The Carpenters were a vocal and instrumental duo, consisting of siblings Karen and Richard Carpenter. The Carpenters were the #1 selling American music act of the 1970s. Though often referred to by the public as “The Carpenters”, the duo’s official name on authorized recordings and press materials is simply “Carpenters”, without the definite article. During a period in the 1970s when louder and wilder rock was in great demand, Richard and Karen produced a distinctively soft musical style that made them among the best-selling music artists of all time.
The Carpenters’ melodic pop produced a record-breaking run of hit recordings on the American Top 40 and Adult Contemporary charts, and they became leading sellers in the soft rock, easy listening and adult contemporary genres. Carpenters had three #1 singles on the Billboard Hot 100 and fifteen #1 hits on the Adult Contemporary Chart (see the Carpenters discography). In addition, they had twelve top 10 singles (including their #1 hits). To date, Carpenters’ album and single sales total more than 100 million units.
During their 14-year career, the Carpenters recorded 11 albums, five of which contained top 10 singles (Close to You, Carpenters, A Song for You, Now & Then and Horizon), thirty-one singles, five television specials, and one short-lived television series. They toured in the United States, the United Kingdom, Japan, Australia, the Netherlands and Belgium. Their recording career ended with Karen’s death in 1983 from cardiac arrest due to complications of anorexia nervosa. Extensive news coverage of the circumstances surrounding her death increased public awareness of the consequences of eating disorders.
The Carpenter siblings were both born in New Haven, Connecticut to parents Harold and Agnes. Richard Lynn was born on October 15, 1946, and Karen Anne followed on March 2, 1950. Richard was a quiet child who spent most of his time in the house listening to records and playing the piano. Karen, on the other hand, seemed to be friendly and outgoing; she liked to play sports, including softball with the neighborhood kids, but she also spent a lot of time listening to music.
In June 1963, the Carpenter family moved to the Los Angeles suburb of Downey, California. In the fall of 1964, Richard enrolled at Long Beach State, now known as California State University, Long Beach, where he met future songwriting partner John Bettis, with whom he would write classics like “Top of the World“, “Goodbye to Love“, and “Only Yesterday“; Wesley Jacobs, a friend who played the bass and tuba for the Richard Carpenter Trio; and Frank Pooler, with whom Richard would collaborate to create the Christmas standard “Merry Christmas Darling” in 1966.
That same fall, Karen enrolled at Downey High School, where she found a knack for playing the drums. When Karen joined the marching band, band teacher Bruce Gifford – who had taught Richard in 1963 – assigned Karen a glockenspiel, a quiet instrument that Karen highly disliked. In an interview, Karen stated:
I didn’t really like it (the glockenspiel) because it’s not a very convenient instrument to play, and it’s hard to carry…. It’s always a quarter-step sharp to the band, which used to drive me crazy!
Shortly after, though, friend and fellow band member Frankie Chavez inspired Carpenter to play the drums. Karen would often borrow Chavez’s drum kit when he taught her. “She and Frankie … must have worked down the rudiments, the cadences, and the press-rolls for hours”, recalls Richard. When Karen finally got a Ludwig drum kit from her parents in late 1964, she was able to play it professionally, in what Richard had described in their documentary, “Close to You: Remembering the Carpenters” as “exotic time signatures”.
By 1965, Karen had been practicing the drums for a year, and Richard was refining his piano techniques with teacher Frank Pooler. The two started a jazz trio in late 1965 with their friend Wes Jacobs, who played bass and tuba.
The Richard Carpenter Trio signed up for the annual Hollywood Bowl Battle of the Bands in mid-1966, where they played an instrumental version of “The Girl from Ipanema” and their own “Iced Tea”. The trio won the Battle of the Bands on June 24, 1966, and they were signed up by RCA Records. They recorded songs such as The Beatles‘ “Every Little Thing” and Frank Sinatra‘s “Strangers in the Night” for RCA. However, these recordings were never released (although some tracks were released decades later as part of a boxed set of Carpenters material.)
