Karen Anne Carpenter (March 2, 1950 – February 4, 1983) was an American singer and drummer who, along with her elder brother Richard, was part of the duo the Carpenters. With a distinctive three-octave contralto vocal range, she was praised by her peers as one of the greatest singers ever. Her struggle with and eventual death from anorexia would later raise awareness of eating disorders and body dysmorphia.
|Birth name||Karen Anne Carpenter|
|Born||March 2, 1950|
New Haven, Connecticut, U.S.
|Origin||Downey, California, U.S.|
|Died||February 4, 1983 (aged 32)|
Downey, California, U.S.
(m. 1980; sep 1981)
Carpenter was born in New Haven, Connecticut, and moved to Downey, California, in 1963 with her family. She began to study the drums in high school and joined the Long Beach State choir after graduating. After several years of touring and recording, Carpenters were signed to A&M Records in 1969, achieving enormous commercial and critical success throughout the 1970s. Initially, Carpenter was the band's full-time drummer, but gradually took the role of frontwoman as drumming was reduced to a handful of live showcases or tracks on albums. While Carpenters were on hiatus in the late 1970s, she recorded a solo album, which was released years after her death.
At the age of 32, Carpenter died of heart failure due to complications from anorexia nervosa, which was little-known at the time, and her death led to increased visibility and awareness of eating disorders. Interest in her life and death has spawned numerous documentaries and movies. Her work continues to attract praise, including appearing on Rolling Stone's 2010 list of the 100 greatest singers of all time.
Karen Anne Carpenter was born on March 2, 1950, at Grace New Haven Hospital (now called Yale New Haven Hospital) in New Haven, Connecticut, the daughter of Agnes Reuwer (née Tatum, March 5, 1915 – November 10, 1996) and Harold Bertram Carpenter (November 8, 1908 – October 15, 1988). Harold was born in Wuzhou, China, where his parents were missionaries. He was educated at boarding schools in England before finding work in the printing business.
Carpenter's only sibling, Richard, the elder by three years, developed an interest in music at an early age, becoming a piano prodigy. Karen's first words were "bye-bye" and "stop it", the latter spoken in response to Richard. She enjoyed dancing and by age four was enrolled in tap dancing and ballet classes.
The family moved in June 1963 to the Los Angeles suburb of Downey after Harold was offered a job there by a former business associate. Carpenter entered Downey High School in 1964 at age 14 and was a year younger than her classmates. She joined the school band, initially to avoid gym classes. Bruce Gifford, the conductor (who had previously taught her elder brother), gave her the glockenspiel, an instrument she disliked, and after admiring the performance of her friend and classmate, drummer Frankie Chavez (who had been playing from an early age and idolized jazz drummer Buddy Rich), she asked if she could play those instead. Carpenter wanted a Ludwig drum set because it was used by her favorite drummers, Joe Morello and Ringo Starr. Chavez persuaded her family to buy her a $300 (the equivalent of $2,500 in 2020) Ludwig kit, and he began to teach her how to play. Her enthusiasm for drumming led to teaching herself how to play complicated lines and studying the difference between traditional and matched grip. Within a year, she could play in complex time signatures, such as the 5
4 in Dave Brubeck's "Take Five".
Carpenter was initially nervous about performing in public, but said she "was too involved in the music to worry about it". She graduated from Downey High School in the spring of 1967, receiving the John Philip Sousa Band Award, and enrolled as a music major at Long Beach State where she performed in the college choir with Richard. The choir's director, Frank Pooler, said that Karen had a good voice that was particularly suited to pop and gave her lessons in order for her to develop a three-octave range.
Carpenter's first band was Two Plus Two, an all-girl trio formed with friends from Downey High. They split up after she suggested that her brother Richard join the group. In 1965, Karen, Richard, and his college friend Wes Jacobs, a bassist and tuba player, formed the Dick Carpenter Trio. The band rehearsed daily, played jazz in nightclubs, and also appeared on the TV talent show Your All-American College Show. Richard was immediately impressed with his sister's musical talent, saying that she would "speedily maneuver the sticks as if she had been born in a drum factory". She did not sing at this point; instead, singer Margaret Shanor guested on some numbers. The trio signed a contract with RCA Records and recorded two instrumentals, but they were not released.
