Karen Carpenter

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Karen Carpenter
Karen Carpenter in 1972 White House.png
At the White House, August 1972
Background information
Birth nameKaren Anne Carpenter
Born(1950-03-02)March 2, 1950[1]
New Haven, Connecticut, U.S.
DiedFebruary 4, 1983(1983-02-04) (aged 32)[1]
Downey, California, U.S.
Occupation(s)Musician, singer
  • Vocals
  • drums
Years active1965–1983
Associated acts

Karen Anne Carpenter (March 2, 1950 – February 4, 1983) was an American singer and drummer who was part of the duo the Carpenters alongside her brother Richard. She was praised for her contralto vocals, and her drumming abilities were viewed positively by contemporary musicians and peers.

Carpenter was born in New Haven, Connecticut, and moved to Downey, California, in 1963 with her family. She began to study the drums in high school, and joined the Long Beach State choir after graduating. After several years of touring and recording, the Carpenters were signed in 1969, achieving commercial and critical success throughout the 1970s. Initially, Carpenter was the band's full-time drummer, but gradually took the role of frontwoman as drumming was reduced to a handful of live showcases or tracks on albums. While the Carpenters were on hiatus in the late 1970s, she recorded a solo album, which was never released during her lifetime.

Carpenter had the eating disorder anorexia nervosa, which was little known at the time, and was briefly married in the early 1980s. She died at age 32 from heart failure caused by complications related to her illness; her death led to increased visibility and awareness of eating disorders. Her work continues to attract praise, including being listed in Rolling Stone's 100 greatest singers of all time.

Early life[edit]

Karen Anne Carpenter was born on March 2, 1950, in New Haven, Connecticut, the daughter of Agnes Reuwer (née Tatum, March 5, 1915 – November 10, 1996) and Harold Bertram Carpenter (November 8, 1908 – October 15, 1988).[2] Harold had been born in Wuzhou, China, where his own parents were missionaries and he was educated at boarding schools in England, before working in the printing business.[3]

Carpenter's elder brother Richard developed an interest in music at an early age, becoming a piano prodigy. Karen's first words were "bye-bye" and "stop it", the latter in response to Richard. She enjoyed dancing and by age four was enrolled in tap dancing and ballet classes.[4] When she was young, she enjoyed playing baseball with other children on the street, and was picked before her brother in sandlot games.[5] She studied baseball statistics carefully and became a fan of the New York Yankees.[6] In the early 1970s she would become the pitcher on the Carpenters' official softball team.[7] The family moved in June 1963 to the Los Angeles suburb of Downey after Harold had been offered a job there by a former business associate.[8]

Carpenter entered Downey High School in 1964 aged 14, and was a year younger than her classmates.[9] She joined the school band, initially to avoid gym classes. Bruce Gifford, the conductor (who had previously taught her older brother) gave her the glockenspiel, an instrument she disliked, and after admiring the performance of her friend and drummer Frankie Chavez (who had been playing from an early age and idolized jazz drummer Buddy Rich), she asked if she could play those instead.[10] Carpenter wanted a Ludwig set, because it was used by her favorite drummers, Joe Morello and Ringo Starr. Chavez persuaded her family to buy her a $300 ($2,400 as of 2017) Ludwig kit, and he began to teach her drums.[11] She was always enthusiastic about drumming and taught herself how to play complicated lines, and studied the difference between traditional and matched grip.[12] Within a year, she could play in complex time signatures, such as the 5
in Dave Brubeck's "Take Five".[13]

Carpenter was initially nervous about performing in public, but said she "was too involved in the music to worry about it".[14] She graduated from Downey High School in the spring of 1967, receiving the John Philip Sousa Band Award, and enrolled as a music major at Long Beach State, performing in the college choir with Richard. The choir's director, Frank Pooler, said that Karen had a good voice that was particularly suited to pop, and gave her lessons in order for her to develop a three-octave range.[15][16]


The Carpenters[edit]

Drumming on stage

Carpenter's first band was Two Plus Two, an all-girl trio formed with two friends from Downey High. They split up after she suggested her brother Richard join the group.[17] In 1965, Karen, Richard, and his college friend Wes Jacobs, a bassist and tuba player, formed the Richard Carpenter Trio.[18] The band rehearsed daily and played jazz at numerous nightclubs and also appeared on the TV talent show Your All-American College Show.[10] Richard was immediately impressed with his sister's musical talent, saying she would "speedily maneuver the sticks as if she had been born in a drum factory".[19] She did not sing at this point; instead, singer Margaret Shanor guested on some numbers.[18] The trio signed a contract with RCA Records and recorded two instrumentals, but they were not released.[19]

