Karen Anne Carpenter (1950 - 1983) was one of the finest singers in popular music in the 1970s. She formed The Carpenters with her brother, Richard, and together they flew to the top of their profession. On 4 February, 1983, after a long battle against anorexia nervosa, her heart failed. She was just 32 years old. She left behind her family, and a legacy. Her story brought anorexia into the public spotlight, and inspired research into cures for the disorder.
Karen Anne was the younger child and only daughter of Harold Bertram (1908 - 1988) and Agnes Reuwer (Tatum) Carpenter (1915 - 1996). She was born in New Haven, Connecticut, on 2 March, 1950. Richard, her older brother (born 1946), was the 'apple of their mother's eye' - he was the one who showed musical talent and the one their parents expected to succeed in life.
While Richard was listening to music in the basement, I was out playing baseball and football, and playing with my machine gun! I was very tomboyish, quite a character, I hear! I remember I wanted to be a commercial artist, or a nurse, or an airline stewardess!
Karen tried her hand at the flute, but she never mastered it. She hero-worshipped her brother and tagged along wherever he went, whatever he was doing. The family moved to Downey, California, in June 1963, where Karen joined her school's choir to avoid geometry. She enlisted the help of her brother and succeeded in substituting gym classes for band class. In her High School band, she marched while playing the glockenspiel. She fell in love with drums and persuaded her parents to buy her a set of her own.
Luckily, drumming came naturally, I started right off playin', and time signatures came naturally... I don't know how, I mean, it felt so comfortable when I picked up a pair of sticks!
The Richard Carpenter Trio
When Richard entered California State University as a music major in 1964, he met a tuba and bass player called Wes Jacobs. Richard and Wes, together with Karen on drums, formed the Richard Carpenter Trio, playing at weddings and dances.
They played at the Hollywood Bowl in the finals of the Battle of the Bands - a talent contest. They won and were signed up by an RCA Records representative. The trio recorded 11 tracks but there were no commercial releases and the contract was dissolved.
Karen the Singer
The siblings tried to find success with a few other bands (including Summerchimes and Spectrum) but nothing came of them. When Karen was encouraged to sing, the attention gravitated towards her. Richard was happy that, due to Karen's voice, they were in demand and popular. Karen, however, no doubt due to her self-consciousness, refused to sing from the front, preferring the safety barrier provided by the drum kit.
They were signed as a duo by A&M Records in April 1969. The Carpenters were formed. Richard decided that they would record all the vocals themselves, using the multi-track overdubbing process. Their recording of 'Close To You' took six weeks to reach number one in the States, and remained there for a further four. They were on their way to the top of their profession. The meteoric rise saw them do a world tour; in 1976 they had a string of 16 consecutive Top 20 hits, while their tour of Japan was the largest grossing tour in that country up to that point.
Their appeal spanned all musical tastes; the melodious tones coupled with the clean-cut all-American sibling duo singing about love added to their popularity. John Tobler1 said about Karen:
... this song ['Goodbye to Love'] is also an awesome example of Karen's lung power, as she almost unbelievably sings two complete and very wordy lines unwaveringly with a single breath: 'Time and time again the chance for love has passed me by. And all I know of love is how to live without it.
Herb Alpert said:
After listening to 30 seconds of the Carpenters' demo tape in 1969, I knew I was experiencing two extraordinarily talented people. Karen's intimate voice sounded like it was singing just for me, and Richard's original flair for vocal arranging and keyboard work made a very special sound.
Karen's voice is one of the finest and most expressive in popular music. Her vocal control, sense of pitch, and sheer professionalism made her a delight to work with. This was no diva. She used to record songs in just one take, rarely, if ever, making a mistake.
Karen duetted with singers like John Denver, Ella Fitzgerald, Petula Clark and Peter Cetera. Karen performed some Christmas songs with Bruce Forsyth on The Bruce Forsyth Show when she guested alone on his show in 1978.
Karen was invited to sing a medley of 'Ticket to Ride'/'I'll Never Fall In Love Again' duetting with Andy Williams in his own television show.
One song, not released commercially, called 'Heartache Tonight', was performed by Olivia Newton-John and Karen on Olivia's Hollywood Nights television special in 1980. Karen did a duet with Suzanne Sommers in their 'Space Encounters' TV special singing 'Man Smart Women Smarter'. The Carpenters' song 'Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft' was billed as the chosen anthem for World Contact Day.