In April 1966, the Carpenters were invited to audition at a session with bassist Joe Osborn, well known for being part of the studio-musician collective the Wrecking Crew. Though she was initially expected to just be the drummer, Karen tried singing and impressed everyone there with her distinctive voice. Osborn signed a recording contract with her for his label, Magic Lamp Records; he was not particularly interested in Richard's involvement.
In 1967, Jacobs left the trio to study at the Juilliard School, and the Carpenter siblings were keen to try out other musical styles. Along with other musicians, including Gary Sims and John Bettis, the siblings formed the group Spectrum, which focused on a harmonious vocal sound and recorded many demo tapes in Osborn's garage studio, working out how to overdub voices onto multitrack tape. Many of those tapes were rejected by record companies. The group had difficulty attracting a live following, as their sound was too dissimilar from the hard rock and psychedelic rock then popular in clubs.[a]
A&M Records finally signed the Carpenters to a recording contract in 1969. Karen started out as both the group's drummer and co-lead singer, and she originally sang all of her vocals from behind the drum set. She sang most of the songs on the band's first album, Offering (later retitled Ticket to Ride); her brother wrote ten of the album's thirteen songs and sang on five of them. The opening and concluding tracks were sung by both siblings in unison. As well as drumming, Karen played bass guitar on two songs, "All of My Life" and "Eve", under Osborn's guidance.[b] On "All I Can Do", she played in 5/4 time, while "Your Wonderful Parade" featured multiple snare and bass drum overdubs to emulate the sound of a marching band. The track "Ticket to Ride", a Beatles cover song that later became the album's title track, was released as the Carpenters' first single; it reached No. 54 on the Billboard Hot 100. Their next album, 1970's Close to You, featured two hit singles: "(They Long to Be) Close to You" and "We've Only Just Begun". They peaked at No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, on the Hot 100.
Because she was just 5 feet 4 inches (1.63 m) tall, it was difficult for people in the audience to see Karen behind her kit. After reviews complained that the group had no focal point in live shows, Richard and manager Sherwin Bash persuaded her 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). She initially struggled in live performances singing solo, as she felt more secure behind the drum kit. After the release of Now & Then in 1973, the albums tended to have Carpenter singing more and drumming less, and she did become the focal point of all records and live performances; Bash said "she was the one that people watched". Starting with the Carpenters' 1976 concert tour and continuing thereafter, she would perform a showcase in which she moved around the stage playing various configurations of drums. Her studio performances benefited from close miking that captured the nuances of her voice well. Though she had a three-octave range, many of the duo's hits prominently feature her lower contralto singing, leading her to quip, "The money's in the basement."
Carpenter always considered herself a "drummer who sang". She preferred Ludwig Drums, including the Ludwig SuperSensitive snare, which she favored greatly. However, she did not drum on every Carpenters recording. She was the only featured drummer on Ticket to Ride and on Now & Then, except for "Jambalaya". According to Hal Blaine, Karen played on many of the album cuts and he played on most of the Carpenters' studio sessions when she did not play drums herself, but Karen was informed about Blaine's involvement and she approved on the basis that she and Richard wanted hit singles. The duo were happy for Blaine to take the role in the studio, as he was a respected session musician and it was easier to record Carpenter's guide vocal without it spilling onto the drum mics. Blaine complimented Karen's drumming skills, but believed her greatest strength was as a vocalist and thought himself more adept at working in a recording studio, which required a different approach from that of an onstage performance. On Made in America, Karen provided percussion on "Those Good Old Dreams" in tandem with Paulinho da Costa, and played drums on the song "When It's Gone (It's Just Gone)" in unison with Larrie Londin.
In the mid-1970s, Richard Carpenter developed an addiction to Quaaludes. The Carpenters frequently canceled tour dates, and they stopped touring altogether after their September 4, 1978, concert at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. In 1980, Karen performed a medley of standards in a duet with Ella Fitzgerald on the Carpenters' television program Music, Music, Music. In 1981, after release of the Made in America album (which turned out to be their last), the Carpenters returned to the stage and went on some promotional tours, including an appearance for the BBC program Nationwide.
