The Carpenters are a pop duo from Downey, a suburb of Los Angeles, California. The family moved from New Haven, Connecticut to Downey in 1963. A year later, piano and keyboard player Richard Carpenter enrolled at California State College at Long Beach to study music, while his younger sister Karen started at Downey High School. Karen developed an interest in drums, and quickly became proficient. Richard and Karen started playing together in their own jazz trio, and then as a sextet with fellow Long Beach college students at local Los Angeles clubs, including the famed Whisky a Go Go. Recording sessions at RCA Records and the short-lived Magic Lamp Records failed to yield a hit song. By 1967, both Richard and friends were encouraging Karen to sing. In 1969, they were signed to A&M Records by label founder, trumpet player Herb Alpert. The duo was given as much studio time as they wished to work on their music.
Fame and Tragedy
Their first album, initially called Offering, received little attention, though the chosen hit song, a cover of the Beatles’ “Ticket To Ride”, made a small dent in the pop charts. Their second album was a commercial triumph; Close To You featured two songs, “(They Long To Be) Close To You” and “We’ve Only Just Begun”, destined to become pop standards. The Carpenters garnered eight Grammy nominations, including wins for best contemporary vocal and best new artist. Over the next several years, they were a ubiquitous presence on popular and adult radio stations, a soft pop sound featuring Richard’s keyboards and orchestral arrangements, and Karen’s deep and beautiful singing.
The Carpenters traveled extensively, averaging over 150 shows per year until 1975, when problems began to surface. In 1975, Karen collapsed on stage during a show, and her obsessive dieting and low weight became a serious concern. Over forty shows were canceled so she could rest. Richard developed an addiction to Quaaludes, a sedative-hypnotic drug, and by 1978 the group quit performing in concert. Richard entered a rehabilitation clinic in 1979, kicked his addiction and decided to take a year off. Though their star had faded considerably by the late seventies, they were still busy recording as time and health would permit. Karen’s problems with diet and body image continued unabated until 1982, when she sought psychiatric assistance for her eating disorder. By late 1982 it became frightening; she suffered bouts of dizziness and an irregular heartbeat. She was admitted to a New York City hospital, which administered intravenous feeding to increase her body weight. Despite the objections of her family and friends, Karen left the hospital eight weeks later to return home to California.
On February 4th, 1983, Karen Carpenter died from heart failure as a direct result of anorexia nervosa.
A Look At The Carpenters
These three videos capture the essence of the band. First, and most important, is this BBC concert performance from 1971:
Karen Carpenter was an unabashed Disney girl, and collected Walt Disney memorabilia. She and Richard possesses a wide eyed innocence not uncommon among my generation of native Californians. In 1973, they turned a Sesame Street song into a top ten hit.
Sing, sing a song,
Make it simple,
To last your whole life long.
Don’t worry if it’s not good enough,
For anyone else to hear,
just sing, sing a song.”
— “Sing”, by Joe Raposo
As Karen Carpenter grew more popular as a singer, she spent less time behind the drums, and more time singing out front. According to Richard, she considered herself a drummer who also sings. Later in their career they would feature Karen as a drummer for a few minutes. Drumming sets her free; you can see the joy and the playfulness, perhaps an antidote to her earnest singing. Over her career, several accomplished and famous drummers praised her ability.
The Family’s Sad Story
The Wikipedia biography, plus these recommended articles, are an excellent summary of the Carpenters’ struggles during their years of fame and glory.
“Karen Carpenter: All She Needed Was Love”, by Joel Samberg, The Downey Patriot, 2013
“Karen Carpenter’s Tragic Story”, by Randy Schmidt, The Guardian, October 23, 2010
“Sorrow In Her Voice”, by James Gavin, New York Times, August 6, 2010
“(In 1982, eating disorder specialist Dr. Steven) Levenkron suggested to the family that Karen was in need of a more tactile, demonstrative kind of love. Karen cried uncontrollably during the meeting. She told them how sorry she was for having put them in a situation where they felt a need to defend her upbringing, and she went so far as to apologize for ruining their lives. “I think Karen really needs to hear that you love her,” Levenkron told the family.
“Well, of course I love you,” Richard told her unreservedly.
“Agnes?” The therapist tapped the mother’s shoe with his own. Rather than address her daughter, Agnes explained how she preferred to be called Mrs. Carpenter. “Well, I’m from the north,” she continued. “And we just don’t do things that way.”