In April 1966, the Carpenters were invited to audition at a session with bassist Joe Osborn, well known for being part of the studio collective The Wrecking Crew. Though she was initially expected to just be the drummer, Karen tried singing, and impressed everyone there with her distinctive voice.[20] Osborn signed a recording contract with her for his label, Magic Lamp Records; he was not particularly interested in Richard's involvement.[21]

In 1967, Jacobs left the trio to study at the Juilliard School, and the Carpenter siblings were keen to try out other musical styles.[11] Along with other musicians, including Gary Sims and John Bettis, the siblings formed the group Spectrum, which focused on a harmonious vocal sound and recorded many demo tapes in Osborn's garage studio, working out how to overdub voices onto multitrack tape. Many of those tapes were rejected by record companies.[22][23] The group found difficulty attracting a live following, as their sound was too dissimilar from the hard rock and psychedelic rock then popular in clubs.[24][a]

A&M Records finally signed the Carpenters to a recording contract in 1969.[26] Karen sang most of the songs on the band's first album, Offering (later retitled Ticket to Ride), and her brother wrote 10 out of the album's 13 songs and sang 5 of them while the opening and concluding tracks were sung by both siblings in unison. As well as drumming, she played bass guitar on two songs, "All of My Life" and "Eve", under Osborn's guidance.[27][b] On "All I Can Do", she played in 5/4 time, while "Your Wonderful Parade" featured multiple snare and bass drum overdubs to emulate the sound of a marching band.[13] The issued single (later the title track), which was a cover of a Beatles song, became their first single; it reached #54 on the Billboard Hot 100.[29] Their next album, 1970's Close to You, featured two hit singles: "(They Long to Be) Close to You" and "We've Only Just Begun". They peaked at #1 and #2, respectively, on the Hot 100.[30]

Carpenter started out as both the group's drummer and lead singer, and she originally sang all her vocals from behind the drum set. Because she was just 5 feet 4 inches (1.63 m) tall, it was difficult for people in the audience to see her behind her kit.[31] After reviews complained the group had no focal point in live shows, Richard and manager Sherwin Bash persuaded her to stand at the microphone to sing the band's hits, while another musician played the drums (former Disney Mouseketeer Cubby O'Brien served as the band's other drummer for many years).[32][31] She initially struggled in live performances singing solo, as she felt more secure behind a drum kit.[33] After the release of Now & Then in 1973, the albums tended to have Carpenter singing more and drumming less, and she became the focal point of all records and live performances; Bash later said "she was the one that people watched".[34] Starting in Carpenters' 1976 concert tour and continuing thereafter, she would perform a showcase where she moved around the stage playing various configurations of drums.[35] Her studio performances benefited from close miking that captured the nuances of her voice well. Though she had a three-octave range, many of the duo's hits prominently feature her contralto singing, leading her to quip, "The money’s in the basement".[32][35]

Promotional shot, 1973

Carpenter always considered herself a "drummer who sang".[36] She preferred Ludwig Drums, including the Ludwig SuperSensitive snare drum, which she favored greatly.[37] Despite this, she did not drum on every Carpenters' track. She was the only drummer on Ticket to Ride and on Now & Then except for "Jambalaya".[13][36] According to Hal Blaine, Karen played on most of the album cuts[32] and he played on most of the Carpenters' studio sessions where she did not play drums herself.[38] Though she was a competent drummer, the duo were happy for Blaine to take the role in the studio as he was a respected session musician and it was easier to record Carpenter's guide vocal without it spilling onto the drum mics.[32] On Made in America, Karen provided percussion on "Those Good Old Dreams" in tandem with Paulinho da Costa and made a final return to playing drums on the song "When it's Gone (It's Just Gone)" in unison with Larrie Londin.[39]

In the mid-1970s, Richard developed an addiction to Quaaludes. The Carpenters frequently cancelled tour dates, and they stopped touring altogether after their September 4, 1978, concert at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. In 1980, she performed a medley of standards in a duet with Ella Fitzgerald on the Carpenters' television program Music, Music, Music.[40] In 1981, after the release of Made in America album (which turned out to be their last), the Carpenters returned to the stage and did some promotional tours, including an appearance for the BBC programme Nationwide.[41][42]

"Now" was the last song Carpenter recorded in April 1982. The session took place during a two-week break in her anorexia therapy with psychotherapist Steven Levenkron in New York City. Though Richard was concerned about her health, he still thought her voice sounded as good as ever.[43][44]