I heard this song on the debut album of Klaatu - a talented group of Canadian studio musicians who were heavily inspired by the Beatles and named after the purposeful alien in the science fiction thriller The Day The Earth Stood Still. Always looking for something novel, we decided on it for Passage and ended up immersing ourselves - and 160 musicians and singers - in the biggest 'single' recording we ever attempted. Incidentally, there was no actual 'World Contact Day' - as we've answered many times. Maybe in the future...
On 31 August, 1980, Karen married Thomas James Burris, a business executive. Their wedding was billed as the 'Society Wedding of the Decade', with Richard composing a special song for Karen to sing to her bridegroom. The newlyweds honeymooned on Bora Bora.
The last time Tom saw his wife alive was in November, 1981 during the birthday celebration of Karen's father Harold. Tom left the party saying 'You can keep her.' and that was that. Karen was due to go with her friend Olivia Newton-John to sign the final divorce papers on the day that she died. Tom has never spoken publicly about his wife or their marriage.
Anorexia Nervosa is often referred to as the slimmers' disease. Sufferers do not just want to be slim. Psychological problems can cause them to stop looking at themselves realistically, which can result in low self-esteem. Children of authoritative parents find areas in their lives where they do have control - such as food and their eating habits.
Karen Carpenter was the first 'celebrity' anorexic. Her brother Richard described her as a 'typical chubby teenager' and there's no doubt that Karen hated her 'puppy fat'. She started dieting in 1975, when her doctor put her on a water diet. She took laxatives and swallowed dozens of thyroid pills daily.
The pressure that came with fame, combined with her controlling mother, allowed the appalling disease to take control of Karen. It was a vicious circle. The more Karen starved herself, the more in control she felt, the better she could cope with the pressures of fame. At one point, Karen's weight was just 80 pounds (6¼ stones) and she was hospitalised after collapsing at a concert.
The battle was on to save Karen's life. Her collapse shocked her and her family into realising the extent of her problems and she was determined to get well. Photographs of her hauntingly fragile beauty capture the heart of the viewer. Her dark eyes sunken into their sockets give a chilling clue to the hideous disease that later claimed her life. Years of self-abuse had taken their toll. She died of heart failure2 at the age of just 32 years, at her parents' home. Her weight by then had crept up to 108 pounds (just under 8 stones) but her frail body and malnourished organs had finally given up.
Before Karen Carpenter died, no one spoke of anorexia nervosa. It was a bad habit that one did not discuss. Girls starved themselves without knowing that their eating habits would kill them. Sir William Gull3 (Queen Victoria's physician) believed anorexia came from a 'sick mind'. However, many of the sufferers he encountered were wealthy, so he rarely sent them to a mental institution.
Until 1983, eating disorders were not given serious attention by the medical profession or the general public. Many thought that the solution for people who deliberately starved themselves and ate laxatives like sweets was to start eating again. Certainly, it wasn't treated as a mental disorder, to be treated by psychiatry. Rather, the sufferer was regarded as a fussy or faddy eater and an attention-seeker.
Following the death of Karen Carpenter, eating disorders became highly publicised. Magazines began publishing articles, and the media released stories about the fatal effects of anorexia. The death of a vibrant young singer raised the profile of eating disorders in the entertainment industry. The sympathetic media coverage encouraged other celebrities to go public. Jane Fonda and Lynn Redgrave were two of the actresses who volunteered their stories and sought help.
Soon there were clinics specialising in eating disorders and support groups were set up. Princess Diana made a speech about eating disorders and appealed for understanding on behalf of the sufferers. Diana herself was a victim of bulimia nervosa.
Richard Carpenter developed a fund dedicated to his sister for researching anorexia.
There is a Richard and Karen Carpenter Exhibit located on the campus of California State University, Long Beach. This is open to the public on the first Saturday of each month, from 10.00am - 12.00pm. Visitors are asked to phone a day or two in advance to ensure the exhibit will be open.
The Carpenters Fan Club, PO Box 3787, Thousand Oaks, CA 91359-0787.
Karen's music and beautiful voice lives on. Her brother continues to write songs and re-mix tracks containing Karen's voice to provide new material.