Karen joined John later in 1966 at a late-night session in the garage studio of Los Angeles bassist Joe Osborn, where Richard was to accompany an auditioning trumpet player. Asked to sing, Karen performed for Osborn, who was taken with her voice. Osborn’s fledgling label, Magic Lamp Records, signed Karen as a singer, and the label put out a single featuring two of Richard’s compositions, “Looking for Love” and “I’ll Be Yours.” The single was not a hit, and the label soon became defunct. However, Osborn let Karen and Richard continue to use his studio to record demo tapes until 1969, when they finally got an offer from A&M Records.
In 1967, Richard and Karen teamed up with four other student musicians from Long Beach State to form a band called “Spectrum”. The group often performed at the Whisky a Go Go. Spectrum member John Bettis worked with the Carpenters until Karen’s death in 1983, composing many songs with Richard.
In 1968, Spectrum disbanded, and the Richard Carpenter Trio’s Wes Jacobs left for the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Jacobs, who played both the bass and the tuba, would eventually become the symphony’s Principal Tubist in 1970. Richard and Karen received an offer to be on the television program, Your All American College Show in mid-1968. Their June 22, 1968 performance was Richard’s and Karen’s first television appearance.
Richard and Karen sent their demo tapes to many record labels until A&M Records‘ co-owner and trumpeter/vocalist Herb Alpert (who happened to be a friend of a friend of their mother’s) became attracted to their distinct sound. Alpert was Richard’s and Karen’s lucky break, and his decision would change their lives.
Richard and Karen Carpenter signed to A&M Records on April 22, 1969, under the name “Carpenters“. Karen was technically underage (she was 19 at the time), her parents had to co-sign for her. Richard and Karen had decided to sign as “Carpenters”, without the definite article. When Richard and Karen Carpenter signed to A&M Records, they were given carte blanche in the recording studio. Their debut album, entitled Offering released in 1969, featured a number of songs that Richard had written or co-written during their Spectrum period. However, the most significant track on the album was a ballad rendition of The Beatles hit “Ticket to Ride“, which soon became a minor hit for Carpenters, peaking at #54 on the Billboard Hot 100 and the Top 20 of the Adult Contemporary chart. In an effort to cash in on the success of that track, Offering was repackaged with a different cover under the name Ticket to Ride in 1970.
1971 “Close To You”
Despite the lukewarm chart performance of “Ticket to Ride”, Richard and Karen persevered and finally achieved success with the Burt Bacharach/Hal David song “(They Long To Be) Close To You“, which was released in 1970. It debuted at #56, the highest debut of the week ending June 20, 1970. It rose to #1 on July 25, 1970, and stayed on top of the Billboard Hot 100 for four weeks.
“Rainy Days And Mondays”
Shortly afterward, Richard had seen a television commercial for Crocker National Bank featuring a song entitled “We’ve Only Just Begun” written by Paul Williams and Roger Nichols. Richard realized the song’s hit potential when he heard it on television and three months after “(They Long To Be) Close To You” reached #1, Carpenters’ version of “We’ve Only Just Begun” reached #2 on the Billboard Hot 100. The song became the first hit single for Williams and Nichols and is considered by Richard Carpenter to be the group’s “signature” tune.”
“We’ve Only Just Begun”
“Close to You” and “We’ve Only Just Begun” became RIAA Certified Gold Singles and were featured on the best-selling album Close To You, which is placed #175 on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.
The duo rounded out the year with the holiday release of “Merry Christmas Darling“. The single scored high on the holiday charts in 1970 and made repeated appearances on the holiday charts in subsequent years. In 1978, feeling she could give a more mature treatment to the tune, Karen re-cut the vocal for their Christmas TV special and the song became a hit all over again.
A string of hit singles and albums kept Carpenters on the charts through the early 1970s. Their 1971 hit “For All We Know” was originally recorded for a wedding scene in the movie “Lovers and Other Strangers” in 1970 by Larry Meredith. Upon hearing it in the movie theatre, Richard realized its potential and subsequently recorded it in the autumn of 1970. The track became Carpenters’ third gold single.
