Remembering Karen Carpenter, 30 Years Later

Originally published on March 20, 2014 4:38 pm

By the time she was 24, Karen Carpenter was already famous, having released more than a dozen hit records with her brother, Richard, including "Close to You," "We've Only Just Begun," "Rainy Days and Mondays," "Superstar" and "Top of the World." Less than 10 years later, she'd be gone, the victim of heart failure brought on by anorexia nervosa. Karen Carpenter died 30 years ago Monday at age 32, and her legacy as one-half of the singing duo The Carpenters is a source of some disagreement.

Today, there are more than a half-dozen websites devoted to her life and career, while several Carpenters tribute bands tour in both America and the U.K. Rolling Stone rated her velvety contralto voice at No. 94 on its list of the Top 100 greatest singers of all time. Yet every person who enjoys The Carpenters as much as I do knows several others who don't. In fact, my entire household is divided on the issue. Not evenly divided, mind you: I love their music; no one else in my family can stand it.

It reminds me a little of my junior high school days, when The Carpenters were riding high on the charts and two die-hard, acid rock-loving bullies taunted me to name my favorite group. I told them. They laughed and slammed me against a locker.

But the fact remains that I'm not alone in my musical estimation of Karen Carpenter's gift — a number of music-industry luminaries have extolled the virtues of her vocals. Paul McCartney, for one, said that she has "the best female voice in the world: melodic, tuneful and distinctive."

If you listened only to the radio in the 1970s and didn't buy the albums, you might not know just how far beyond the hits The Carpenters' catalog really travels. There are Great American Songbook classics, golden oldies, torch songs, and even a novelty or two, like "Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft." All those multitracked harmonies in the background of many of their hits, all those oboes and French horns and harps — that's not the entire musical story for The Carpenters, and that's a bit surprising to many people. But even then, it isn't always easy to get those people onboard.

Karen Carpenter was born in 1950, 3 1/2 years after Richard, in New Haven, Conn. Richard was a musical prodigy from the start, and would stay inside listening to records and practicing as a boy. Karen much preferred to be outside playing softball. Their parents, Agnes and Harold, moved the family to Downey, Calif., in 1963, with the idea that the recording scene there would provide good opportunities for Richard.

By then, Karen had developed her own love of music, taken up the drums and began singing. Richard formed several combos and always took his sister along for the ride. However, it was actually Karen — not Richard — who got a recording contract first, at 16. Unfortunately, the deal was short-lived because the small record label had little money for promotion.

By 1970, Karen and Richard had broken through. Having signed with A&M Records, their singles were dominating the charts, and they would go on to win Grammy Awards the following March for best new artist and best contemporary performance by a duo.

Most of Karen's friends say that she was a goofy, fun-loving and caring friend — someone who craved stuffed animals and adored children. But she also had serious personal issues. She struggled to feel loved and accepted by her mother, who, by many accounts, was a stern and difficult woman. She also sought a sense of independence, and maybe even a reprieve, from her workaholic brother, who called all the shots and insisted on a grueling recording and touring schedule.

In 1979, Karen recorded a solo album with legendary producer Phil Ramone, but Richard and the executives at A&M didn't like the results and shelved it. Not long afterward, she met and married a real estate developer who, it turned out, was mostly interested in her money. What's more, he hadn't told Karen, who wanted to have children more than anything, that he had had a vasectomy.

The one thing Karen Carpenter knew she could control was her weight. Never a skinny child or young adult, she was conscious of the way she looked and was dieting obsessively by the mid-1970s. She sought help for anorexia, but apparently never devoted herself fully to a cure. Her mother found her dead on the morning of Feb. 4, 1983, on the floor of a walk-in closet at home. Karen had been taking massive amounts of ipecac syrup, which induces vomiting.

Karen's own all-time favorite Carpenters song was 1976's "I Need to Be in Love," which can be thought of as the theme of her life. One of the lines goes, "So here I am with pockets full of good intentions / but none of them will comfort me tonight." If nothing else, on the 30th anniversary of her death, those of us who got slammed against a locker simply for liking The Carpenters still have her music — her voice — for some comfort.

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

By the time she was 24, Karen Carpenter, the singing sister half of the pop group The Carpenters, was rich and famous; notching more than a dozen hit records with her brother, Richard.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE'VE ONLY JUST BEGUN")

KAREN CARPENTER: (Singing) And when the evening comes, we smile, so much of life ahead...