— excerpt from “Little Girl Blue: The Life of Karen Carpenter”, by Randy L. Schmidt
Growing up in California, I knew people like the Carpenter family, straight-laced folks who grew up during the Great Depression and moved to California in search of a better life. In the fifties and sixties, values and culture were influenced by happy portrayals of family life on television, shows like “Leave It To Beaver” and “Father Knows Best”. Perhaps no other place embraced this portrayal of pristine American life more than the Hollywood home of these fantasies. Hard working families, whose parents survived difficult circumstances to achieve better lives with eight-to-five jobs, houses with white picket fences, and weekend backyard barbecues. Men wore white collared shirts, and women wore dresses most days while taking care of the home. With this lifestyle came a conviction that this is how things should be, and a limited understanding of anything that deviated from the norm. This dynamic is well explored in the movie Pleasantville:
It’s not that the Carpenter family didn’t love their children, or that the family struggled with fame. Nobody could be prepared for that. It’s dangerous to speculate, but people of “the greatest generation” neither complained nor analyzed problems near as much as people do today. Agnes Carpenter seems to have lacked the ability to see herself and her actions clearly. Like many stage parents, she was controlling and deeply involved in her children’s career. She doted upon her eldest son Richard, and never understood that Karen was just as talented. In addition, she can’t comprehend her preferential treatment. She assumed the love and support she gave were sufficient. As the recommended articles show, the problems are more complex, but it seems obvious in retrospect that Karen felt unloved and unappreciated, which makes her story and music so sad and compelling.
I was entering my teenage years when the Carpenters were a fixture on AM radio. They were very uncool among my little universe of friends. Nobody bought their records, though most of us, if pressed, could sing along to their hit songs. I never gave them a second thought, and never listened without prejudice, until Karen died of anorexia. Her self-destructive behavior conferred a sense of credibility to her deep and melancholy voice. I rarely listen to their music, but my appreciation for Richard and Karen Carpenter has grown. It is quiet, pretty music, and in particular, “We’ve Only Just Begun” is a classic.
I’m not alone in my prejudice. Rolling Stone Magazine changed their minds about Carpenters music, too. My first Rolling Stone Record Guide gives the album Close To You (and almost every Carpenters album) zero stars, a rating of “Worthless: records that need never have been created”, and called their music “bubbly and bland”, which to be fair, is what most rock and roll fans thought at the time. Over the years, negative opinions moderated, and album ratings were readjusted upwards, and by 2003, the magazine ranked the album 175th among the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.
Amazon.com Link to “The New Rolling Stone Record Guide”, by Rolling Stone Press (available for $0.01 used)
Sometimes an artist deserves and earns posthumous respectability. My appreciation for Karen Carpenter began when I realized she was a bit crazy. That same person who sang so clean and accurate was driven to seek perfection in her appearance, but her self-image got distorted along the way. Crazy genius makes the world go around. Sane people reap the benefits.
The pendulum on self-analysis has swung too far. The current tendency is to overanalyze the human condition, and diagnose dysfunction as some discrete problem, to be solved by a simple prescription of one sort or another. It is a testament to modern prosperity that so much effort can be given to psychological dysfunction. This will change.
Pictures of a young Karen Carpenter look similar to pictures of my wife when she was young. They grew up in the same place and time, and wore the same styles of hair and clothing. Good girls with parents who stayed together and loved each other, from nice towns when less was demanded from life. Recently, my wife and I spoke about her youth, and she resented my suggestion that the place she came from was so “square” and conventional. I don’t think she sees the underlying envy in my comment.
In Coleman’s The Carpenters: The Untold Story, Richard stressed repeatedly how much he disliked the A&M executives for making their image “squeaky-clean”, and the critics for criticizing them for their image rather than their music.
“I got upset when this whole “squeaky clean” thing was tagged on to us. I never thought about standing for anything! They (the critics) took “Close to You” and said: “Aha, you see that number one? That’s for the people who believe in apple pie! That’s for people who believe in the American flag! That’s for the average middle-American person and his station wagon! The Carpenters stand for that, and I’m taking them to my bosom!” And boom, we got tagged with that label.”
— Richard Carpenter
We’ve Only Just Begun, The Carpenters ★★★★
Superstar, The Carpenters ★★★
Rainy Days And Mondays, The Carpenters ★★
Top Of The World, The Carpenters ★★
Yesterday Once More, The Carpenters ★★
It’s Going To Take Some Time, The Carpenters ★★
Merry Christmas Darling, The Carpenters ★★
Road Ode, The Carpenters ★★
Crescent Noon, The Carpenters ★★
Sing, The Carpenters ★
(They Long To Be) Close To You, The Carpenters ★
For All We Know, The Carpenters ★
Goodbye To Love, The Carpenters ★
I Won’t Last A Day Without You, The Carpenters ★
Someday, The Carpenters ★
All I Can Do, The Carpenters ★
Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas, The Carpenters ★
It’s Going To Take Some Time, Carole King ★★
Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas, Frank Sinatra ★★