The duo’s fourth gold single “Rainy Days and Mondays” became Williams’ and Nichols’ second major single with Carpenters, peaking at #2 on the Billboard Hot 100, kept from the top slot only because of Carole King’s “It’s Too Late”. According to Ray Coleman, “Rainy Days and Mondays” is arguably one of Carpenters’ most popular tracks.
“Hurting Each Other”
“Superstar” written by Delaney Bramlett and Leon Russell became another Carpenters classic and is acclaimed for Karen’s “haunting” vocals on the song. Richard modified the original lyric of “And I can hardly wait to sleep with you again,” to “And I can hardly wait to BE with you again.” The song is often described as “poignant“. The record became the duo’s third #2 single on the Billboard Hot 100. Their eponymous album, entitled Carpenters was released in 1971. It became one of their best-selling albums, earning RIAA certification for platinum four times. It won a Grammy Award for Carpenters, as well as three other nominations.
“Goodbye to Love” is the title to an unheard magnum opus in the 1940 Bing Crosby movie “Rhythm on the River“. Crosby played a songwriter trying to come up with a song called “Goodbye To Love.” Although the song’s title was mentioned several times in the movie, no such song ever existed. Richard Carpenter happened to see this movie on late-night television one night and decided that it was great title. He and Bettis wrote the song on a Learjet for his sister Karen to sing. The song was Carpenters’ third hit single in 1972, peaking at #7.
“Goodbye To Love”
“Goodbye to Love” starts off slowly with Karen singing softly a cappella, then builds up to an intense electric guitar solo in the middle. The second verse starts off calmly then builds up again to an blistering drum and electric guitar fade-out. The fuzz-guitar solo was played by lead guitarist Tony Peluso, who was called personally by Karen herself and asked to play on the song, thereby launching the genre which would come to be known as the Power Ballad. Peluso recalls that, at the time, he thought someone was playing a joke on him when a woman called and said she was Karen Carpenter. Peluso would ultimately be a part of Carpenters until their end in 1983.
“Top of the World” was the group’s biggest country hit. Lynn Anderson had heard the album cut version in 1972 and decided to record her own version. Anderson released her version in early 1973; Richard and Karen debated as to whether or not they should release their version on a single. Gil Friesen, an A&M co-worker, argued that they had released too many records from the A Song for You album already (Hurting Each Other, It’s Going to Take Some Time, Goodbye to Love, and later, I Won’t Last a Day Without You). Regardless, they released “Top of the World” as a single in May 1973 in response to the heavy public demand, and it became Carpenters’ second Billboard #1 hit, in December 1973.
“Ticket To Ride”
Their first compilation album was entitled The Singles: 1969-1973 and it topped the charts in the U.S. for one week, on 5 January 1974, and it also topped the United Kingdom chart and became one of the best-selling albums of the decade, ultimately selling more than 7 million copies in the U.S. alone. According to Ray Coleman, The Singles: 1969-1973 went to number one on February 9, 1974 and exited #1 sixteen weeks later, on June 1, 1974, because of Rick Wakeman’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth.
The Carpenters did not release a new album in 1974. In Richard’s words, “there was simply no time to make one. Nor was I in the mood.” The duo also had no Hot 100 top 10 hit in 1974. “Top Of The World” was at #11 and dropping on 5 January 1974, while “Please Mr. Postman” was at #11 and rising on 28 December 1974. In between these two singles, the pair released just one Hot 100 single, a Paul Williams/Roger Nichols composition called “I Won’t Last a Day Without You“. Originally recorded as an album track for their 1972 LP, A Song For You, the Carpenters finally decided to release their original two years after its original LP release and some months after Maureen McGovern‘s 1973 cover. In March 1974, the single version became the fifth and final selection from that album project to chart in the Top 20, reaching #11 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in the summer of 1974.
BBC Documentary on The Carpenters Part 1
In place of the new album for 1974, their first Greatest Hits package “The Singles: 1969-1973” was released, featuring new remixes of their prior hit singles, some with a newly-recorded lead, and including newly recorded bridges and transition material so that each side of the album would play through with no breaks, giving the album a little bit of a live-concert feel. Some complete songs were recorded in addition to the aforementioned singles, however, as would happen with their non-Christmas songs recorded in 1978, most of these did not see the light of day until after Karen’s passing. These songs were included on “Voice of the Heart“, “Lovelines“, the Carpenters box set “From the Top“, and their two outtake albums “As Time Goes By” and “Interpretations“.
