If the singer/songwriters of the ’70s were the intimate antithesis of the huge stage productions of the art rock, hard rock and heavy metal bands, then the soft rock artists were their musical opposites.
The tradition of studio produced soft rock dates back to the teen idols of the late fifties when Ricky Nelson, Paul Anka, and the Everly Brothers were carving a pop rock following among teens. The rise of the girl groups, the Beach Boys, the British Invasion, Motown, soul, and psychedelic artists in the ‘60s defined rock with more blues or beat oriented sounds.
The soft rock artists, who appeared in the ’70s, built a pop chart sound which de-emphasized the beat, used more traditional instrumentation, soft vocals with thickly harmonized backup singers and sophisticated studio techniques. Most of the artists blurred the lines between rock music and pop music and therefore, could logically be discussed in both fields.
Seals and Crofts, a singing duo of the early ’70s, had Top 25 songs with “We May Never Pass This Way Again,” “Diamond Girl,” “Hummingbird,” and “Summer Breeze.” English-born, Australian-raised singer Olivia Newton-John merged soft pop with elements of country in songs like “Let Me Be There,” “Have You Ever Been Mellow,” and “Hopelessly Devoted to You.” Her 1978 duet with John Travolta “You’re the One That I Want” from their movie version of the musical Grease was just one of her #1 hits.
Other soft rock artists of the ’70s include Captain and Tennille (“Muskrat Love,” “Do That To Me One More Time,” and “Love Will Keep Us Together”) who sold over 23 million records in the last few years of the decade. Neil Diamond (“Sweet Caroline,” “Love On the Rocks,” “Hello Again” and “Song Sung Blue” among a long list) began his career as a Brill Building songwriter, then broke out in the late ‘60s and into the ’70s and amassed 35 Top 40 singles, 18 platinum albums for over 92 million total albums sold worldwide.
Neil Diamond, “Cracklin’ Rosie”, 1970
Barry Manilow, trained at the prestigious Julliard School of Music, arranged for television shows, wrote jingles for Dr. Pepper, State Farm Insurance and Band-Aids (he only sang on the famous McDonald’s “You Deserve a Break Today” commercials) and played in a cabaret before recording and hitting the charts in the mid-’70s. His songs “Mandy,” “Could It Be Magic,” “Copacabana,” and “I Write the Songs” (which was actually written by Beach Boy replacement Bruce Johnston) propelled his name into the top of the pop/soft rock charts. He has received an Emmy (for television), a Grammy (for recordings) and a Tony (for stage work). His records have sold over 90 million copies in 25 years.
No artist, however, defined the soft rock sound of the ’70s more successfully than the brother-sister team of The Carpenters. With keyboards, backup vocals and arranging by brother Richard, drummer and lead singer Karen Carpenter was the queen of the ’70s soft rock romantic sound.
Although instrumentally and vocally, the duo leaned towards a pop, and frequently, a jazz voicing, Karen’s subtle back-beat on the drums, the firm bass and occasional syncopation on the piano all move in the rock direction. Many of songs arranged by Richard and others move towards a firmer, more pronounced (relatively speaking) rock style on the bridge sections before returning to the softer pop sound at the beginning.
Possessing one of the most versatile female voices in soft rock, Karen Carpenter fronted repeated hits on the charts in the first five years of the 70s. “Close to You,” “We’ve Only Just Begun,” “For All We Know,” “Rainy Days and Mondays,” “Superstar,” “Yesterday Once More,” and “Top of the World” all occupied one of the Top Three slots on the charts.
During the early 70s the duo won three Grammys (were nominated for 12 total), appeared at the White House, hosted five ABC television specials as well as their own variety series on NBC, and toured the world several times. Failing health and depression, triggered by anorexia nervosa, caused Karen to pull back from tours and recording by the end of the 70s. In 1983, she died at the age of 32 of cardiac arrest brought on by her eating disorder.
In the years since Karen’s death, her praise has been noted by such diverse artists as Madonna (who counts Karen as one of her influences), Shania Twain (who called Karen her favorite singer), and Alice Cooper (who listens to Carpenter songs to relax).
While the categorization of their style is often debated, what is universally agreed is that Karen Carpenter possessed one of the finest voices of the 1970s, rock, pop, folk or jazz.
As with most musical styles, soft rock was not a specific, narrowly defined sound, rather a broad spectrum of sounds that approached the goal, in this case the creation of a romantic, pop-oriented song, with varying types of instrumentation, rhythmic intensities and vocal packages. In the 1970s, the broad definition for this musical amalgam was called “soft rock.”
The Carpenters – “A Song For You” 1972