The audience at Friday’s “The Carpenters Tribute” at the Waco Hippodrome will experience something many fans of pop duo Karen and Richard Carpenter in the 1960s and 1970s never saw: a live performance.
While the sibling duo dominated pop charts and television appearances , they didn’t tour as much as other well-known musicians of their time, partly because of Karen’s insecurity as a lead performer.
In fact, the show that’s recreated by Sally Olson and Ned Mills comes from the Carpenters’ 1976 tour of the United Kingdom after they had worked with stage professionals to make their concert more than a string of pop ballads.
“It’s their most lively and entertaining show,” explained Olson, who sings and drums as Karen in the tribute, with Mills on keyboards and singing Richard’s harmony vocals.
That means movement on stage, patter between songs and a musical variety that shows off the Carpenters’ musical skills. “A lot of people never had the opportunity to see the Carpenters live,” noted Mills, a veteran music director and conductor in Las Vegas. “The takeaway for many who see our show is, ‘I had no idea they could do so many different things.’”
For Olson, that meant learning how to drum. Karen, known for her silky, arresting alto, started as a drummer in her brother’s pop-jazz combo The Richard Carpenter Trio and for many years preferred to sing from behind a drum kit when onstage.
“Karen started out on drums and considered herself a drummer. For me, I’m doing it in the opposite order,” she said.
For Mills, who studied trumpet at North Texas State University, the tribute meant some brushing up to get Richard’s arrangements and playing style down. “I had to step up my chops a couple of notches,” he said. “He was so eclectic in his style.”
He also plays a tribute to pop arranger, trumpeter and producer Herb Albert, the man who gave the Carpenters their big break, and wanted to do justice to the arrangements of pop composer Burt Bacharach, who had written several of the Carpenters’ hits. “It took time and dedication to get it right,” he said.
For many Carpenters fans, it was Karen’s voice that was the duo’s signature, a voice that comes to mind when one runs through the titles of their best-known songs: “(They Long to Be) Close to You,” “We’ve Only Just Begun,” “Rainy Days and Mondays,” “Superstar,” “Top of the World,” “Sing,” and “For All We Know.”
That part only needed polishing, said Olson. “For me, singing the Carpenters’ music was a natural and easy fit. The range and timbre of my voice is similar to Karen’s,” she said. “I had to study and be aware of all the inflections in her voice to fine-tune it . . . You can imagine she had experienced all these things she was singing about.”
The Carpenters’ time in the musical limelight ended abruptly in 1983 when Karen died of heart failure at age 32.
The tribute that Olson and Mills will lead debuted this spring before an exacting audience: a Carpenters 50th annual celebration in Thousand Oaks, California. Not only did they win acclaim for their performance, but subsequent shows sold out.
The two crossed paths after Olson, a Vermont native, had developed a 2015 cabaret show with Karen’s songs and secured the part as Karen Carpenter for the “Legends in Concert” show in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, beginning in the fall. Mills, a seasoned arranger and music director who’s worked in Las Vegas for 19 years, connected with her to create the tribute for the Carpenters 50th annual celebration, a tribute they’re now taking on the road until “Legends ” begins.
Joining the two in Waco are guitarist Matt Baldoni, woodwind player James D’Arrigo, drummer John Plows and Waco musician Greg Bashara on saxophone and flute. Author Randy Schmidt, who wrote the Karen Carpenter biography “Little Girl Blue,” also will be at Saturday’s concert to meet fans and sign books.