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DOWNEY – There were several Karen Carpenters. For all we know, there could have been a dozen or more.
Many of us were already familiar with the gifted singer and consummate recording artist. But let’s not forget the love-starved romantic and the trusting prey. The obedient daughter and conflicted sister. The awkward performer, unpredictable jester, modest millionaire, optimistic dreamer, wannabe mother, emotional wreck, fleeting liar, giddy clown and generous friend. Nor must we overlook the ailing anorexic and doomed icon.
Here’s one thing we know for sure: they all died 30 years ago, on February 4, 1983, when she was just 32 years old.
This may be more than just a rhetorical exercise; between 1970 and 1982 there were hundreds of photographs taken, dozens of promotional videos produced and countless media profiles published about the Carpenters, the hit-making musical group fronted by Karen but steered by her older brother Richard, and if you were to scrutinize just a fraction of them you’d notice that Karen’s looks, style, performance techniques, seemingly even her personality and attitudes seem to have changed more times in 12 years than most of us change our resumes in 30. How can all those changes not be a consequence of the many Karens that existed?
The 30th anniversary of Karen Carpenter’s death is a particularly good time to do some exploration into her life and career because, while there might not actually be a certified resurgence of all things Carpenter, a cursory examination shows that something’s going on:
* The number of websites devoted to the Carpenters (some to Karen alone) seems to grow every year, with such current domain names as karencarpenter.com, the mostbeautifulvoice.com, leadsister.com and richardandkarencarpenter.com. There’s even a new Facebook page called IHeartTheCarpenters devoted to memorializing the 30th anniversary of Karen’s death;
* Author Randy Schmidt published an affectionate and comprehensive biography in 2010 called “Little Girl Blue: The Life of Karen Carpenter.”
* Last year a satirical musical comedy that played in Los Angeles, called “Are You There God? It’s Me, Karen Carpenter,” was inspired by a Judy Blume book and used two dozen Carpenters songs in the score.
* Tributes featuring young ladies who attempt to duplicate Karen’s translucent singing voice include a show in California called “Close to You,” a program in Florida called “The Carpenters Tribute Show,” and a band in England called Carpenters Magic;
* A few months ago, the self-proclaimed ‘pop culture dean’ of Southern California, Charles Phoenix, led $79 tours of places where Karen and her brother lived and worked;
* Thousands of Carpenter YouTube videos are updated daily with adoring comments;
* A passionate fan in Champaign, IL has been holding Karen Carpenter memorial events in his home for years and, through the web, invited people from all over to this year’s gathering.
Maybe it’s not a bona fide revival, but you can’t ignore it, either.
It’s no secret-at least not to many of her fans-that Karen Carpenter had mother issues, career issues, self-image issues, self-worth issues and perhaps a half-dozen others in between. Almost all of her closest companions insist that she clowned around constantly, had a penchant for silly wordplay and a marvelous sense of humor, never hesitated to help a friend, and absolutely adored children. In fact, by most measures she loved the fact that life exists. She was just terribly uncomfortable with her own. As she sang in a Carpenters hit single from 1974, “Day after day I must face a world of strangers where I don’t belong.”
Evidently, she meant it.
While they were together, the Carpenters released 11 albums and 30 singles, embarked on several tours in the U.S., England, Australia, Belgium, the Netherlands and Japan, appeared on television dozens of times and became fabulously rich. Their easy-listening hits instantly bring baby boomers back in time: “Close to You,” “We’ve Only Just Begun,” “For All We Know,” “Rainy Days and Mondays,” “Superstar,” “Hurting Each Other,” “It’s Going to Take Some Time This Time,” “Goodbye to Love.” And that’s only in the first two-and-a-half years of their stardom.
Karen’s resonant contralto singing voice (which actually spanned more than three octaves) was widely regarded as beatific, flawless, poignant. She never danced around a note the way so many singers today mistakenly feel they have to do in order to prove talent. Plus, as young as she was, she seemed to have the capacity to mine the emotions of the stories she sang by tapping into feelings and sentiments usually found in people much older, and to then color each song with those emotions.
Certainly not everyone is a true believer; indeed, for every loyal fan there are perhaps three or four other people who claim a true disdain for Karen and Richard Carpenter and what they represented, musically. But there are plenty of fans-and not just the everyday types, but some of the music industry’s most respected luminaries. Over the years, in various published interviews in print and online, praise for Karen Carpenter has been nothing short of astonishing:
Elton John: “She has one of the greatest voices of our lifetime.”
Paul McCartney: “The best female voice in the world: melodic, tuneful and distinctive.”
Madonna: “Karen Carpenter had the clearest, purest voice. I’m completely influenced by her harmonic sensibility.”
Gwen Stefani: “It doesn’t matter how many times you hear it; you’ll still get goose bumps when you hear her sing.”
Robert Hilburn (former Los Angeles Times pop music critic): “The attraction for me was the intimacy and warmth of Karen’s singing-a strange but seductive blend of innocence and melancholia.”
And Hilburn was one of those who didn’t even like the Carpenters!
Praise indeed-but there were plenty of problems, too.