Carpenter released her first solo record, "Looking for Love" / "I'll Be Yours", in 1967 on Osborn's Magic Lamp label. Only 500 copies were pressed, and the label folded shortly afterwards. In 1979, while Richard took a year off to treat his addiction, Karen made a solo album with producer Phil Ramone. The sessions produced music that was different from the usual Carpenters material, tending more toward disco and up-tempo numbers, with more mature lyrics and taking full advantage of Karen's upper vocal register. The album met with a tepid response from Richard and A&M executives in early 1980 and was shelved by A&M Records co-owner Herb Alpert, in spite of attempts by producer Quincy Jones to convince him to release the solo record after a remix. A&M subsequently charged Carpenter $400,000 to cover the cost of recording her unreleased album, to be paid out of the duo's future royalties. A portion of the solo album was commercially released in 1989, when some of its tracks (as remixed by Richard) were included on the album Lovelines, the final album of previously unreleased material from the Carpenters. In 1996, the complete solo album, titled Karen Carpenter, was finally released.
Carpenter had a complicated relationship with her parents. They had hoped that Richard's musical talents would be recognized and that he would enter the music business, but were not prepared for Karen's success. She continued to live with them until 1974. In 1976, Carpenter bought two Century City apartments that she combined into one; the doorbell chimed the opening notes of "We've Only Just Begun". She collected Disney memorabilia and liked to play softball and baseball. Growing up, she had played baseball with other children on the street and was picked before her brother for games. She studied baseball statistics carefully and became a fan of the New York Yankees. In the early 1970s she would become the pitcher on a celebrity all-star softball team.
Petula Clark, Olivia Newton-John and Dionne Warwick were her close friends. While she was enjoying success as a female drummer in what was primarily an all-male occupation, Carpenter was not supportive of the women's liberation movement, saying she believed a wife should cook for her husband and that when married, this was what she planned to do.
In early interviews, Carpenter showed no interest in marriage or dating, believing that a relationship would not survive constant touring, adding "as long as we're on the road most of the time, I will never marry". In 1976, she said the music business made it hard to meet people and that she refused to just marry someone for the sake of it. Carpenter admitted to Olivia Newton-John that she longed for a happy marriage and family. She later dated several notable men, including Mike Curb, Tony Danza, Terry Ellis, Mark Harmon, Steve Martin and Alan Osmond. After a whirlwind romance, she married real-estate developer Thomas James Burris on August 31, 1980, in the Crystal Room of The Beverly Hills Hotel. Burris, divorced with an 18-year-old son, was nine years her senior. A few days prior to the ceremony, Karen was taped singing a new song, Because We Are in Love, and the tape was played for guests during the wedding ceremony. The song, written by her brother and John Bettis, was released in 1981. The couple settled in Newport Beach.
Carpenter desperately wanted children, but Burris had undergone a vasectomy and refused to get an operation to reverse it. Their marriage did not survive this disagreement and ended after 14 months. Burris was living beyond his means, borrowing up to $50,000 (the equivalent of $142,000 in 2020) at a time from his wife, to the point where reportedly she had only stocks and bonds left. Carpenter's friends also indicated he was impatient. Karen Kamon, a close friend, recounted an incident in which she and Carpenter went to their normal hangout, Hamburger Hamlet, and Carpenter appeared to be distant emotionally, sitting not at their regular table but in the dark, wearing large dark sunglasses, unable to eat and crying. According to Kamon, the marriage was "the straw that broke the camel's back. It was absolutely the worst thing that could have ever happened to her."
In September 1981, Carpenter revised her will and left her marital home and its contents to Burris, but left everything else to her brother and parents, including her fortune estimated at 5–10 million dollars (between $14,000,000 and $28,000,000 in 2020). Two months later, following an argument after a family dinner in a restaurant, Carpenter and Burris broke up. Carpenter filed for divorce on October 28, 1982, while she was in Lenox Hill Hospital.
