February 4, 1983 – Karen Carpenter was born in New Haven, Connecticut on March 2nd 1950. When she was young, she enjoyed playing baseball with other children on the street. On the TV program This Is Your Life, she stated that she liked pitching and later, in the early 1970s, she would become the pitcher on the Carpenters’ official softball team. Her brother Richard developed an interest in music at an early age, becoming a piano prodigy. The family moved in June 1963 to the Los Angeles suburb of Downey.
In 1964 when Carpenter entered Downey High School, she joined the school band. Bruce Gifford, the conductor (who had previously taught her older brother) gave her the glockenspiel, an instrument she disliked and after admiring the performance of her friend, Frankie Chavez (who idolized famous jazz drummer Buddy Rich), she asked if she could play the drums instead.
She had always been enthusiastic about the drums and taught herself how to play complicated drum lines with “exotic time signatures,” according to her brother. Carpenter’s drumming was later praised by fellow drummers Hal Blaine, Cubby O’Brien, and Buddy Rich as well as Modern Drummer magazine. According to her brother, Carpenter always considered herself a “drummer who sang.”
From 1965 to 1968, Karen, her brother Richard and his college friend Wes Jacobs, a bassist and tuba player, formed The Richard Carpenter Trio. The band played jazz at numerous nightclubs, and also appeared on a TV talent show called Your All American College Show.
In April 1969 A&M Records signed Karen and Richard as the duo The Carpenters to a recording contract, with Karen as both the group’s drummer and lead singer. She was later persuaded to stand at the microphone to sing the band’s hits while another musician played the drums, although she still did some drumming.
They released their debut album “Offering”, later retitled Ticket to Ride, on October 9th 1969. In a time of Vietnam war, the protests, the harsh British Hard Rock phenomenon Led Zeppelin, the psychedelic impressions, The Carpenters were reviled for their sweetness. They were not considered rock and roll, not even bubblegum. Yet they became superstars on the strength of Karen Carpenter’s voice.
Their 2nd album, 1970’s Close to You, featured two massive hit singles: “(They Long to Be) Close to You” and “We’ve Only Just Begun“. This followed by 14 more Carpenter albums and one Karen Carpenter solo album. Other of their many hit songs include “For All We Know (Theme from Lovers and Other Strangers), “Rainy Days and Mondays”, “Superstar”, “Hurting Each Other”, “It’s Going to Take Some Time”, “Goodbye to Love”, “Sing”, “Yesterday Once More”, “Top of the World”, “Please Mr. Postman” and “Only Yesterday”.
Because at 5 feet 4 inches tall it was difficult for people in the audience to see her behind her drum kit, she was eventually persuaded to stand at the microphone to sing the band’s hits while another musician played the drums (former Disney Mouseketeer Cubby O’Brien served as the band’s other drummer for many years). After the release of Now & Then in 1973, the albums tended to have Carpenter singing more and drumming less.
Sweet and Upbeat or Dark and Depressive?
How easy it was to revile the Carpenters. In the 70’s, this brother-and-sister duo went against the grain of any self-respecting rock-and-roller: they always dressed as if they were going to church, and they sang sticky songs about love (but never sex). Worst of all, parents loved their music. If, outside, the nation was raging (Vietnam, Watergate), the Carpenters suggested that, inside, cookies were baking.
Years later, with their music collected on a four-CD set, “From the Top” (A&M 6875), the Carpenters finally acquired something resembling depth — or at least conviction. Richard Carpenter, the duo’s keyboardist and arranger, pitted his gentle sounds against loudmouths like Led Zeppelin and the psychedelic soul of Sly and the Family Stone. In comparison, the Carpenters sounded just plain weird, sort of like the Mamas and the Papas crossed with Lawrence Welk, with Mr. Carpenter emphasizing frothy melodies and overdubbing his and his sister’s voices into a choralelike swell. Remember the wahs on “(They Long to Be) Close to You,” the duo’s first million seller?
Yet America responded to his musical panaceas, as his arrangements became a prevalent force on AM radio. Note the similarities between the Carpenters’ 1970 hit “We’ve Only Just Begun” and Barbra Streisand’s 1973 hit “The Way We Were.”
If Mr. Carpenter was the brains of the duo, then its raison d’etre was his younger sister Karen’s voice. Generally portrayed as angelic and sexless, the Tricia Nixon of the Top-40 set, Karen Carpenter possessed a deep contralto that actually undercut her brother’s saccharine fantasies. It can be a revelation to listen to the Carpenters’ megahits — “For All We Know,” “Rainy Days and Mondays,” “Superstar,” “Goodbye to Love” — and realize that few had happy endings, as Karen Carpenter was eminently more comfortable singing about loneliness and uncertainty.
Even “Sing,” the “Sesame Street” song, comes off as a forced smile, while the cozy “Merry Christmas Darling” finds her at her most disconsolate (and alluring), a Jane Eyre pining away for a Rochester who existed only in her dreams.
