Several months ago, I went on a crazy quest to locate every recording of “We’ve Only Just Begun” I could find. Now I’ve collected 20 of them onto a mix CD with the artists listed below. Why “We’ve Only Just Begun”, of all things? In the Carpenters songbook, it tends to be unfairly overlooked in favor of Bacharach-David’s considerably more mawkish “Close To You”. I’m also attracted to the fact that Roger Nichols and Paul Williams originally wrote it as a jingle for a bank commercial. You can detect a bit of hucksterism in the song’s beautiful lyrics (think of the product as “young love”), but the better interpreters also uncover a fear and sadness in those lovey-dovey stanzas about white lace and promises. It is that dichotomy which has made the song both a cheeseball wedding staple and an enduring classic.
1. The Carpenters I read a good observation about this song somewhere which basically said that Karen Carpenter here sounds like a nervous bride ready to bolt. So true, but don’t discount Richard’s magnificent arrangement which turns from reflective to optimistic on a dime.
2. Freddie Allen The first pop recording of the song predated The Carpenters by several months, and it’s interesting to contrast the two. Allen’s rough voiced take is an appealingly unpretentious countryish ballad with not as many contrast as the Carpenters’ arrangement.
3. George Shearing A groovy small jazz combo rendition with Shearing’s piano creating an intimate supper club mood.
4. Andy Williams This is actually my favorite version, other than The Carpenters. Williams dispenses with any dark undertones, but he sings with such winning sincerity that one can’t help but be carried along in his romantic bliss. I also like the peppy arrangement which in comparison makes Karen and Richard look like a pair of Goth twins.
5. Grant Lee Buffalo Dirgey, slowed-down rendition appeared on the 1994 tribute effort If I Were A Carpenter. I remember liking this when it was new, but I’ve outgrown my flannel shirts and now Mr. Buffalo comes across like an overly sensitive guy from whom any smart girl would flee in an instant.
6. Mark Lindsay The Paul Revere & The Raiders frontman recorded an early version which came after Freddie Allen, but before The Carpenters. The arrangement is still somewhat rudementary but with the added bonus of slick, TV variety show-style horns present in his hits “Arizona” and “Silver Bird”.
7. Paul Williams After seeing his own song become a huge success, Paul Williams dashed off a cover for his 1972 album Just An Old Fashioned Love Song. He approaches it like an archetypal wimpy folksinger, an artiste trying to recover his own child from elevator music oblivion.
8. Bobby Womack One of the better “WOJB” covers; Womack and an unidentified female singer transform the song into a soulful ode to togetherness, baby.
9. Arthur Fiedler Fiedler and The Boston Pops sold bucketloads of albums with lushly arranged orchestral versions of pop hits — like this one. His version starts out quietly intense, giving off an Ice Storm vibe of tony suburban angst. Then it turns into an ungainly march. Odd contrasts here.
10. The Singers Unlimited Nice version jazzily arranged for a vocal quartet, complete with “doo doo doo” voices. Wouldn’t sound out of place on a hip Japanese compilation. A winner!
11. Dionne Warwick It doesn’t take a psychic to know that Warwick is one of the finest voices in pop music, but this blandly arranged and sung cover is a big letdown. She’s pleasant enough, but the vocal lacks tension and she might as well be singing about anything with her blasé approach.
12. Acker Bilk Bilk’s soothing clarinet tones have an embalming effect on this ’80s rendition, one that could nicely lend itself to a denture cream commercial.
13. Wing I was hoping to find an “outsider” cover of the song — and I found it in the form of Wing, a wobbly-voiced Asian singer recently featured on a South Park episode. She sings in a high-off key only certain species of animals would enjoy, but I found her rendition utterly charming (and I love the karaoke-style cheesiness of her backing musicians).
14. Claudine Longet Her husband Andy Williams recorded this, so it figures that Claudine Longet would do so as well. The breathy hesitancy in Longet’s voice is perfectly suited to this song; she shines even when her bland arrangement does not.
15. Perry Como Como’s timidly arranged, impossibly laid-back cover is about as hip as a pastel yellow cardigan — proving that Eugene Levy’s SCTV impersonations were no exaggeration.
16. Nancy Finberg Folksy version recorded for a recent Carpenters tribute CD. Ms. Finberg’s unnecessary pseudo-soulful touches give this one the feel an ultra-earnest American Idol audition.
17. Ferrante & Teicher Two men with two grand pianos contribute to an over-the-top rendition that fits squarely in the “beautiful music” genre (although the arrangement also contains some odd, funky touches). When those cascading ivories kick in, I’m transported back to being six years old and in the dentist office waiting room — reading Highlights magazine.
18. Curtis Mayfield A live recording where Mayfield strips away the kitschy artifice and delivers a raw, stripped down performance. Quite heartfelt and beautiful recording probably gets to the meaning of Nichols/Williams’ intent more than any other cover.
19. The Frank Cunimondo Trio Another jazzy rendition by a small combo, nice but somewhat long and noodly near the end. Jazz musicians can riff on anything, can’t they?
20. Bing Crosby Der Bingle recorded this in the mid-’70s, in his 70s, at one of his last sessions. Interesting that he found something to relate to in this ode to young love at such an advanced age, and with a such dignified performance.