The Story of Karen Carpenter
Karen Carpenter was a part of the successful brother and sister duo, The Carpenters. From the early 70's up to the mid-'80s, The Carpenters was known as one of the biggest selling musical acts in America. Besides Karen, the Carpenters included her three years older brother Richard who was the music composer behind the duos hit records.
During their active years, the duo had 17 top 20 hits including songs like "Goodbye to Love", "Yesterday Once More" and "Rainy Days and Mondays". Karen and Richard were rewarded with ten gold singles, nine gold albums, one multi-platinum album and three Grammy Awards during their carrier.
Karen's velvety voice was considered one of the voices of the century and her drumming skills extraordinary. This in combination with Richard's soft melodies and well-crafted arrangements, made the duo stand out from the otherwise rock-dominated musical acts on the charts.
The Carpenters sold over a hundred million albums worldwide and are still to this day considered one of the most successful duos of all time.
Karen and Richard Carpenter 01 February, 1974
Born Into a Family with Passion for Music
Karen Carpenter was born on March 2nd, 1950 in New Haven Connecticut, USA. Karen and Richard were raised in a household where their parents, Agnes and Harold taught their kids about strong work ethic and the value of hard work. Which is something that the two kids brought with them into their adult life. Agnes Carpenter was known for having a strong singing voice and an infectious charisma. Both parents were deeply passionate about music and encourage their kids at an early age to pursue music.
Richard was the first one of the children to find a passion for music when his parents bought him a piano at age twelve. He, later on, started to take piano lessons at Yale. The Carpenter family believed in Richards talent and moved the family to southern California in 1963 to support Richards carrier. But Richard later told in interviews that their reason for moving was just as much to get away from the cold weather in Connecticut.
Karen was considered a " tomboy" in the neighbourhood. She loved playing sports and preferred hanging out with boys then girls. Karen found her passion and love for music when she finally sat in front of a drum kit for the first time in high school. But unfortunately, Karen's parents couldn't afford a drum kit at the time so Karen had to practise the drums using only a pair of sticks and a barstool. Eventually, she saved up enough money to buy her own, real drum kit and her days was spent in the basement practising advanced rhythms and fills.
As a Singer, Karen was an Exotic Creature
Karen and Richard started their first group, a trio in 1965. Richard played the piano, Karen played the drums and sung, and Wes Jacobs, who was a friend from high school played the bass.
Richard Carpenter talked about the beginning in an interview with WALL STREET JOURNAL in 2019."We played light jazz. I began urging Karen to sing. The first song she tried was “The End of the World” in a higher voice. Her deep voice arrived later. As a singer, Karen was an exotic creature. She had impeccable intonation and remarkable breath control, without any training."
Dancing in the Streets
In 1968, Richard and Karen heard about a new TV show called "Your all American Collage Show. The show was looking for new talented musical groups to compete in a musical performance.
Karen and Richards participated as a trio "The Dick Carpenter Trio" alongside Bill Sissoyev, who played the bass.
The trio aced the audition and later on took the viewers by storm when they performed their version of "Dancing in the streets".
The Sister and Brother Duo
Karen and Richard formed a band called Spectrum. They wanted to get away from the smooth jazz and focus more on the vocals rather than the instrumental. But during a time of rock n roll, Spectrum was still considered "too soft" for the record companies and the band split up.
After the split, Richard and Karen decided to form the Carpenters, sister and brother duo.
The Carpenters got signed by A&M Records in 1969 when Karen was only 19 years old. They released their first album just six months after signing their record deal. But the album was a flop.
Karen and Richard almost got kicked out of the record company and many in A&M Records lost faith in the duo. But it wouldn't be long before the Carpenters got their first hit.
Richard got offered to do a re-make of Burt Bacharach's "They Long to be Close to You". Bacharach told Richard to change the song however he liked, but he had to keep the two quintuplets the piano is playing after the bridge. Richard did as he was told and it became the most recognisable part of the song. Richard and Karen wasn't a huge fan of the name of the song, so when it got released, they had changed it to "Close to You". The single hit number one on the Billboard charts within eight weeks.
We Only Just Begun
Later that same year, Carpenters next big hit came out "We Only Just Begun", which was originally made as a jingle for a TV commercial for a bank. Richard saw it on TV and re-wrote it into a ballet. The song made it big and is still played at weddings to this day.
Forced Away From the Drums
Along with dealing with not fitting in with the typical 70's look and sound, Karen was also being pushed further and further away from the drums. She loved drumming, way more than singing but the audience didn't want to see her sitting behind a drum kit anymore.
