CARPENTER, KAREN (1950–1983) Singer, Musician

Half of one of the most successful pop acts of the 1970s, Karen Anne Carpenter was born on March 2, 1950, in New Haven, Connecticut. When she was 13, her family moved to Downey, California, a suburb of Los Angeles. Karen and her older brother Richard grew up listening to her father’s extensive collection of jazz and big band records, inspiring both to become accomplished musicians. Richard studied piano, while Karen took up the drums. In 1965, Karen’s ambitious brother formed the Richard Carpenter Trio, a jazz instrumental group featuring her, Richard, and their friend Wes Jacobs. The trio played at local clubs and weddings. Often, at Richard’s urgings, Karen sang at their engagements, though she continued to think of herself as a drummer first. After winning the 1966 Hollywood Battle of the Bands, the group signed a record contract with RCA. The Carpenters and Jacobs recorded two unreleased albums before RCA decided that a jazz group had little commercial viability. As a solo performer, Karen also recorded a single for Magic Lamp, but the small record label went out of business soon after its release.

In 1967, Richard formed a new group, Spectrum, with Karen and four other musicians. Featuring more of a pop sound, Spectrum was booked at Disneyland and several local clubs but disbanded when it could not secure a record deal. Karen briefiy studied music at California State University, but her performing career always came before her schoolwork. Now performing as a duo called the Carpenters, in 1968 Karen and Richard put together a demo, using a friend’s garage as their recording studio. Their new music showcased their vocal harmonies in imitation of the Beach Boys—one of the three B’s (along with the Beatles and Burt Bacharach) that they cited as their greatest infiuences. For months, the Carpenters shopped their demo to Los Angeles record companies. Eventually, it fell into the hands of trumpeter Herb Alpert, the cofounder of A&M Records. Particularly impressed by Karen’s contralto singing voice, Alpert signed them to a contract on April 22, 1969.

The Carpenters first album, Offerings (1969, later retitled Ticket to Ride), was a modest success, but their second, Close to You (1970), made them instant stars. Featuring the singles “Close to You” and “We’ve Only Just Begun,” it became the first of their seven gold albums and earned them a Grammy for best new artist. Throughout the early 1970s, the Carpenters dominated the charts, selling more than 80 million records. Despite their huge popular following, critics often complained that their sound was too soft and their songs were too saccharine. Many professionals in the music industry, however, admired Richard’s clean arrangements and Karen’s unusual voice. The natural expressiveness of her singing was particularly well-served by melancholy songs, such as their hits “Superstar” and “Rainy Days and Mondays.” Years of touring and recording began to take its toll on the Carpenters by the mid-1970s. Richard became addicted to prescription drugs, while Karen, disturbed by references to her weight in the press, began dieting excessively and eventually developed anorexia. By 1975, her weight had dropped to 80 pounds, though her voice remained unaffected by her disease. That year, the Carpenters had to cancel two tours because Karen was too ill to perform. In part to free herself from her brother’s infiuence, Karen began working on a solo album with producer Phil Ramone in 1979. Its raw sound convinced her record company that it would alienate the Carpenters’ fans. The album was not released until 1996.

Karen suffered another disappointment in 1981, when her one-year marriage to real estate developer Thomas J. Burris fell apart. Unhappy and no longer able to deny her disease, she moved to New York to enter therapy with anorexia expert Steven Levenkron. Over the next year, she gained 30 pounds. Convinced she was cured, she returned to California to record another album with Richard in December 1982. Three months later, she collapsed at her parents’ home. On February 4, 1983, Karen Carpenter at 33 died of heart failure as a result of the stress her anorexia had placed on her body. Her early death put a public face on her disease, leading to increased awareness of the dangers of anorexia worldwide.

Further Reading
Coleman, Ray. The Carpenters: The Untold Story. New York: HarperCollins, 1994.
Schmidt, Randy, ed. Yesterday Once More: Memories of the Carpenters and Their Music. Cranberry Township, Pa.: Tiny Ripple Books, 2000.

Recommended Recorded and Videotaped Performances
Carpenters, The Interpretations: A 25th Anniversary Celebration. Uni/Polygram Video, VHS, 1995.
Close to You: Remembering the Carpenters (1997). MPI Media Group, VHS, 1998.
From the Top. Uni/A&M, CD set, 1992.
Karen Carpenter. Uni/A&M, CD, 1996.