Singer-drummer Karen Carpenter was the sweet, ethereal voice of the Carpenters, a polished pop vocal act featuring her brother, Richard, which generated numerous Top 10 hits throughout the early 1970s, including "(They Long to Be) Close to You," "We've Only Just Begun," and "Top of the World," among many others. Slight and seemingly shy, Carpenter nevertheless projected an image of radiant, all-American good cheer, which stood in direct contrast to her off-stage life, which was plagued by an eating disorder that would ultimately claim her life in 1983. Though Carpenter's tragic death became tabloid fodder, it also helped to shed much-needed light on anorexia and bulimia, which in turn allowed many young people to seek the treatment necessary for the debilitating illnesses. Karen Carpenter's ultimate legacy was one of benevolence, both as a singer and as a cautionary tale for those struggling to overcome the disease that cut short her promising career and silenced one of the most beautiful voices in popular music history.
Born March 2, 1950 in New Haven, CT, Karen Anne Carpenter was the daughter of corporate executive Harold Carpenter and his wife, Agnes. Initially, she showed more interest in softball than music, which was the domain of her older brother, Richard, a piano prodigy who began playing the club circuit while still in his teens. But Carpenter found her instrument in the drums shortly after the family moved to the Los Angeles suburb of Downey in 1963. By 1965, she had grown proficient enough to back her brother and bassist/tuba player in a jazz combo called the Carpenter Trio. In 1966, the act was signed to a contract with Magic Lamp, a label owned by studio bassist Joe Osborn, but their first release, a Richard Carpenter original sung by and credited to Karen called "Looking for Love," failed to gain any recognition.
The sting of its failure was soon soothed by the trio's win at a "battle of the bands" competition at the Hollywood Bowl that year, which earned them the attention of RCA Records pop music manager Neely Plumb. He arranged a recording session for the trio, which produced 11 songs, including covers of the Beatles' "Every Little Thing" and an early version of "Flat Baroque" that, in re-recorded form, would later win the Carpenters a 1972 Grammy for Best Instrumental Arrangement with Vocals. Unfortunately, the Carpenter Trio had arrived in the music business at the dawn of the psychedelic rock movement, which rendered their jazz-driven instrumental pop largely obsolete. RCA soon bought out their contract, and the Trio went their separate ways.
In 1967, the Carpenters rebounded as part of Spectrum, a pop vocal group built around multi-part harmonies in the style of The Beach Boys and The Association. Though the group performed frequently as an opening act at rock clubs like the Whisky A-Go-Go, their style of music was again out of step with the current sound, and Spectrum disbanded in 1968. During this period of painful rejection by the industry, Karen Carpenter began a rigorous diet regimen. Average in height at 5' 4" and weighing 145 pounds, she was plagued by the notion that she was overweight, and soon adopted the Stillman Diet, a high-protein, low-carbohydrate program designed to generate significant weight loss in dangerously obese individuals. Under its guidelines, Carpenter would lose 25 pounds in 1967 alone, but the diet would also set in motion a dangerous pattern of extreme weight loss within short time periods that would have a devastating effect on her health.
Soon after Spectrum ran its course, the Carpenters were featured on a televised music competition, which brought them to the attention of John and Tom Bahler, who led a group called the Love Generation. The Bahlers' group was featured in an advertising campaign for Ford Motors, and hired the Carpenters to flesh out the commercials' "all-American" sound. For their efforts, the siblings received $50,000, but greater success continued to elude them until 1969, when a trio of demos recorded by Joe Osborn made their way to Herb Alpert at A&M Records. Alpert was immediately taken by Karen Carpenter's dusky singing voice, which reminded him of the pop singers of his youth, like Patti Page. He signed them to his label, which released their debut album, Offering in 1969. The album found few listeners, but drew praise from other musicians for its polished arrangements.
Celebrated songwriter Burt Bacharach was among those taken by the record's lead single, a cover of the Beatles' "Ticket to Ride," and invited them to join him on live dates in 1970. He also gave them a song called "(They Long to Be) Close to You," which had been intended for Dionne Warwick. Richard's intricate arrangements and Karen's vocals helped to make the song a huge hit, reaching No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. The Carpenters soon followed this with "We've Only Just Begun," a song initially penned by Paul Williams and Roger Nichols for a Crocker Bank commercial. It shot to No. 2 on the singles chart, and helped the Carpenters win two Grammys, including Best New Artist and Best Contemporary Vocal Performance for "Close to You."
By the following year, the Carpenters had scored four more Top 10 hits, including the Williams-Nichols composition "Rainy Days and Mondays," and "For All We Know," from the 1971 film "Lovers and Other Strangers," which won the Oscar for Best Song. That same year, the Carpenters made their debut as hosts of their own short-lived television variety show, "Make Your Own Kind of Music" (NBC, 1971), which ran for eight weeks in the summer of 1971. Later that same year, the pair scored a No. 2 hit with a cover of the Bonnie Bramlett/Leon Russell song "Superstar," which drew attention for Richard's alteration of the lyric "I can hardly wait/To sleep with you again" to "I can hardly wait/To be with you again," which underscored the group's mainstream, adult contemporary appeal.
