written by Holly Hutchins | photography by Joe Kline
It started as a Crocker Bank TV commercial. It evolved into one of popular music’s most iconic songs, eventually voted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. “We’ve Only Just Begun,” made famous by Richard and Karen Carpenter in 1970, owes its origin to legendary songwriter and longtime Bend resident Roger Nichols. To date, this classic has played on the air more than 4 million times, earning the distinction of being one of the top fifty songs of the twentieth century. Over the years, Nichols’ music, co-written with Paul Williams, Tony Asher, Bill Lane and other notable lyricists, has been recorded by hundreds of artists worldwide, including Barbra Streisand, Three Dog Night, Barry Manilow, Paul Anka, Johnny Mathis and on and on. Nichols also composed commercial spots for a client list that reads like a “Who’s Who” of corporate America, including several commercials for Kodak with lyrist Lane. One, titled “ The Times of Your Life,” became a huge hit for Paul Anka in 1976.
He earned gold records and nominations for Grammys, an Emmy and an Academy Award, wrote music for some of the most famous artists and corporations of all time, then largely stepped away from the music industry in the 1980s to live under the radar in Bend. Now he’s back, with his first all-instrumental album, a collection of new and up-tempo tunes titled, “Music for the Fun of It.” Why Bend? His answer in large part is the same that countless transplants have given over the years—quality of life. But that was mixed with a dynamic change in the music industry and a budding interest in real estate. When Karen Carpenter died in 1983 after a long struggle with anorexia, Nichols reflected—gone was the warm, melodic sound of The Carpenters and with it, he felt, the heart and soul of that genre. It was time for a change. A high school friend living in Bend introduced him to a commercial real estate agent who in turn showed him the dilapidated downtown O’Kane building. “I really wasn’t looking to do something besides music, but this building and downtown Bend just struck a nerve with me,” he recalled. In 1985, he bought the building, saving the 1916 relic from an impending tear-down, then launched an elaborate four-year restoration and got the building on the National Register of Historic Places.
He eventually moved to Bend in 1988, married his wife, Terri, and together they raised three daughters, Claire, Caroline and Caitlin. “But I’ve always managed to keep my fingers in music,” he said. Examples include albums in 2007 and 2012 that include many of his best-known tunes from the 1960s and 1970s. He also collaborated with his wife and Dr. Sheila O’Connell- Roussell to produce a musical in 1992, “HerStory: The Mother’s Tale,” a portrait of the mother of Jesus and other women in the gospels that had more than 100 performances throughout the U.S. and traveled to Ireland. Born in Missoula, Montana, Nichols grew up in Santa Monica, California, enjoying the musical and artistic influence of his parents—his mother a classical pianist and his father an accomplished photographer and college dance band saxophone player. Nichols said he got his first inspiration for songwriting from his father. “My father was intrigued with many of the songwriters of the time, particularly Johnny Mercer,” he said.
“Looking back, he really increased my awareness and appreciation of good songwriters.” After graduating from high school, Nichols put together a singing group called Roger Nichols and the Small Circle of Friends. Given an opportunity to record a couple of demo tapes at one of Hollywood’s top recording studios, Nichols remembers being blown away by the experience. “Once we heard our music being played back in a professional studio, we kinda flipped out. This was really cool!” Others heard the demo tapes, including musician Herb Alpert. When Alpert listened to Nichols’ instrumental, “ The Treasure of San Miguel,” he said, “Wow, I love that tune,” then asked, “Who did you write it for?” Quick on his feet, Nichols responded, “I wrote it for you!” This was Nichols’ breakthrough recording, and Alpert became one of his biggest fans and mentors over the years.
Soon after, Paul Williams joined Nichols, their string of Carpenter hits followed, and the rest is history. Nichols always wrote the melodies first, then Williams would write the lyrics. Their portfolio of Carpenter hits includes “We’ve Only Just Begun,” “Rainy Days and Mondays,” “I Won’t Last a Day Without You,” and “Let Me Be the One.” When “We’ve Only Just Begun” was rocketing up the charts, so was another Nichols-Williams classic, “Out in the Country” for Three Dog Night. It was an extremely rare occurrence for any songwriter to have two smash hits on the airwaves at the same time. The accolades have been lavish—he has three gold records, two Grammy nominations, one Emmy nomination, a CLIO award for “Times of Your Life,” and even an Academy Award nomination for theme music for the 1971 documentary short film “Somebody Waiting.” He has two explanations for his inspiration.
Nichols’ pragmatic answer is “the phone call.” Nichols tells the story of when famous songwriter Sammy Kahn was asked, “What comes first, the words or the music?” Kahn responded, “the phone call.” So it was with Nichols—the phone call from Crocker Bank wanting a song with a wedding theme, which led to “We’ve Only Just Begun,” the phone call from Bill Lane wanting music for a story of photographic memories for Kodak, all the calls from The Carpenters. “ They were looking for music, so Paul and I wrote for them.” His deeper answer is his innate talent. “I can sit at the piano and write anywhere, anytime, if I need to or want to. It’s just in my bones,” he said. Looking back, Nichols said it was heady stuff working with Paul Williams and other supernovas like The Carpenters, Streisand and Alpert, and said Hollywood was a gracious, respectful and enjoyable place to work then. “I really don’t have any bad memories from Hollywood,” he said. “I had a good career, moving from one great artist or project to another, staying busy and successful, thanks to some wonderful partners in music.”