In 1979, when Richard took time off to deal with a Quaalude addiction, Karen cut an album as a solo artist. Her producer was the legendary Phil Ramone. The album was a very accomplished mix of disco and light jazz of which both Karen and Ramone were justifiably proud. But Richard and the executives at A&M Records didn’t like the results, and the “Karen Carpenter” album was abandoned. (Richard released it in 1996, 13 years after his sister’s death.) Cutting that album was by far the most decisive thing Karen ever attempted on her own; by most accounts it was something she sorely needed to do for her self-esteem.
A few months after that disappointment she met and married a handsome and successful real estate developer by the name of Tom Burris. At least he said he was a successful real estate developer. Burris ended up going through most of his wife’s money, and also neglected to tell her that he had had a vasectomy. Karen almost more than anything in the world wanted to have children. She cried to her mother that she didn’t want go through with the wedding. But Agnes Carpenter said to her, “You made your bed, Karen. Now you’ll have to lie in it.”
Karen obeyed. There was a wedding. But the marriage, like the solo album, was shelved.
“I think it’s safe to say that if Richard Carpenter and the people at A&M had stood behind Karen with the solo album, she would have gained a much-needed shot of confidence,” says biographer Randy Schmidt. “And had that happened, she wouldn’t have been so crazy about getting married. Together, the solo album and marriage fiasco were the harsh blows that sent her into the deepest depression of her life.”
With that story in mind-and there are many others of equal anguish-it should come as no surprise that Karen developed habits that eventually turned a shattered heart into a permanently damaged one. But the truth is that Karen Carpenter was probably damaged long before the discarded album and the broken marriage. It is very likely that she had deeply-rooted psychological issues from childhood, and may have been giving off signals for years. But she was so playful, so hopeful, so giddy and so dedicated to her craft that hardly anyone ever picked up on the signs in the early days of the Carpenters.
Legendary drummer Hal Blaine remembers meeting 16-year-old Karen three years before the first Carpenters album was produced, when she and her brother were trying to establish some professional ties in the Southern California music scene. Reached at his home in Palm Desert, CA, the now 83-year-old Blaine recalls that Karen always seemed a little melancholy. “I just never saw her on top of the world. She was very hard to figure out.” Blaine, a member of the so-called Wrecking Crew session band that backed the Beach Boys, the Mamas and the Papas and other top groups of the 1960s and 70s, eventually was hired for many of the Carpenters’ recording sessions. Karen, a skilled drummer in her own right, picked up the sticks on as many recordings and concerts as she could, but audiences wanted to see her out front singing, and ultimately that’s where she ended up most of the time.
“She was a sweetheart,” Blaine says. “I even had a set of drums made for her-but I just never saw her having a big laugh.”
Karen was born in New Haven, CT on March 2, 1950, and when she was little would often sit with her brother, three-and-a-half years older, to listen to records-if she wasn’t outside running bases, which she much preferred at the time. Richard took to piano, musical theory and composition quickly and easily and spent most of his time indoors practicing. In 1963 Harold and Agnes Carpenter moved the family to Downey to improve Richard’s chances of building a career as an arranger and composer. Richard enrolled at California State University, Long Beach, to study music. Karen attended Downey High School, where she took up the drums.
In 1965 Richard formed a jazz combo called the Richard Carpenter Trio. They played in the “Battle of the Bands” at the Hollywood Bowl and won Best Combo. The real bombshell of the early days is that Karen was signed to a recording contract in 1966 at just 16 years of age as a solo artist; Richard was signed on as a songwriter with the company’s publishing arm, but it’s often been said that that was an effort to keep peace in the Carpenter family. It was clear to just about everyone at the time that Agnes was far more interested in Richard’s success than Karen’s. But it mattered little, for the label had no money for promotion and soon folded.
Richard formed a group first called the Summerchimes, then Spectrum, which focused on vocal harmonies, but soon decided that he and Karen could get along on their own. That’s when he began experimenting with the vocal overdubbing that would become a Carpenters trademark. He called the new group Carpenters (not the Carpenters) and submitted demo tapes to every record label in Hollywood. A friend of his gave a tape to someone who knew people at A&M, the famed studio cofounded by Herb Alpert, who eventually heard the demo. It was Alpert’s partner, Jerry Moss, who formally signed the siblings in April 1969. The following week, Richard and Karen began work on an album called Offering, which was released in October. It sold just 18,000 copies and lost money for A&M, but Alpert was known to support his artists and give them room to grow, so he kept them on the label.
Early in 1970 Alpert gave Richard the lead sheet of a song to consider recording-a seven-year-old number by Burt Bacharach and Hal David called “(They Long to Be) Close to You.” Richard arranged it, the Carpenters recorded it, and the single reached #1 on the charts on July 25, 1970. The follow-up single was “We’ve Only Just Begun,” which reached #2, and after that was “For All We Know,” which reached #3.
On March 16, 1971, Richard and Karen attended the 13th Annual Grammy Awards as nominees for Best Contemporary Vocal Performance by a Duo, Group or Chorus. Their competition was the Jackson Five, Simon and Garfunkel, Chicago and the Beatles. The Carpenters won. They also won Best New Artist.