As the Carpenters scaled the heights of the recording industry, Karen Carpenter's weight issues reached a critical juncture. Constant binging, in combination with her adherence to the Stillman Diet, resulted in full-blown anorexia nervosa; by 1975, her weight had dropped to 91 pounds. She was soon physically unable to meet the demands of their touring and recording schedules, forcing the cancellation of sold-out tours in the U.K. and Japan in 1975. During this period, Richard Carpenter also began struggling with an addiction to Quaaludes, which hampered the quality of their recordings. The lackluster production led to a decline in popularity, as evidenced by the inability of their seventh album, A Kind of Hush (1976), to break the Top 30 on the Billboard 200.
The Carpenters rebounded with their first television variety special, aptly titled "The Carpenters' Very First Television Special" (ABC, 1976), which scored exceptionally high ratings. Four additional specials aired on the network between 1977 and 1980, but Richard grew to dislike these productions, citing their canned laughter and embarrassing premises - "The Carpenters Space Encounters" (ABC, 1978) featured John Davidson and Suzanne Somers as jumpsuit-clad aliens who participate in a disco medley - as a major stumbling block in his attempts to update their image from a square, whitebread pop act to legitimate musicians. Unfortunately, there was little time to address the issue, what with make-up dates for the European and Japanese tour, and a new album, Passage (1977), which generated Top 40 hits with "All You Get From Love is a Love Song" and the uncharacteristic "Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft." A holiday record, Christmas Portrait (1978), soon followed, but Richard Carpenter's growing drug problems made it difficult for him to participate in the recording beyond selecting the songs, leaving the arrangements to studio veterans Peter Knight and Billy May. The album was their last studio album to reach platinum sales status during Karen's lifetime.
By late 1978, both Richard and Karen had entered facilities to deal with their respective health issues. Richard completed an eight-week drug rehabilitation program before taking a sabbatical from work for the remainder of the year. Karen was also hospitalized for exhaustion and low weight, but emerged from the hospital to begin work on a solo album. Despite her brother's reservations about the toll it would take on her already compromised health, Karen began traveling regularly to New York for rigorous recording sessions with producer Phil Ramone. However, A&M disliked the end result, which featured Karen singing in a higher register and dance/disco-styled songs with decidedly mature lyrics about a more physical form of attraction than the puppy love expressed on the Carpenters' albums. Alpert eventually shelved the record, against the protestations of both Karen and Quincy Jones, who sought to save the album by remixing several tracks. She was soon back to work with Richard in the Carpenters, which gave their final live performance in the United States in December 1978.
Though Karen had dated several famous men, including Tony Danza, Mark Harmon and Steve Martin, she had rarely entered into long-lasting relationships. She was, in fact, something of a homebody, living with her parents in Downey until the age of 26. But on Aug. 31, 1980, she married real estate developer Thomas John Burris at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Unfortunately, the union lasted just 14 months, and its failure was compounded shortly thereafter by the poor reception given to Made in America (1981), which marked her final contributions to a Carpenters album. The back-to-back losses, as well as the dismal fate of her solo album, sent Carpenter into a psychological downward spiral that resulted in severe weight loss due to overuse of thyroid medication and laxatives.
In 1982, Karen moved to New York to begin intensive therapy for her weight issues. Despite the new program, she continued to lose weight, and agreed to a procedure called hyper alimentation, which quickly added some 25 pounds to her frame. She returned to Los Angeles that year, determined to wrest control over her life and career. Carpenter gave her final performance, this time as a solo act, at her godchildren's school in Sherman Oaks, CA. On Feb. 4, 1983, she suffered heart failure at her parents' home in Downey and was pronounced dead at a local hospital. A coroner's report suggested that an overdose of ipecac syrup, an emetic used to induce vomiting, contributed to her death, though Carpenter's family would later dispute the claim.
Carpenter remained a pop culture touchstone for years after her death. The contrast between her sunshiny stage persona and the turmoil of her personal life made her a posthumous icon-cum-camp-idol on par with Judy Garland. Her life was later the subject of two very different film adaptations: avant-garde filmmaker Todd Haynes would use Barbie dolls to depict her travails in sordid detail in "Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story" (1987), which was pulled from screenings after Richard Carpenter launched a copyright infringement lawsuit against the film for unauthorized use of the group's songs. Two years later, Carpenter himself would oversee the TV movie "The Karen Carpenter Story" (CBS, 1989), a sanitized account of her life that barely addressed her tragic death. Carpenter's life was best recounted by her songs, which Richard Carpenter would keep alive by releasing four albums between 1983 and 2001, all comprised of outtakes and unreleased tracks, as well as numerous compilation albums. He also produced two documentaries about their work, the PBS production "Close to You: Remembering the Carpenters" (1997) and "Only Yesterday: The Carpenters Story" (BBC One, 2007).
By Paul Gaita