FAMED AMERICANS #1
They were the biggest-selling group of the 70s. No fewer than ten of their singles went on to become million-sellers, and by 2005 combined worldwide sales of albums and singles well exceeded 100 million. Yet the Carpenters were much more than creators of beautifully crafted and hugely successful hit records. Within the space of just a few years their unique and distinct soft musical style brought a new dimension to the world of popular music.
It was Richard Carpenter who in fact showed an interest in music from a very early age. Born 15 October 1946, in New Haven, Connecticut, Richard’s earliest memories are that of listening to his fathers 78’s featuring music from the classics to big band music. When he was three or four years of age. Richard would go on to develop an eclectic taste in music.
At age 8, he had mastered the accordion, but soon abandoned it in favour of the piano. He began hating the rigidity of piano lessons and taught himself to play by ear. By 15, he was studying piano at Yale, and was a part of a trio who played venues in and around New Haven. His sister Karen born 2 March, 1950, was the total opposite. In her early years, she showed no interest in music, other than listening to her favourite records. Barely a teenager, and the family would be relocating to Downey, Los Angeles.
Richard attended Downey High School as a senior whilst studying piano at the University of Southern California. By late 1964, Karen’s musical awakening was coming to fruition. Now a first year student at Downey High School, her first instrument she took to was the glockenspiel. She would perform this in the school band, later changing to the drums on the advice of friend Frankie Chavez. Recreating her own drum set at home out of chop sticks and bar stools, her parents bought her a proper drum kit, and as soon as she sat before them, she was able to play instantly. With Richard on Piano and Karen on drums, “The Carpenters” were born.
The duo would later become a trio when fellow classmate Wes Jacob joined playing bass and tuba. Most of the music they played at the time was jazz. At Richards urging, Karen would sing an occasional selection of songs. Her distinctive singing voice was still developing and she wasn’t happy with the sound. However by 1966, her voice had matured and started to attract a lot of attention.
In 1966, the trio entered a prestigious amateur talent contest ‘The Battle of The Bands’ and secured their position in the finals. On the back of their performance, they were awarded three awards including ‘Best Combo’, “Outstanding Instrumentalist’ (Richard), and the ‘Sweepstakes Trophy’ for the highest score of any act in the whole contest.
As Karen and Richard returned to their cars in the parking lot, a man walked over to congratulate them and inquire whether they would like to make demo records. Feeling like he was on top of the world, and acting quite smug, Richard told the man, they already had a recording contract. The man gave him his business card, and said if their circumstances were to change, to contact him. Richard took the card and lifting his mouth from the ground upon reading that the man before him was Neely Plumb, the prominent West Coast manager of pop with giant RCA Records, he replied that it was actually his sister who was signed to a small company, but not the trio.
Plumb arranged an audition test at RCA. The trio signed with RCA and quickly cut eleven tracks. When the tracks were put before the RCA committee, they voted against them, as they saw no commercial potential in a jazzy trio. Losing confidence in getting themselves established with RCA, the three accepted the company’s offer of a few hundred dollars to end the contract.
Shortly after the trio disbanded, with Jacobs deciding to forge ahead with concert music, and Richard and Karen returning to their studies. Richard befriended a guy called John Bettis whilst at college. The two would form a lifelong friendship and later co-write several of the Carpenter’s biggest hits.
During this period Richard formed a second musical outfit with sister Karen, who now sang with the marvellous voice anyone within earshot would clamber to hear. John Bettis was a member – as were three more fellow students, Leslie Johnston, Gary Sims and Danny Woodhams. With Carpenter and Bettis writing the bulk of the group’s repertoire and Richard crafting the arrangements, they were soon ready to branch out under the group name “Spectrum”.
This time Richard opted for a vocal approach. It was the new rock bands, however, that were receiving most of the interest at the time, and Spectrum suffered in comparison. Although they played as support acts at major venues like The Blue Law and The Whisky A-Go-Go, the band was short-lived, and Richard and Karen were soon on their own once more.
When Karen graduated from Downey High School in 1967, she was 17 years old, a year younger than the rest of her classmates. At a time in her life where body image was everything, it was during this time that Karen saw a doctor about her weight. As a child, Karen was a chubby kid, and by seventeen had weighed in at 145 pounds (classed as overweight for her height of five feet four inches). Karen knew she had to make changes to her diet. She was placed onto the “Stillman Diet”, where she was expected to drink 8 glasses of water a day, eat lots of lean meat, ovoid all fatty foods and take selected prescribed vitamins.
