Karen Anne Carpenter and her brother, Richard, formed the 1970s duo named the Carpenters. Karen was a skillful drummer, but is best remembered for her vocal performances. Unfortunately, she suffered from anorexia nervosa, a little known disease at the time, and died at the age of 32 from heart failure, later attributed to complications related to her illness.
The Carpenters 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 units.
While Richard had an interest in music from a very early age Karen initially showed no musical inclinations other than listening to records. She was barely into her teens when in 1963 the whole family moved to the Los Angeles suburb of Downey.
By late 1964, Karen’s musical talent was awakening. Now a first-year student at Downey High School and playing glockenspiel in the marching band, she was inspired by the drumming ability of fellow band member. She went home and started adding her own rhythm accompaniments to some of her records, using a pair of chopsticks and a set of bar stools as her drum kit. When her parents responded by buying her a proper drum set, she learned to play very quickly.
Karen was just 15 when the Carpenter Trio was formed. The brother and sister teamed up with a classmate Richard had met in June of 1965, tuba and bass player Wes Jacobs, to play jazz.
At Richard’s urging, Karen would sing an occasional selection but primarily the trio was an instrumental outfit, as Karen’s distinctive singing voice was just developing and she was not very happy with the sound. By early 1966, however, Karen’s voice had matured quite a bit.
Through a classmate, an audition for Karen and Richard had been scheduled with West Coast studio electric bassist Joe Osborn. Osborn and a partner had recently launched a record label, Magic Lamp, and were on a search for new talent.
In May of 1966, Harold and Agnes Carpenter signed a contract for Karen with the fledgling label. From several songs cut, two written by Richard but named as Karen Carpenter solo records, were issued as a single, "Looking For Love" and "I’ll Be Yours." Neither sold well. However, The Richard Carpenter Trio won the prestigious amateur talent contest "The Battle of the Bands" at the Hollywood Bowl on June 24, 1966.
Before long the trio split up and both Carpenters returned to their studies. Their first experience of working together professionally was less successful, however. They both took a job at Coke Corner on Disneyland’s Main Street U.S.A. There, routinely deviating from the selections of turn-of-the-century tunes they were asked to perform, the pair were fired after four months.
During this period the Carpenters formed another musical outfit with Richard and John Bettis writing the bulk of the group’s repertoire and Richard crafting the arrangements. They called themselves Spectrum. The band was short-lived, and Richard and Karen were soon on their own once more.
It was during this time that Karen saw a doctor about her weight. From her early years she had been chubby and went on the Stillman diet. She lost twenty-five pounds in six months in 1967 – and stayed at her new weight of around 120 pounds from then until 1973.
In mid 1968, they returned to Joe Osbourne's studio and recorded three new tracks. Pleased with their sound, they settled on a new name simply the "Carpenters," and looked for the right songs.
in April 1969 A&M Records signed the Carpenters to a recording contract. Karen Carpenter sang most of the songs on the band's first album, Offering (later retitled Ticket to Ride). The first single - which became the title track - became their first single. It reached #54 on the Billboard Hot 100 Charts. Their next album, 1970's Close to You, featured two massive 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.
Karen Carpenter started out as both the group's drummer and lead singer, and she originally sang all her vocals from behind the drum set. Eventually, she was persuaded to stand at the microphone to sing the band's hits while another musician played the drums, although she still did some drumming. (Former Disney Mouseketeer Cubby O'Brien served as the band's other drummer for many years.
After the release of Now & Then in 1973, the albums tended to have Karen focusing even more on her singing. Karen rarely selected the songs she would sing, and often felt she had very little control over her life. She dieted obsessively and developed anorexia nervosa. At the same time, her brother Richard developed an addiction to Quaaludes. The Carpenters frequently canceled tour dates, and they stopped touring altogether after their September 4, 1978 concert at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas.
In 1981, after the release of the Made in America album (which turned out to be their last) the Carpenters returned to the stage and did some tour dates, including their final live performance in Brazil.
In 1979, Karen made a solo album with producer Phil Ramone. Her solo work was markedly different, consisting of adult-orientated and disco/dance-tempo material with more sexual lyrics and the use of Karen's higher vocal register. The album was shelved. It wasn't until seven years later, in 1996, the entire album, featuring mixes approved by Karen before her death and one unmixed bonus track, was finally released.
The song "Now," recorded in April 1982, was the last song Karen Carpenter recorded. She recorded it after a two-week intermission in her therapy with a psychotherapist in New York City for her anorexia. The sight of Karen upon her return to California in April shook Richard and his parents.
In September 1982, Karen called her psychotherapist to tell him she felt dizzy and that her heart was beating irregularly. Karen was admitted to Lenox Hill Hospital in New York.
Karen returned to California in November 1982, determined to reinvigorate her career. She had gained 30 pounds over a two-month stay in New York, and the sudden weight gain further strained her heart, which was already weak from years of crash dieting.
During her illness, Karen also took thyroid replacement medication (in order to speed up her metabolism) and laxatives. On December 17, 1982, Karen made her final public appearance in the "multi-purpose" room of the Buckley School in Sherman Oaks, California singing for her godchildren and their classmates who attended the school. She sang Christmas carols for friends.
On February 4, 1983, less than a month before her 33rd birthday, Karen suffered heart failure at her parents' home in Downey, California.