Carpenter released her first solo record, "Looking For Love" / "I'll Be Yours" in 1967 on Osborn's Magic Lamp label. Only 500 copies were pressed, and the label folded shortly afterwards.[45]

In 1979, while Richard took a year off to treat his addiction to Quaaludes, Karen decided to make a solo album with producer Phil Ramone.[46] These sessions produced music that was different from the usual Carpenters material, tending more towards disco and up-tempo numbers, with more explicit lyrics and taking full advantage of Karen's upper vocal register. The album met with a tepid response from Richard and A&M executives in early 1980. The album was shelved by A&M Records co-owner Herb Alpert, in spite of attempts by producer Quincy Jones to convince him to release the record after a remix.[47] A&M subsequently charged the Carpenters $400,000 to cover the cost of recording this album, to be paid out of the duo's future royalties.[48] A portion of the solo album was commercially released in 1989, when some of its tracks (as remixed by Richard) were included on the album Lovelines, the final album of Carpenters' unreleased new material. In 1996, the complete album, titled Karen Carpenter, was finally released.[49][50]

Personal life[edit]

Carpenter had a complicated relationship with her parents. They had hoped that Richard's musical talents would be recognized and that he would enter the music business, but were not prepared for her success.[21] She continued to live with them until 1974.[51] In September and October 1971, two years after their debut album, she and her brother bought two apartment buildings in Downey as a financial investment.[52][53][54] In 1976, Carpenter bought two Century City apartments which she combined into one; the doorbell chimed the opening notes of "We've Only Just Begun".[55] She collected Disney memorabilia and liked to play softball and baseball.[7][56] Petula Clark, Olivia Newton-John and Dionne Warwick were close friends.[57][56][58] While she was enjoying success as a woman drummer in what was primarily an all-male occupation, Carpenter was not supportive of the Women's liberation movement, saying she believed a wife should cook for her husband and that when married, this was what she planned to do.[59]

In early interviews, Carpenter showed no interest in marriage or dating, believing that a relationship would not survive constant touring, adding "as long as we're on the road most of the time, I will never marry".[60] In 1976, she said the music business made it hard to meet people and that she refused to just marry someone for the sake of it.[61] Carpenter admitted to Olivia Newton-John that she longed for a happy marriage and family.[62] She later dated several notable men, including Mike Curb, Tony Danza, Terry Ellis, Mark Harmon, Steve Martin and Alan Osmond.[47] After a whirlwind romance, she married real-estate developer Thomas James Burris on August 31, 1980, in the Crystal Room of the Beverly Hills Hotel. Burris, divorced with an 18-year-old son, was nine years her senior. A new song performed by Carpenter at the ceremony, "Because We Are in Love", was released in 1981. The couple settled in Newport Beach.[63]

Carpenter desperately wanted children, but Burris had undergone a vasectomy and refused to get an operation to reverse it. Their marriage did not survive this and ended after 14 months.[64][65] Burris was living beyond his means, borrowing up to $35,000 and $50,000 (US$134,810 in 2017 dollars[66]) at a time from his wife, to the point that she had only stocks and bonds left. Carpenter's friends also reported he was abusive towards her, often being impatient; they added that she remained fearful when he would occasionally lose his temper.[64] Close friend Karen Kamon recounted one incident where she and Carpenter went to their normal hangout, Hamburger Hamlet, and Carpenter appeared to be distant emotionally, sitting not at their regular table but in the dark, and wearing large dark sunglasses, unable to eat and crying. According to Kamon, the marriage was "the straw that broke the camel's back. It was absolutely the worst thing that could have ever happened to her".[67]

In September 1981, Carpenter revised her will and left her marital home and its contents to Burris, but left everything else to her brother and parents, including her fortune estimated at 5 or $10 million (US$26,961,933 in 2017 dollars[66]).[67] Two months later, following an argument after a family dinner in a restaurant, Carpenter and Burris broke up.[68] Carpenter filed for divorce on October 28, 1982, while staying in Lenox Hill Hospital.[69]

Illness and death[edit]

Carpenter began dieting while in high school. Under a doctor's guidance, she began the Stillman Diet, eating lean foods, drinking eight glasses of water a day, and avoiding fatty foods. She was 5 feet 4 inches (1.63 m) in height and before dieting weighed 145 pounds (66 kg; 10 st 5 lb) and afterwards weighed 120 pounds (54 kg; 8 st 8 lb) until 1973, when the Carpenters' career reached its peak.[70] In 1973, she happened to see a photo of herself taken at a concert which made her appear heavy. Carpenter hired a personal trainer who advised her to eat a high carbohydrate, low calorie diet. The new diet caused her to build muscle, which made her seem heavier instead of slimmer. Carpenter fired the trainer and began her own weight loss program using exercise equipment and counting calories. She lost about 20 pounds (9.1 kg; 1 st 6 lb); she then weighed about 110 pounds (50 kg; 7 st 12 lb) and intended to lose five more pounds. Her eating habits also changed around this time, with Carpenter trying to get the food off her plate by offering it to others at the meal as a taste.[71]