Karen hated the diet, but promised to stick with it. In the first six months, she lost 25 pounds and managed to keep her weight of 120 pounds in tact until 1973.
Karen hated the diet but stuck to it. She lost twenty five pounds taking six months to do so in 1967, and maintained at her new weight of around 120 pounds until 1973.
Although Karen still considered herself primarily a drummer who sang, Richard sensed there was a lot more potential in her vocals.
Even though Richard was the musical savant working his tail off to become a professional musician, it was Karen who earned the first recording contract between the two of them. After tagging along to a session with bassist Joe Osborn, Osborn offered Karen a recording deal with his label, Magic Lamp Records. They were not interested in Richard as a musician but did release two of his compositions. Karen’s single did not do well and the label folded.
There were to be a number of bumps on their new route to success, but as they now pulled away from the concept of a band sound, and solo career, luck was to smile upon them.
Whilst most men were being drafted for battle in Vietnam, as luck would have it, Richard was granted a student deferment, which meant he could stay at the university at Long Beach. It was here that he heard of a new national TV program, ‘Your All American College Show,’ for which talent scouts auditioned acts on campuses. Those selected went to Hollywood to tape the show before a celebrity judging panel. Broadcast nationally, the show was sponsored by Colgate-Palmolive and produced by the prominent radio and commercial announcer Wendell Niles. If they succeeded in getting on that show, the publicity value would be enormous.
Following their appearance, on April 22, 1969, Richard and Karen went to the office of Jerry Moss to sign a recording contract with A&M Records. Since Karen was only nineteen and legally underage, her parents had to countersign for her.
In November of 1969 their first album was released. Titled ‘Offering’, it included Richard’s ballad version of the Beatles’ 1965 hit ‘Ticket To Ride’. Their rendition of the song wasn’t and instant hit, but it managed to linger around in the charts for quite some time, entering, leaving only to re-enter once more. After hearing their version, Sir Paul McCartney would go on to call Karen “the best female voice in the world: melodic, tuneful and distinctive.”
Also on A&M’s books at that time was the hugely talented Burt Bacharach, who showed an early interest in the Carpenters’ work after hearing ‘Ticket To Ride’ on the radio, so he invited them to join him for a number of dates during 1970. In June of that year it was actually a Burt Bacharach song which would finally bring them worldwide acclaim.
Even though the Carpenters were now bona fide stars (their third album went four times Platinum), there was one person who was unimpressed with how far Karen had come – her mother. Agnes Carpenter always favoured Richard and did everything to further his future without considering Karen. They moved to California from Baltimore, so Richard could be closer to the music industry. Karen began to outshine Richard publicly, but Agnes never acknowledged it, leaving a huge hole in Karen’s heart.
‘They Long To Be Close To You’ had been written by Bacharach and his partner Hal David some seven years earlier. Over the next six weeks, the song occupied the No.1 spot on the American charts. It remained one of the best sellers of the year, and sold over three million copies worldwide. The song also gave the duo their first British success, reaching No.6 in the autumn of 1970, and became a hit in several other countries. The Carpenters had finally found the success that had always alluded them. Several albums would follow including:-
- 1969: Ticket to Ride
- 1970: Close to you
- 1971: Carpenters
- 1972: A Song for You
- 1973: Now & Then
- 1975: Horizon
- 1976: A Kind of Hush
- 1977: Passage
- 1978: Christmas Portrait
- 1981: Made in America
At the time, of the Carpenters success, female drummers were few and far between. Although she was in a groundbreaking position for women in music, Karen was very against the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 60s and 70s. She felt a woman’s place was to stay home, and cook and care for her husband.
Then Karen’s world all began to fall apart after she witnessed pictures of herself in concert at Lake Tahoe in August 1973. She was disgusted in what she saw. The dress she had on was very unflattering and it showed a tummy through it. She immediately hired the services of a “Workout Guru” to help her shed the weight at home. She also bought a hip cycle and lay on her bed with it every morning. She also took it with her on tour. Her “Guru” advised her to go on a high burnable carbohydrate intake and eliminate all processed foods from her diet and ice-cream which she loved the most.