Illness and deathEdit
Carpenter began dieting while in high school. Under a doctor's guidance, she began the Stillman diet, eating lean foods, drinking eight glasses of water a day, and avoiding fatty foods. She reduced her weight to 120 pounds (54 kg; 8 st 8 lb) and stayed approximately at that weight until around 1973, when the Carpenters' career reached its peak. That year, she saw a concert photo of herself in which her outfit made her appear heavy. She hired a personal trainer, who advised her to change her diet. The new diet caused her to build muscle, which made her feel heavier instead of slimmer. Carpenter fired the trainer and began her own weight-loss program using exercise equipment and counting calories. She lost about 20 pounds (9 kg) and intended to lose another five pounds. Her eating habits also changed around this time; she would try to remove food from her plate by offering tastes to others with whom she was dining.
By September 1975, Carpenter weighed 91 pounds (41 kg; 6 st 7 lb). At live performances, fans reacted with gasps to her gaunt appearance, and many wrote to the pair to inquire what was wrong. She refused to declare publicly that she was in ill health; on her 1981 Nationwide appearance, she simply said she was "pooped". Richard later stated that he and his parents did not know how to help Karen. In 1981, she told Richard that there was a problem and that she needed help with it. Carpenter spoke with Cherry Boone, who had recovered from anorexia, and contacted Boone's doctor for help. She was hoping to find a quick solution to her problem, as she had performing and recording obligations, but the doctor told her treatment could take from one to three years. She then chose to be treated in New York City by psychotherapist Steven Levenkron.
By late 1981, Carpenter was using thyroid replacement medication, which she obtained using the name of Karen Burris, to increase her metabolism. She used the medication in conjunction with increased consumption of the laxatives (up to 80–90 tablets per night) upon which she had long relied, which caused food to pass quickly through her digestive tract. Despite Levenkron's treatment, including confiscation of medications that Karen had misused, her condition continued to deteriorate, and she lost more weight. Carpenter told Levenkron that she felt dizzy and that her heart was beating irregularly. Finally, in September 1982, she was admitted to Lenox Hill Hospital in New York, where she was placed on intravenous parenteral nutrition. The procedure was successful, and she gained some weight in a relatively short time, but this put a strain on her heart, which was already weak from years of improper diet. She maintained a relatively stable weight for the rest of her life.
Carpenter returned to California in November 1982, determined to reinvigorate her career, finalize her divorce and begin a new album with Richard. On December 17, 1982, she gave her last singing performance in the multi-purpose room of the Buckley School in Sherman Oaks, California, singing Christmas carols for her godchildren, their classmates and other friends. On January 11, 1983, she made her last public appearance at a gathering of past Grammy Award winners, who were commemorating the awards show's 25th anniversary. She seemed somewhat frail and worn out, but according to Dionne Warwick, was vibrant and outgoing, exclaiming, "Look at me! I've got an ass!" She had also begun to write songs after returning to California and told Warwick that she had "a lot of living left to do".
On February 1, 1983, Carpenter saw her brother for the last time and discussed new plans for the Carpenters and resuming touring.[c] Three days later, on February 4, Carpenter was scheduled to sign final papers making her divorce official. Shortly after waking up on that day, she collapsed in her bedroom at her parents' home in Downey. Paramedics found her heart beating once every 10 seconds (6 bpm). She was pronounced dead at Downey Community Hospital (now PIH Health Hospital - Downey) at 9:51 a.m.
Carpenter's funeral was held February 8, 1983, at Downey United Methodist Church. Approximately one thousand mourners attended, including her friends Dorothy Hamill, Olivia Newton-John, Petula Clark and Dionne Warwick. Her estranged husband, Thomas Burris, also attended and placed his wedding ring into her casket. Carpenter was buried at the Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Cypress, California. In 2003 her body was moved in order to be placed with her parents in a mausoleum at the Pierce Brothers Valley Oaks Memorial Park in Westlake Village, California.
An autopsy released on March 11, 1983, ruled out drug overdose, attributing death to "emetine cardiotoxicity due to or as a consequence of anorexia nervosa". Carpenter was discovered to have a blood sugar level of 1,110 milligrams per decilitre, more than ten times the average. Two years later, the coroner told colleagues that Carpenter's heart failure was caused by repeated use of ipecac syrup, an over-the-counter emetic often used to induce vomiting in cases of overdosing or poisoning.[d] This was disputed by Levenkron, who said that he had never known her to use ipecac and that he had not seen evidence that she had been vomiting. 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.