It’s probably no coincidence that the Carpenters’ run of Top-10 hits ended in 1975; Nixon was out, disco was in and Karen Carpenter began suffering from anorexia nervosa. As her body grew lighter (91 lbs), so did her voice. No longer was she the unwitting foil to her brother’s aural Disneyland, but a willing accomplice.
At this time her brother developed an addiction to Quaaludes. The Carpenters’ Very First TV Special aired December 8, 1976, but by 1977 the Carpenters frequently cancelled tour dates, and they stopped touring altogether after their September 4, 1978, concert at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas.
In 1979 Richard Carpenter took a year of to rehab from his quaalude addiction, she did record 23 solo tracks with the producer Phil Ramone in 1979 for an album that was not released until decades later. The arrangements were tougher, but Karen Carpenter, more self-consciously feminine, ended up abandoning the deep tones that made her voice so compelling to begin with. Three of the solo cuts are included on “From the Top,” including a prophetically titled disco song, “My Body Keeps Changing My Mind.” In addition to being a drummer and a singer, Karen Carpenter could also play the electric bass guitar. She played bass guitar on two songs on Offering/Ticket to Ride (the Carpenters first album released by A&M). The two songs were All of My Life and Eve. Although Karen’s bass playing is heard on the original album(s), Richard remixed both songs (as he has done with almost every Carpenters song), and Joe Osborn’s bass playing was substituted for later ‘greatest hits’ releases.
On a personal level that year 1979 was pivotal in Karen’s life as she realized that the two things she valued most (her voice and her mother’s affection and love) were exclusively reserved for her brother. The only thing she could control was her own body. And that she did with abandon.
In 1980, she performed a medley of standards in a duet with Ella Fitzgerald on the Carpenters’ television program Music, Music, Music. In 1981 after the release of the Made in America album (which turned out to be their last), the Carpenters returned to the stage and did some tour dates, including their final live performance in Brazil.
Karen Carpenter was almost 33 years old when she died on 4 February 1983 from cardiac arrest due to the effects of anorexia nervosa.
Since her death in 1983, she has been the subject of Todd Haynes’s acclaimed film “Superstar” and celebrated by the punk band Sonic Youth in “Tunic (Song for Karen).” But if her illness has legitimized her among the hip, the sound and image that remain indelible belong to the Karen and Richard of the early 70’s, America’s most defiant squares.
She fought and lost a lonely fight against Anorexia
When Karen Carpenter ‘s death shocked the world on Feb. 4, 1983, awareness of the life-threatening severity of eating disorders had truly “only just begun.” And though she hardly could have foreseen or wanted a messianic role, the notion that self-starvation could kill even the biggest of superstars has contributed to saving countless lives in the 30 years since that jaw-dropping day.
In the interim, dozens of mostly female stars have spoken up about their past or sometimes ongoing bouts with bulimia or anorexia. Jane Fonda dealt with her 30-year battle with eating disorders in her memoir, My Life So Far. Former teen stars Justine Bateman and Tracy Gold became activists on the issue. Others who’ve been candid about their own struggles include singers Lady Gaga, Kelly Clarkson, Lily Allen, Fiona Apple, Katherine McPhee, Nicole Scherzinger, and Paula Abdul, along with other celebs like Katie Couric, Mary-Kate Olsen, Courtney Thorne-Smith, Calista Flockhart, Kathy Griffin, and even the late Princess Diana.
Such a list did not exist in 1983. There were no well-known cautionary tales to speak of. “If this had happened in today’s world I think Karen would have lived,” said Frenda Franklin, Carpenter’s best friend, in a 2010 biography of the singer. “I think we would have had a good shot. They know so much more. We were dancing in the dark.”
“Anorexia was not something that was talked about or known in those days,” pal Olivia Newton-John said in Little Girl Blue, Randy L. Schmitt’s excellent biography, the only major one unauthorized by the Carpenter family. “People were very thin, but you didn’t realize what it was…”
Unless you were part of the wink-wink sorority of binge-and-purgers, that is. “In that era we all had little bouts of it,” said Carole Curb, Mike Curb’s wife and another friend of Carpenter’s. “It was really in vogue then.” But it was only Karen, in her circle, who took it to the extreme. “Her face was all eyes,” Curb recalled.
At the time, Carpenter had one friend who’d dealt with anorexia nervosa and come out the other side—Cherry Boone O’Neill, daughter of Pat Boone, who was then at work on a landmark book, Starving for Attention, that came out a few months after Karen died. “The fact that I had blazed the trail of recover before her gave her hope to think she could do the same,” O’Neill said, although Carpenter’s denial ran much deeper.
O’Neill theorized that, like herself, Carpenter developed her disorder as a means of exercising some kind of self-authority while meekly chafing under authoritarian parents. “Such a person does not rebel,” O’Neill told People magazine—except by remaking her own image. In Karen’s case, she had a particularly domineering and affection-withholding mother who often seemed to run her daughter’s life while reserving all her approval for her supposedly more talented brother, Richard. Said Cherry: “When you start denying yourself food, and begin feeling you have control over a life that has been pretty much controlled for you, it’s exhilarating. The anorectic feels that while she may not be able to control anything else, she will, by God, control every morsel that goes in her mouth.”