in the basement.”
For further evidence of what a remarkably savvy and skillful singer she was, check out the way she strings together all the words on the aforementioned, now fabled “moondust” line to create one immensely singalongable big one. It’s just so gloriously clever.
“CTY” is not a hodgepodge of sound; there is exceptional clarity in every element. From the iconic opening piano line to the swaying strings to the coyly sexy-horn action to the fat-bottomed bass to, yes, the booming-ly handsome Blaine drums, every bit of instrumentation is audible as a singular entity (it’s a Carpenter thang).
It should be noted that while Jack Daugherty is credited as the producer on “CTY,” the song and subsequent album of the same name, there has been considerable dispute over how much he contributed. Richard Carpenter has long said that he himself was in charge of production and that Daugherty’s credit was related to the fact that he, Daugherty, helped get the duo signed to A&M, adding that it was “a long story.” In the excellent Karen Carpenter bio Little Girl Blue from 2010, there’s a lot of credible recollection from those around at the time that supports this.
Alpert liked “CTY,” but, as hard as this may be to believe now, he wasn’t sure if the song had genuine hit potential. In Ray Coleman’s 1994 Carpenters bio, he explained his initial concern; “It was so soft, so slow. I couldn’t picture teenagers listening to it in their cars.” Yeah, that may just have been you, Herb, as I suspect most 1970 teens would have recognized the song’s “inspirational” potential for those special occasions when their vehicles were, you know, parked.
“CTY” entered the Billboard Pop Chart in June of 1970; on July 25 it hit #1, where it sat proudly for four weeks, and went on to win the Grammy for “Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals.” It was #1 on the Billboard Adult Contemporary Chart, as well as on the pop charts of Australia and Canada(!). Okay, it only got to #6 in the UK, but hey, that’s still pretty damn good.
These days “CTY” is the most popular Carpenters song on Spotify; as of this writing it’s been streamed nearly 120 million times. Not even gonna talk about the hundreds of covers of the track on YouTube and the millions upon millions of plays they and the Carpenters’ version have received there. Let’s just say it’s a lot.
The tragic circumstances of Karen’s death in 1983 have imbued even the most saccharine of Carpenters’ songs with a genuine air of melancholia. At this stage, it’s virtually impossible to separate the singer from the song, to hear “CTY,” or any Carpenters track and not think of her. Maybe that’s how it should be. “(They Long to Be) Close to You” is sugary and corny. But it’s a tribute, too. Most especially to that one-of-a-kind voice at the helm. Karen Carpenter is never less than utterly believable. Listen in awe.
*”Close To You” has been covered hundreds of times and, unsurprisingly, most of those follow the blueprint laid down by the Carpenters. Then there is Isaac Hayes’ absurdly epic nine-minute version from 1971, which is something else entirely. He completely Hayes-a-fizes it, transforming the previously shy crushed-out plea into a mirrored ceiling, over a circular waterbed, on a shag carpet, ’70s seduction song. It is awesome. Listen here.
*In 1972, Dionne Warwick recorded a new version of “Close To You,” this time in far more wistful ‘n’ shimmery fashion than her 1964 attempt. It’s kinda fine; in fact, this second go-round is downright Carpenter-esque (listen here).
*Lastly, this piece wouldn’t be complete without acknowledging the greatest pop-culture reference to “Close To You” in all of human history. Watch it here.