By September 1975, her weight was 91 pounds (41 kg; 6 st 7 lb).[72] At live performances fans reacted audibly to her gaunt appearance and many wrote to the pair to inquire what was wrong.[44] She refused to publicly declare she was in ill health; on her 1981 Nationwide appearance, she simply said she was "pooped".[73] Richard later stated that he and his parents did not know how to help Karen; in 1981, she told Richard there was a problem and she needed help with it.[44] Carpenter also spoke with Cherry Boone, who had recovered from anorexia and contacted Boone's doctor for help. She was hoping to find a quick solution to her problem, as she had various performing and recording obligations, but the doctor told her treatment could take from one to three years.[74] She then chose to be treated in New York City by psychotherapist Steven Levenkron.[75][44]

Anorexia had driven her to use thyroid replacement medication, increasing her metabolism, and laxatives, which caused food to pass quickly through her digestive tract. Despite Levenkron's treatment, her condition continued to deteriorate and she lost more weight. Carpenter told Levenkron that she felt dizzy and that her heart was beating irregularly. Finally, in September 1982, she was admitted to Lenox Hill Hospital in New York, where she was placed on intravenous parenteral nutrition. The procedure was a success, and she gained 30 pounds (14 kg; 2 st 2 lb) in a relatively short time, but the sudden weight gain put a strain on her heart, which was already weak from years of improper diet.[76]

Carpenter returned to California in November 1982, determined to reinvigorate her career, finalize her divorce and begin a new album with Richard.[76] On December 17, 1982, she gave her last singing performance in the multi-purpose room of the Buckley School in Sherman Oaks, California, singing Christmas carols for her godchildren, their classmates and other friends.[77] On January 11, 1983, Karen made her last public appearance at a gathering of past Grammy Award winners, who were commemorating the show's 25th anniversary.[78][79] She seemed somewhat frail and worn out, but according to Dionne Warwick, Karen was vibrant and outgoing, exclaiming to everyone, "Look at me! I've got an ass!"[78] She had also begun to write songs after returning to California and told Warwick she had "a lot of living left to do".[74]

On February 1, 1983, Carpenter saw her brother for the last time, where they discussed new plans for the Carpenters and resuming touring.[c] A few days later, on February 4, Carpenter was scheduled to sign papers making her divorce official. Shortly after waking up, she collapsed in her bedroom at her parents' home in Downey. Paramedics found her heart beating once every 10 seconds.[80] She was pronounced dead at Downey Community Hospital at 9:51 a.m.[81][82]

Carpenter's funeral was held on February 8, 1983, at Downey United Methodist Church. Approximately one thousand mourners attended, including her friends Dorothy Hamill,[83] Olivia Newton-John, Petula Clark[84] and Dionne Warwick.[85][86] Thomas Burris also attended, and threw his wedding ring into her casket.[47] Carpenter was buried at the Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Cypress, California.[85] In 2003 her body was moved, to be placed with her parents in a mausoleum at the Pierce Brothers Valley Oaks Memorial Park in Westlake Village, California.[87]

An autopsy released on March 11, 1983, ruled out drug or medication overdose,[88] attributing death to "emetine cardiotoxicity due to or as a consequence of anorexia nervosa".[76] She was discovered to have a blood sugar level of 1,110 milligrams per decilitre, more than ten times the average.[89] Two years later, the coroner told colleagues that Carpenter's heart failure was caused by repeated use of ipecac syrup, an over-the-counter emetic often used to induce vomiting in cases of overdosing or poisoning.[76][d] This was disputed by Levenkron, who said he had never seen her using ipecac, or seen evidence she had been vomiting.[91] Carpenter's friends were convinced that she had been abusing laxatives and thyroid medication to maintain her low body weight, which had started shortly after her marriage began to collapse.[75]


"This is a sad day, but at the same time a very special and beautiful day to my family and me. My only regret is that Karen is not physically here to share it with us, but I know that she is very much alive in our minds, and in our hearts".