"This is a sad day, but at the same time a very special and beautiful day to my family and me. My only regret is that Karen is not physically here to share it with us, but I know that she is very much alive in our minds, and in our hearts".
Carpenter's singing has attracted critical praise and influenced several significant musicians and singers, including Madonna, Sheryl Crow, Pat Metheny, Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon, Shania Twain, Natalie Imbruglia, and k.d. lang. Paul McCartney has said that she had "the best female voice in the world: melodic, tuneful and distinctive". She has been called "one of the greatest voices of our lifetime" by Elton John. Her drumming has been praised by fellow musicians Hal Blaine, Cubby O'Brien and Buddy Rich and by Modern Drummer magazine. In 1975, she was voted the best rock drummer in a poll of Playboy readers, beating Led Zeppelin's John Bonham.
On October 12, 1983, shortly after her death, the Carpenters received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In 1999, VH1 ranked Carpenter at No. 29 on its list of the 100 Greatest Women of Rock and Roll. In 2010, Rolling Stone ranked Carpenter No. 94 on its list of the 100 Greatest Singers of All Time, calling her voice "impossibly lush and almost shockingly intimate", adding "even the sappiest songs sound like she was staring directly into your eyes".
Carpenter's death brought media attention to conditions such as anorexia nervosa; the condition had not been widely known beforehand. Her family started the Karen A. Carpenter Memorial Foundation, which raised money for research on anorexia nervosa and other eating disorders.
Carpenter is known to fans as "Lead Sister". This originated from a mispronunciation of "lead singer" by a Japanese journalist in 1974, and she later wore a T-shirt with the nickname during live shows.
A 43-minute film titled Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, directed by Todd Haynes, was released in 1987, and featured Barbie dolls as the characters. It was withdrawn from circulation in 1990 after Haynes lost a copyright infringement lawsuit filed by Richard Carpenter. The film's title is derived from the Carpenters' 1971 hit song "Superstar". Over the years, it has developed into a cult film and was included in Entertainment Weekly's 2003 list of the top 50 cult movies.
On January 1, 1989, the similarly titled made-for-TV movie The Karen Carpenter Story aired on CBS with Cynthia Gibb in the title role. Gibb lip-synched the songs to Carpenter's recorded voice, with the exception of "The End of the World". Both films use the song "This Masquerade" in the background while showing Carpenter's marriage to Burris. The movie helped revive the Carpenters' critical standing and increased their music's popularity.
Richard Carpenter helped in the production of the documentaries Close to You: Remembering the Carpenters (1997) and Only Yesterday: The Carpenters Story (2007). The made-for-TV movie Karen Carpenter: Goodbye to Love (2016) was written and directed by John Holdsworth and featured British actress Adele Keating as Karen.
Randy Schmidt wrote a biography about Carpenter entitled Little Girl Blue, published in 2010, which included a foreword by Warwick. It provides a different perspective than those of the other officially endorsed biographies, and it was based on interviews with other friends and associates. The New York Times said that the book was "one of the saddest tales in pop".
- The tapes of the original sessions were lost in a fire at Joe Osborn's house and the surviving versions of those early songs exist only as fragile acetate reference discs.
- Although Karen's bass playing is heard on the original album, Richard remixed both songs (as he has done with almost every Carpenters song), and Joe Osborn's bass playing was substituted on later "greatest hits" releases.
- Richard spoke to his sister the day before her death. Karen called him to ask his opinion about a new videocassette recorder she planned on buying. He described her as sounding "absolutely fine".
- Ipecac syrup is no longer marketed in the United States for over-the-counter use as an emetic.
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Karen admitted to Levenkron she was taking an unfathomable number of laxative tablets—eighty to ninety Dulcolax a night. The ingestion of large quantities of laxatives did not surprise Levenkron. [...] What did stun Levenkron was Karen’s next casual disclosure. She was also taking thyroid medication—ten pills a day. He was shocked, especially when she explained that she had a normal thyroid.
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- Schmidt, Randy (2012). Yesterday Once More: The Carpenters Reader. Chicago Review Press. ISBN 978-1-613-74417-8.
- Stanton, Scott (2003). The Tombstone Tourist: Musicians. Simon and Schuster. ISBN 978-0-743-46330-0.