Karen and Richard Carpenter, also known as The Carpenters, were the soundtrack of most of our lives throughout the ‘70s. They produced a distinctive, soft musical style, combining Karen’s beautiful alto vocals with Richard’s harmonizing, arranging and composition skills. During their 14-year career, the Carpenters recorded ten albums, along with numerous singles and several television specials.
Born in New Haven, CT, the family moved to Downey, California in 1963 to further Richard’s musical education, and broaden their horizons. While Richard excelled on piano, Karen discovered she had a knack for the drums, and took up drumming that same year. In 1965, she and Richard formed The Richard Carpenter Trio, along with good friend Wesley Jacobs. Interestingly, neither Karen or Richard sang originally, instead, they used guest vocalists until Karen became more confident in her singing abilities. She took vocal lessons with Frank Pooler, who later said, “Karen was a born pop singer.”
The first label they were signed to early on folded soon after they signed, and both would graduate high school and go on to college, studying music. While at Long Beach State, they performed around Los Angeles, even opening for Steppenwolf under the name Spectrum at the Whiskey in 1967. After Spectrum disbanded, the siblings found it harder to get paying gigs as their music wasn’t considered “danceable” by rock and roll standards. Finally, they honed it down to a duo, first as The Carpenters, later dropping the THE, and were signed by A&M Records in 1969. A&M. Label owner Herb Alpert was intrigued by Karen’s voice, later saying “It touched me … I felt like it was time.”
Their first album, entitled Offering, was released in October 1969 to positive critical reception; a review in Billboard said, “With radio programming support, Carpenters should have a big hit on their hands.” Included on that first album was the Beatles Ticket to Ride, rearranged by Richard into a melancholy ballad, and released as the first single. However, the popular response was rather tepid, but A&M retained the duo, encouraging them to write and release a new album. By then, they had met up with Burt Bacharach, who allowed the duo to record Close to You. Richard Carpenter decided the song would work as a standalone piece and wrote an arrangement from scratch without being influenced by any earlier recordings. The song would become Carpenter’s first hit, truly launching their careers.
The duo went on to record numerous hit singles such as For All We Know, Rainy Days and Mondays, Superstar, and the much loved classic Merry Christmas Darling. They even appeared in several of their own specials such as The Carpenters: Holiday Portrait. But by this time, Karen was no longer playing drums full time.
By the end of the 70s, a few vices crept in to tarnish that “squeaky clean image.” Richard became severely addicted to Quaaludes, finally going into treatment in 1979. Meanwhile, Karen was quietly, secretly battling with anorexia and bulimia, a disease that would eventually take her life. While Richard took the year off to recover, Karen became progressively worse, and finally sought help in 1982 in NYC. But by this time, lasting damage had been done to the frail singer. Her vocals suffered, and she had frequent heart palpitations. The fact that she was also undergoing a divorce undoubtedly didn’t help her frame of mind either. In 1983, her mother found her lying on the floor, unresponsive, and Karen rushed to the hospital. She was pronounced dead soon after arriving at the hospital. Her autopsy stated that her death was caused by “heart failure, ad emetine cardiotoxicity due to or as a consequence of anorexia nervosa.” Originally interred in Forest-Lawn Cypress Cemetery in Cypress, California, her remains were moved to a new location in the Pierce Brothers Valley Oaks Memorial Park, Westlake Village CA in late 2003.
To honor his sister, Richard would continue to produce and release their unreleased work posthumously through the remainder of the 80s. Richard married in 1984, and raised 4 children, still residing in Thousand Oaks, CA.
I have always thought Karen Carpenter had one of the purest voices I ever heard. She has even been called “one of the greatest female vocalists of all time” by Rolling Stone. I agree with this honor wholeheartedly. She had the voice of an angel, and sadly, became one long before her time.
Tami Danielson is the main in-house blogger and Director of Operations for Pop-Daze. She was raised in California and Florida and currently resides in Oregon. Tami has written for a variety of periodicals and has provided digital marketing services for a number of artists. She can be reached at [email protected]