Richard Carpenter speaking at the Hollywood Walk of Fame, 1983[92]

The Carpenters' star at the Hollywood Walk of Fame

Carpenter's singing has attracted critical praise and influenced several significant musicians and singers, including Madonna, Sheryl Crow, Pat Metheny, Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon, Shania Twain, Natalie Imbruglia, and k.d. lang.[32][93][94] Paul McCartney has said she had "the best female voice in the world: melodic, tuneful and distinctive".[65] She has been called "one of the greatest voices of our lifetime" by Elton John.[1] Her drumming has been praised by fellow musicians Hal Blaine, Cubby O'Brien and Buddy Rich[95] and by Modern Drummer magazine. In 1975, she was voted the best rock drummer in a poll of Playboy readers, beating Led Zeppelin's John Bonham.[32] Sheila E., Debbi Peterson and Kelley Deal are among the female drummers that cited Carpenter as an inspiration at an early age to becoming musicians.[94]

On October 12, 1983, shortly after her death, the Carpenters received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.[96][92] In 1999, VH1 ranked Carpenter at #29 on its list of the 100 Greatest Women of Rock and Roll.[97] In 2010, Rolling Stone ranked Carpenter number 94 on its list of the 100 Greatest Singers of All Time, calling her voice "impossibly lush and almost shockingly intimate", adding "even the sappiest songs sound like she was staring directly into your eyes",[1]

Carpenter's death brought media attention to conditions such as anorexia nervosa.[98] Her family started the Karen A. Carpenter Memorial Foundation, which raised money for research on anorexia nervosa and eating disorders.[99]

Carpenter is known to fans as "Lead Sister". This originated from a mispronunciation of "lead singer" by a Japanese journalist in 1974, and she later wore a T-shirt with the nickname during live shows.[100]


The 43-minute film Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1987) was directed by Todd Haynes, and featured Barbie dolls as the characters. It was withdrawn from circulation in 1990, after Haynes lost a copyright infringement lawsuit filed by Richard.[101][102][103] The film's title is derived from The Carpenters' 1971 hit song, "Superstar". Over the years, it has developed into a cult film and is included in Entertainment Weekly's 2003 list of top 50 cult movies.[104]

On January 1, 1989, the similarly titled made-for-TV movie The Karen Carpenter Story aired on CBS with Cynthia Gibb in the title role. Gibb lip-synced the songs to Carpenter's recorded voice, with the exception of "The End of the World." Both films use the song "This Masquerade" in the background while showing Carpenter's marriage to Burris.[105][106] The movie helped reverse criticism of the Carpenters' music as being "soft" or "nice".[107][108]

Richard Carpenter helped in the productions of the documentaries Close to You: Remembering The Carpenters (1997)[109] and Only Yesterday: The Carpenters Story (2007).[110] Randy Schmidt wrote a biography about Carpenter entitled Little Girl Blue, published in 2010, which included a foreword from Warwick.[111] It avoided previous biographies which had been officially endorsed by the family, and was based on interviews with other friends and associates. The New York Times said the book was "one of the saddest tales in pop."[112]


Studio albums[edit]

Posthumous albums[edit]

Solo albums[edit]



  1. ^ The tapes of the original sessions were lost in a fire at Joe Osborn's house and the surviving versions of those early songs exist only as fragile acetate reference discs.[25]
  2. ^ Although Karen's bass playing is heard on the original album, Richard remixed both songs (as he has done with almost every Carpenters song), and Joe Osborn's bass playing was substituted on later "greatest hits" releases.[27][28]
  3. ^ Richard spoke to his sister the day before her death. Karen called him to ask his opinion about a new videocassette player she planned on buying. He described her as sounding "absolutely fine".[44]
  4. ^ Ipecac syrup production was discontinued in the United States in 2010.[90]


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  • Coleman, Ray (1994). The Carpenters: The Untold Story. An Authorized Biography. HarperCollins. ISBN 978-0-060-92586-4.
  • Hilderbrand, Lucas (2004). "Grainy Days and Mondays:Superstar and Bootleg Aesthetics". Camera Obscura. Duke University press. 19 (3). ISSN 0270-5346 – via Project MUSE. (Subscription required (help)).
  • Petrucelli, Alan W. (2009). Morbid Curiosity: The Disturbing Demises of the Famous and Infamous. Penguin. ISBN 978-1-1011-4049-9.
  • Schmidt, Randy (2010). Little Girl Blue: The Life of Karen Carpenter. ISBN 978-1-556-52976-4.
  • Schmidt, Randy (2012). Yesterday Once More: The Carpenters Reader. Chicago Review Press. ISBN 978-1-613-74417-8.
  • Stanton, Scott (2003). The Tombstone Tourist: Musicians. Simon and Schuster. ISBN 978-0-743-46330-0.

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