She didn't want to be in the front. She was a very shy girl and felt much more comfortable having her brother in the front and herself in the back with the drums. But Richard and the record label eventually forced her to sing at the front of the stage.
Karen had one of those voices that were instantly recognisable. She had a soft and smooth tone that somehow also was very powerful, which was something very unique. She had the ability to share her emotions through her voice with the audience. "You could feel her feelings, her pain and sorrow" a fan shared after a concert in 1972.
Success and Low Self-esteem
The hits kept coming and Carpenters success was now a fact. Travelling around the world and working seven days a week was a normal life for the brother and sister duo. By the year 1975, the constant workload was showing noticeable effects on both Karens mental and physical health. Her dramatic weight loss shocked fans and family. It became too hard for her to do concerts and sometimes she even had to lay down between song. Richard and the record label didn't know how to handle the situation. Anorexia Nervosa wasn't as well know as it is today and many didn't know what it actually was.
It didn't help that at the same time as Karen was going through this horrible disease, Richard developed an addiction to prescribed medicine.
The duo was extremely unstable and during this time they fired their manager Sherwin Bass and hired Jerry Weintraub instead. He got the Carpenters to make their own television special. Karen loved doing the show, but Richard hated it. The show had canned laughter, funny skits and very upbeat music that wasn't at all what Richard wanted to do.
The show was a huge success but Richard's addiction to sleeping pills became more and more severe. It became harder and harder for him to do normal daily activities and of course, to play the piano. So he decided to check himself into a rehabilitation centre and recommended that Karen did the same for her problems.
Karens Solo Career
Karen wasn't interested in that, she wanted to focus on recording her solo album while Richard was away. Karen collaborated with top New York producer Phil Ramone to produce Karen's first solo album. The record was quite different from what the Carpenters had produced earlier. It had more of a disco beat and the songs sounded much happier.
By the end, Karen didn't have the self-esteem to release the album due to her brother and managers criticism and Karen moved on to produce more music as the Carpenters instead.
Karen Carpenter recording her famous 1980 solo album
The 1980s started tough for Karen. She had just come out of a failed marriage, a failed attempt at a solo career and she kept on losing more and more weight. Karen ignored the fact that she was ill and even when she had to be rushed into the hospital after collapsing she still denied that she had a problem. She would claim that the only reason she took time off or ended up in the hospital was that she quote " I was pooped".
She didn't get the help she needed and her friends and family didn't know what to do to support her. Along with this, the media was constantly asking questions about her weight, interviewing her doctors and following her around taking photos of her going into different clinics.
On the 4th of February 1983, Karen Carpenter collapsed in her bedroom at her parents' home in Downey. Paramedics found her heart beating once every 10 seconds (6 bpm). She was declared dead at Downey Community Hospital later that morning. Karen was only 32 years old when she passed away.
The autopsy showed that Karen wasn't using any drugs and the cause of death was "emetine cardiotoxicity due to or as a consequence of anorexia nervosa"
Karen was discovered to have a blood sugar level of 1,110 milligrams per deciliter, more than ten times the average. Rumour had it that Karen also was using large amounts of ipecac syrup, an over-the-counter emetic often used to induce vomiting in cases of overdosing or poisoning. Carpenter's friends were convinced that she had abused laxatives and thyroid medication to maintain her low body weight and thought this had started after her marriage began to crumble.
Karen Carpenter will always be remembered for her beautiful, soft voice and incredible musical talent. To this day, she is still one of the most impactful female drummers there have ever been and she will hopefully never be forgotten
The story about Karen Carpenter is both fascinating and very tragic. Today, we know more about the horrendous disease anorexia nervosa and maybe if Karen had gotten better help, she wouldn't have lost her life so young.
An important message we want to get out there to everyone is that if you have someone you care for, a friend, family member, colleague or else, that seems like they are going through similar things as Karen Carpenter was, don't ignore it! Help him/her get help, be supportive and be there. It could be life-saving
If you want to know more about eating disorders and how you can help someone who is going through it, visit these websites below to find out more.
Biography by Clara Marie Lund
The Guardian,Randy Schmidt, Sun 24 Oct 2010, "Karen Carpenter's tragic story" https://www.theguardian.com/books/2010/oct/24/karen-carpenter-anorexia-book-extract
The Wall Street Journal: https://www.wsj.com/articles/when-richard-carpenter-reminisces-of-singing-with-his-sister-its-yesterday-once-more-11548195907
Podcast: "Can you hear me, Long Beach?" Episode 32: "Why Karen Carpenter Matters" with Karen Togson