Then something happened to truly frighten her. As she stepped up her daily exercise regime, instead of loosing weight, she started to become muscular. She was “bulking up” not shedding the kilos.
On November 13, 1973, the Carpenters guested on a Bob Hope TV special. When Karen saw the video of the show soon afterward, she remarked to Richard about her appearance. Self-consciously unhappy about how she appeared, she assured him she intended to “do something about it.” He agreed that she looked heavier than she had previously.
Nobody can be certain of exactly when her anorexic habits took root, Richard insists – chiefly because Karen had always been conscious about her weight. She remarked often on how much she hated her ‘hourglass’ figure. By September 1975, due to the onset of anorexia nervosa, her weight had dropped to just 91 pounds, depleting Karen of her normal high energy and forcing her to take two months off to recover. As she formed her own diet, Karen did everything to keep food off her plate. She said in 1973, “When you’re on the road it’s hard to eat. Period. On top of that, it’s rough to eat well. We don’t like to eat before a show because I can’t stand singing with a full stomach… You never get to dinner until, like, midnight, and if you eat heavy you’re not going to sleep, and you’re going to be a balloon.
Karen had great results from her new diet. However, she started to become obsessed with weight loss. She weighed 110 lb. or so, and looked amazing… If she’d been able to stop there, she still would have been here today. Karen got carried away. She just couldn’t stop.
In mid 1976 a deal between the Carpenters and the ABC network was announced and on December 8, 1976, “The Carpenters very first Television Special,” with guests John Denver and Victor Borge aired with outstanding ratings, placing No.6 for the week. As a result, a deal for more specials was offered, and by 1980 Karen and Richard had completed five specials for ABC.
For a time, Richard was oblivious to his sister’s increasingly peculiar eating habits. Once he picked up on it, he initially assumed it was part of a comprehensive weight loss plan. He complimented her on her weight loss one day, telling her, ” You look great.” Karen replied, ” Well, I’m just going to get down to around 105.” Richard became worried by her answer and said, “A hundred and five? You look great now.” The comment fell on deaf ears.
Karen’s eating habits became more worrisome as she dropped to 90 lb. Those around her began pestering her about eating so she would do anything she could to hide her weight loss. She would wear many items of clothing, piled on top of each other, to hide her diminishing figure. Her friends and family were not the only ones that were shocked by Karen’s skinny physique. Audiences also could not believe how skinny she had become.
Everyone began noticing major changes to Karen. She became overwhelmed with exhaustion frequently and would have to lie down. After some shows in Las Vegas in 1975, Karen checked into Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. She was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa, and her doctor said in a statement that she suffered from physical and nervous exhaustion. The Carpenters had a European tour lined up, but doctors would not clear her to perform. They refunded ticket costs for the 50 shows.
Between 1971 and 1976, Richard had to face his own demons, as he had become addicted to prescription sleeping pills. For Richard, as the years passed, he would build up a tolerance to the medication, so he would take more. By late 1976, it was affecting him so badly, that he knew before long, he would have to gain back control of his life. After an intervention by family and friends, Richard would enter a rehab facility for a six week program in 1979. For the first three weeks, he would later confess that he felt like he was in hell, but then by the forth week, things were looking brighter. On September 4, 1978, even though they had shows lined up at the MGM Grand, Richard abruptly quit touring. He refused to make a UK television appearance, leaving Karen to fend off rumours of a split and perform on her own. Karen not one to stand idly by wanted to use the time to record a solo album, however she wasn’t in the proper physical condition to attempt such a feat and she ended up in hospital, being diagnosed with exhaustion and abnormally low weight.
Karen had had relationships in the past, but her relationship with property developer Tom Burris was real. They got engaged in 1980 after only two months of dating. Her friends were concerned, but Karen was head over heels for him. Karen nearly called the wedding off, after she discovered that Tom had a Vasectomy years earlier. Karen desperately wanted children, and this was a deal breaker, however Agnes refused to allow Karen to call off the wedding since it had been paid for. Things went from bad to worse as Karen assumed that Tom had his own money but later found out he was broke. He had no problem spending her money though. Tom would ask for up to $50,000 at a time. Eventually, she only had investments left. In addition, he would berate her cruelly, once calling her a “bag of bones,” and would tell her that she’d never have his child. She filed for divorce after only 14 months.