Also in 1974, Carpenters achieved a massive international hit with an up-tempo remake of Hank Williams’s “Jambalaya (On the Bayou)“. While the song was not released as a single in the US, it reached the top 30 in Japan, sold well in the United Kingdom, and became their biggest hit of all time in the Netherlands. In late 1974, a Christmas single followed, a jazz-influenced rendition of “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town“.
In 1975, The Carpenters gained another hit with a remake of The Marvelettes‘ chart-topping Motown classic from 1961, “Please Mr. Postman“. Released in late 1974, the song soared to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in January 1975, becoming the duo’s third and final #1 pop single. It also earned Karen and Richard their record-setting twelfth million-selling gold single in America.
Richard Carpenter’s and John Bettis’s song “Only Yesterday” followed “Please Mr. Postman”, and peaked at #4. Carpenter and Bettis did not believe that “Only Yesterday” would become a hit single, and bet against Roger Young that it would not enter the top 5. They each lost a thousand dollars to Young.
Both singles appeared on their 1975 LP Horizon, which also included covers of The Eagles‘ “Desperado” and Neil Sedaka’s “Solitaire”, which became a moderate hit for the duo that year. Horizon was certified platinum, but owing to the disc’s late release (after the second single was already dropping off the charts) it was their first album to fall short of multi-platinum status. Rolling Stone reviewer Stephen Holden acclaimed Horizon, calling it “the Carpenters’ most musically sophisticated album to date.”
The Carpenters were among the first American recording acts to produce music videos to promote their records. In early 1975, they filmed a performance of “Please Mr. Postman” at Disneyland as well as “Only Yesterday” at the Huntington Gardens.
1978 on “The Tonight Show”
Their subsequent album A Kind Of Hush, released on June 11, 1976, achieved gold status, but again owing to its late release, became the first Carpenters album not to become a platinum certified record since Ticket to Ride from seven years earlier. Their singles releases in 1976 were successful, but at this time, contemporary hit radio was moving forward with changing musical styles, which ultimately made the careers of most “soft” groups like the Carpenters suffer. The duo’s biggest pop single that year was a cover of Herman’s Hermits‘ “There’s a Kind of Hush (All Over the World)“, which peaked at #12 on Billboard’s Hot 100. “I Need to Be in Love” (allegedly Karen’s favorite song by Carpenters) charted at only #25 on Billboard’s Hot 100. However, it followed “There’s a Kind of Hush” to the top spot on the Adult Contemporary charts and became the duo’s 14th #1 Adult Contemporary hit, far and away more than any other act in the history of the chart.
The disco craze was in full swing by 1977, and adult-appeal “easy listening” artists like Carpenters were getting less airplay. Their experimental album, Passage, released in 1977, marked an attempt to broaden their appeal by venturing into other musical genres. The album featured an unlikely mix of Jazz-fusion (“B’wana She No Home”), calypso (“Man Smart, Woman Smarter”), and orchestrated balladry (“I Just Fall in Love Again“, “Two Sides”), and included the hits, “All You Get from Love Is a Love Song“, “Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft” and “Sweet, Sweet Smile” . The most notable tracks included cover versions of “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina” (from the rock opera Evita) and Klaatu’s “Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft (the Recognized Anthem of World Contact Day)“, both complete with choral and orchestral accompaniment. Although the single release of “Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft” became a major hit in the United Kingdom, it only peaked at number 32 on the U.S. pop charts, and for the first time a Carpenters album did not reach the gold threshold of 500,000 copies sold in the United States. The Carpenters’ music videos of “All You Get from Love is a Love Song” and “Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft” for the Passage album can be seen on the DVD Gold: Greatest Hits.