CORNISH: Less than 10 years later, she'd be dead, the victim of heart failure brought on by anorexia nervosa. Arts commentator Joel Samberg says three decades on, Karen Carpenter remains a musical enigma.

JOEL SAMBERG, BYLINE: On one hand, today, there are more than a half- dozen websites devoted to the life and career of Karen Carpenter; and there are even several Carpenters tribute bands touring both here and in the U.K. On the other hand, Rolling Stone rated her velvety, contralto voice only at number 94 on their list of the top 100 greatest singers of all time. And every person who enjoys The Carpenters as much as I do, knows several others who don't.

In fact, my entire household is divided on the issue. Not evenly divided, mind you. I love their music. No one else in my family can stand it. It reminds me of my junior high school days, when The Carpenters soared to the top of the charts and these two diehard, acid rock-loving bullies taunted me one day to name my favorite group. I told them. They laughed and slammed me against the locker.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CLOSE TO YOU")

CARPENTER: (Singing) That is why all the girls in town follow you all around. Just like me...

SAMBERG: But the fact remains that I'm not alone in my estimation of Karen's musical gift. Paul McCartney, for one, said that she has the best female voice in the world - melodic, tuneful and distinctive. I've just been mesmerized for years by a voice that was as plaintive as it was powerful.

Karen was born in 1950 - three and a half years after Richard - in New Haven, Connecticut. Richard was a musical prodigy from the start. Their parents moved the family to Downey, California, in 1963, thinking that the recording scene there would provide good opportunities for Richard.

But by this time, Karen had discovered her own love of music and the talent to go along with it; and it was Karen, not Richard, who got a recording contract first. She was just 16 years old. But the small record label had no money for promotion, so it was back to pounding the pavement for Karen and Richard, now as a musical duo.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TOP OF THE WORLD")

CARPENTER: (Singing) Something in the wind has learned my name, and it's telling me that things are not the same. In the leaves on the trees and the touch of the breeze, there's a pleasing sense of happiness for me...

SAMBERG: By 1970, they were riding high, having signed with A&M Records, seeing their singles burn up the charts, and picking up a few Grammy Awards. Most of her friends say that Karen was goofy, fun-loving, a caring friend, someone who craved stuffed animals and adored children, but that she also had serious personal issues. One was her struggle to feel loved and accepted by her mother, Agnes, who by many accounts, was a stern and difficult woman. At the same time, she seemed to crave independence, maybe even a reprieve, from The Carpenters. After all, her workaholic brother called all the shots, and insisted on a grueling recording and touring schedule.

In 1979, Karen recorded a solo album with legendary producer Phil Ramone. But Richard and the executives at A&M didn't like the results, and shelved it. Not long after that, she met and quickly married a real estate developer who hadn't told Karen - who more than anything in the world, wanted to have children - that he had had a vasectomy.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RAINY DAYS AND MONDAYS")

CARPENTER: (Singing) Talking to myself and feeling old. Sometimes, I'd like to quit; nothing ever seems to fit; hanging around, nothing to do but frown. Rainy days and Mondays always get me down...

SAMBERG: The one thing Karen knew she could control was her weight. By the mid-'70s, she was dieting obsessively. She sought help for anorexia but apparently, never devoted herself fully to a cure. Her mother found her dead on the morning of Feb. 4, 1983. Karen had been taking massive amounts of ipecac syrup. So while Karen Carpenter had plenty of heart, the medication she took was literally eating away at it, day after day.

Karen often said her all-time favorite Carpenter song was a number she recorded in 1976, called "I Need to Be in Love" - which actually, seems like the theme of her life. One of the lines goes: So here I am with pockets full of good intentions, but none of them will comfort me tonight.

If nothing else, on the 30th anniversary of Karen Carpenter's death, those of us who got slammed against the lockers simply for liking The Carpenters, still have her music, her voice, for comfort.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I NEED TO BE IN LOVE")

CARPENTER: (Singing) The hardest thing I've ever done is keep believing there's someone in this crazy world for me...

CORNISH: Joel Samberg is a freelance writer based in Connecticut.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I NEED TO BE IN LOVE")

CARPENTER: (Singing) The way that people come and go through temporary lives, my chance could come, and I might never know. I used to say no promises, let's keep it simple. But freedom...

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

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