In January 1982, Karen moved to New York to spend most of the next 11 months seeing a therapist five times weekly for treatment of anorexia nervosa.
Karen returned to New York where, from late April through mid November, she spent more time in therapy and hospital. Karen was still on a crusade to lose weight and began taking up to 90 laxatives a night. The therapy wasn’t working as she dropped down to 80 pounds. Karen would also take thyroid medication in the hope of speeding up her metabolism. Her thyroid was fine, so it put stress on her body. Karen began seeing psychotherapist Steven Levenkron. Anorexia was rarely discussed publicly, and Levenkron specialized in treatment of eating disorders. It was whilst in hospital they tried a procedure known as hyper alimentation. Her weight increased by 25 pounds. Although obviously heavier and appearing healthier than she had recently looked, Richard believed that things just weren’t right; the weight had been put on artificially, Karen no longer possessed her boundless energy, and most importantly, he believed the life had gone out of her eyes. Feeling the worst was behind her, Karen returned to L.A. in November with plans to resume her life and career.
In December 1982 she gave what would be her last performance at her godchildren’s school. Finally, her parents and Richard helped her move back home to Los Angeles. She seemed to be resuming a normal life, but curiously took more naps than usual. Her housekeeper found her lying on the closet floor once. On February 4, 1983, Agnes found Karen passed out and naked in her wardrobe. She died of ipecac poisoning, a drug used for vomiting, as a consequence of anorexia nervosa. She was rushed to the hospital, she was pronounced dead of a heart attack soon afterward – a side effect of her long battle with her illness.
Karen’s death did not mark the end of the Carpenters, in fact her death increased public awareness of the consequences of eating disorders.
Karen’s death hit Richard hard. He called it “the worst thing of his life.” A little over a month after her death, Richard and Karen would receive a great honour which Richard was forced to accept on his own. They received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, not far from their hometown suburb of Downey. A teary-eyed Richard stood with their parents as a 32-piece choir sang We’ve Only Just Begun. Their final studio album was released that day.
For years, people have claimed to see the ghost of Karen Carpenter at the Jim Henson Company entertainment complex. They have described seeing a woman in the dressing room area at the soundstage with strikingly similar features to Karen. Her office used to be above the stage when A&M Records was in the building. The ghost witnessed claim that the woman stays in the dressing room but never exits the room.
Before her obsession with body image took over her life, Karen was incredibly beautiful. One of the biggest stars on Earth took an interest in her too. During one of Elvis’s shows in Las Vegas, Karen and British singer Petula Clark were hanging out in his dressing room. The King propositioned both women. Clark put an end to it and “shoved both of them out of the room.” Clark said he seemed quite amused by possibly his first rejection.
In 2008, Richard Carpenter made a shocking announcement: he was planning a comeback. His plan was to produce a Carpenters tribute album, a Christmas album, and a solo collection of original tunes.
Throughout the 1970s, Richard and Karen were nominated numerous times for Grammy Awards. They won three Grammy Awards, and had two songs inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. Regardless of her divided fan base, Karen Carpenter is often regarded by music critics as one of the greatest female singers of all time.
In light of Karen Carpenter’s untimely passing, her family decided to open the Karen A. Carpenter Memorial Foundation. The foundation was designed to raise money to help raise awareness and further research for anorexia nervosa, the condition that claimed Karen’s life. Since then, the foundation has changed its name to The Carpenter Family Foundation. It has since evolved and now funds numerous initiatives that help raise awareness of the eating disorder. These include art programs, entertainment facilities, and education programs.
As for Richard, it might sound more bizarre than it actually is, but Richard actually married his own cousin, and had five children with her! Now, before you start making judgments, let’s clear things up a little. In 1984, Richard married his adopted cousin, who happened to be Mary Rudolph, who was actually the band’s road manager. She also made an appearance in the promotional video for their hit single “I Need To Be In Love.” The couple are still married to this day. Not only did Richard marry his cousin and have five kids together, he also goes on the road with his kids from time to time and performs with them!
In an interview with People magazine, Richard opened up following Karen’s death. He said, “I did a lot of soul-searching after her death, and I realise now that I did as much as I could have done.vWe spent so much time together. There’s a void there now. I miss her more and more each day.” He continued, ” You simply have to deal with it. And I’m doing the best I can.”