Karen was happy when she and Richard accepted their awards. At least she looked happy.
Always very musical, Karen discovered her unique vocal quality in high school and worked hard to develop it, though on her own she was probably too self-conscious and perhaps not even driven enough to have carved out a career in music. As far as Richard is concerned, based solely on his undeniable talent it is likely that he would have had a busy career in music even if there hadn’t been a Karen-just probably not as an internationally famous recording star. The melodies he composed (with John Bettis providing the lyrics) are captivating and memorable, and his arrangements are intuitive, multi-textured tapestries that have been studied at such prestigious institutions as the Berklee College of Music in Boston and Stanford University in California. But as a potential front man his personality was somewhat uninspired, and as a singer his pronounced lisp might have been a liability.
“To be able to make my living doing something I love, I feel very grateful for,” he said in Close to You: Remembering the Carpenters, a 90-minute documentary that aired on PBS in 1997. “But what even makes it that much better is that my sister happened to be one of the finest female singers who ever lived, and enjoyed making the records as much as I enjoyed making them.” That’s as close to an acknowledgement of his luck, and not exclusively his talent, as we’re likely to get from him. (He rarely gives interviews these days.) For in addition to his own skill, Richard was blessed with his sister’s matchless voice. Similarly, in addition to her unparalleled vocal gift, Karen benefited from the musical insights and determined efforts of her brother.
The success of the Carpenters may have been inevitable, but Richard and Karen needed each other in order for the destiny to be fulfilled.
Once they got rolling, though, the hits kept on coming-and a lot of other music, as well. Within their 17 albums (seven of which were compiled after Karen’s death) can be found everything from smoky renditions of power ballads like “This Masquerade,” to offbeat novelties like “Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft.” They recorded a number of Great American Songbook classics, and golden oldies pop up here and there. Songs like “B’Wana She No Home” and “Jambalaya (On the Bayou)” are intriguing counterpoints to Lennon/McCartney standards like “Ticket to Ride,” which was actually the Carpenters’ first single from the “Offerings” album, re-imagined by Richard as a ballad; it peaked at #54 on the charts.
It is often stated-and it seems fairly certain to be true-that Karen preferred to play the drums instead of being out front singing not just because she loved the instrument and had an amazing facility for it, but also because it gave her something to hide behind. As a child and adolescent she was never thin. Plus, as a tomboy she probably didn’t think much about her physique during the developmental years. In some early concert footage she is noticeably wider in the hips and broader in the shoulders than in the later years. But it wasn’t only her appearance that made Karen decide to lose as much weight as possible.
As it almost always does, the problem can be traced to issues of control. For whatever reasons, Karen allowed her mother to control her feelings of self-worth and her brother to control her career. So she decided to control the way she looked.
By the mid 1970s she was dieting obsessively. In October 1981 she and Richard were interviewed in London by Sue Lawley on a BBC show called Nationwide. Lawley brought up the rumors swirling around that Karen suffered from anorexia nervosa, which the host referred to as the “slimmer’s disease.” Karen denied it. Then, when Lawley attached a number to the rumored weight of her guest-84 pounds-Karen’s gaunt face took on the countenance of an indignant defendant when she rolled her eyes and snapped, “No! No!” It is painful to watch.
In January 1982 she went into therapy with an anorexia specialist in New York named Steven Levenkron. The TV newsmagazine A Current Affair ran a two-part segment called “The Karen Carpenter Cover-Up” nearly a decade later in which Levenkron insisted that Karen’s anorexia had been beat by the time she left his care, and that what killed her was the enormous doses of laxatives she took afterward. But if she took enormous amounts of laxatives, was her anorexia truly beat?
One night in February 1983 Karen slept over her parents’ house, in an upstairs bedroom. She had shopped with her mother that afternoon and was going to shop more the following day. In the morning Agnes called to her to come downstairs, but there was no answer. She went up and found Karen dead on the floor of the walk-in closet. As was later determined, Karen had been taking massive doses of ipecac syrup for some time, a drug used to induce vomiting. Each dose dissolves the heart muscle little by little. Karen had plenty of heart, but the one she needed to stay alive was quite literally vanishing.
Thirty years have gone by. We know a little more about anorexia nervosa, but not too much more about Karen Carpenter. Still, the more discoveries we make, the eerier it becomes when we focus on some of her most famous lyrics. “No one ever cared if I should live or die. Time and time again the chance for love has passed me by, and all I know of love is how to live without it,” she sings in “Goodbye to Love.” In “Only Yesterday” she says that “In my own time nobody knew the pain I was going through, and waiting was all my heart could do.”
Karen’s own all-time favorite, recorded in 1976 and written by Richard, John Bettis and Albert Hammond, is a song called “I Need to Be in Love,” a title that can actually serve as a biographical caption. As with all the others, she sings it with conviction, sad though that conviction may be: “So here I am with pockets full of good intentions, but none of them will comfort me tonight. I’m wide awake at four A.M. without a friend in sight. I’m hanging on a hope, but I’m all right.”
Those lyrics spoke volumes. The volume just wasn’t high enough.
Published: January 31, 2013 – Volume 11 – Issue 42