Ah, yes--The Carpenters' hit "(They Long to Be) Close to You" is the quintessential 70s love ballad, is it not? It was even Homer and Marge's love song on The Simpsons when they're shown meeting each other for the first time in the 70s.
But the song's roots go back to before Beatlemania, and had already been recorded by a few artists before Karen Carpenter's vocals and brother Richard's new arrangement turned it into solid gold in 1970. Written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, it was first recorded by Richard Chamberlain--yes, the actor--and released as a single in 1963 as "They Long to Be Close to You" (no parenthesis.) Chamberlain's version is now considered a "Golden Throat" recording; however, I don't think he sounds all that terrible. You can judge for yourself below. The song just didn't have the secret sauce yet to turn it into a hit.
In 1964, Dusty Springfield recorded a version of the song that wasn't heard until 1967, when it was released on her album Where Am I Going?
Bacharach and David's composition made its way to The Carpenters a few years later when it was first suggested to Herb Alpert as a follow up to his number one hit, "This Guy's in Love with You." Suggested as in a song to sing to. I love me some Herb Alpert, but I'll be the first to tell you that he's better suited as a trumpet musician and not a singer. Alpert apparently felt the same way, as he tried recording "(They Long to Be) Close to You" but was unhappy with the results (the recording later appeared on a 2005 Tijuana Brass record called Lost Treasures 1963-1974.) So he gave it to the new act that had just signed with A&M Records, The Carpenters.
The Carpenters definitely put their own twist on the arrangement of the song. Richard Carpenter said of the experience, "(Herb Alpert) just gave me a lead sheet, and he said, 'I have a recording of this, but I don't want you to hear it. I don't want anything to influence what I may come up with. Just keep, at the end of the first bridge, two piano quintuplets.' That record, that song, the arrangement, all of it, is misleading to the uninitiated, because it sounds simple. And it's anything but simple."
Because of the Herb Alpert connection, a lot of people think he played the trumpet on The Carpenters' version, but that honor went to Chuck Findley. Carpenter wanted a layered sound for the middle of the song, and tried having multiple trumpet players perform it in unison, but each instrument sounded slightly different. Findley played all the parts himself, then layered them together to get the sound Carpenter wanted.
Karen also played drums during the first few sessions, but Alpert didn't like her technique, and gently suggested that Hal Blaine replace her as drummer.
That was probably a wise move, because it allowed her vocals to shine on what would become the brother and sister act's first and most famous hit. An instant classic was born.
"(They Long to Be) Close to You" earned The Carpenters a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Performance by a Duo, Group or Chorus in 1971, the first of three Grammy Awards they would win during their careers. Of course, it's been covered seemingly hundreds of times to this day--even The Smashing Pumpkins recorded a version of it. Harry Connick, Jr. released a nice track of it on his 2009 album, Your Songs.
But I doubt anyone will ever be able to top The Carpenters.