In early 1978, they scored a surprise Top 10 country hit with the up-tempo, fiddle-sweetened “Sweet, Sweet Smile”, written by country-pop singer Juice Newton and her longtime musical partner Otha Young. A second compilation, “The Singles: 1974-1978“, was released in the UK. Meanwhile, in the United States, their first holiday album, Christmas Portrait, proved to be an exception to their faltering career at home and became a seasonal favorite, returning Karen and Richard to platinum status.
Richard sought treatment for his addiction to quaaludes at a Topeka, Kansas facility for six weeks starting in January 1979. He then decided to take the rest of the year off for relaxation and rehabilitation. Karen, on the other hand, neither wanting to take a break from singing nor seek help for her anorexia, decided to pursue a solo album project with renowned producer Phil Ramone in New York. The choice of more adult-oriented and disco/dance-tempo material represented an effort to retool her image. The resulting product met a tepid response from Richard and A&M executives in early 1980, and Karen eventually wavered in her dedication to the project. Unfortunately, the debt for its production (more than half a million dollars) was charged against Carpenters’ royalties after the decision was made not to release it.
1980 Karen Carpenter with Ella Fitzgerald!
Angry, but for the most part undismayed by the decision, Karen decided to launch a new LP with her brother, who had now recovered from his addiction. The solo LP, Karen Carpenter, remained unreleased until October 1996, although Karen’s fans got a taste of the album in 1989 when four of its tracks, “Lovelines”, “If We Try”, “Remember When Lovin’ Took All Night” and “If I Had You”, turned up, albeit remixed, on their second posthumous album Lovelines. “If I Had You” was released as a single and reached the Top 20 on the Adult Contemporary chart.
The Carpenters produced a final television special in 1980 called Music, Music, Music!, with guest stars Ella Fitzgerald, Suzanne Somers, and John Davidson. This event was filmed the same year Karen married Tom Burris, and she had temporarily returned to a healthier weight. However, ABC was not at all happy with their special, as it was just music from start to finish, unlike the previous specials which included sketch-based comedy. ABC felt it was too much like a PBS program.
Karen and John Denver
On June 16, 1981 the Carpenters released what would become their final LP as a duo, Made in America. The album sold only around 200,000 copies before Karen’s death in early 1983, however, it did spawn a final top 20 pop single, the romantic “Touch Me When We’re Dancing“, which reached #16 on the Hot 100. It also became their fifteenth number one Adult Contemporary hit.
Personal troubles dimmed the prospects of this modest return to the charts. After a whirlwind romance, Karen married real estate developer Thomas James Burris in a lavish wedding held in the Crystal Room of the Beverly Hills Hotel on August 31, 1980. A new song performed by Karen at the ceremony, “Because We Are In Love”, surfaced in 1981 on Made in America (as well as the B-side of “Touch Me When We’re Dancing”). By 1981, though, Karen’s physical appearance had changed drastically. The music videos produced to promote the Made In America album were ample evidence that Karen was now seriously ill. The marriage turned out to be a disaster, and the couple separated at the end of 1981. In 1982, Karen sought therapy with noted psychotherapist Steven Levenkron in New York City for her disorder and returned to California in November that year, determined to revive her professional career and finalize her divorce. Karen, who had a normal thyroid, was found to be taking ten times the normal daily dose of thyroid medication in order to speed up her metabolism. This, combined with large amounts of laxatives (between 90 to 100 a day), weakened her heart.
“Bless The Beasts And The Children”
After spending Christmas at home, Karen gained some weight back and considered going back into the studio. The siblings argued about this in January, 1983, with Richard telling his sister she did not look well and needed to go back into treatment. Karen responded angrily to this and returned to Downey on Thursday, February 3, to be near her mother. By the next day, she had become so depressed that their mother asked Richard to also come home. By the time he arrived, his sister was already in an ambulance. Richard is quoted later as saying that his hope at the time was that this was merely a scare, that she’d just passed out or something, enough to teach her a lesson that she was not well and needed to go back into treatment. On Friday, February 4, Karen suffered cardiac arrest at her parents’ home in Downey and was taken to Downey Community Hospital, where she was pronounced dead 20 minutes later. She was scheduled to sign her divorce papers on the day she died.
Karen Carpenter did not die from anorexia itself, but from the side-effects of the disease. Her heart could not take the strain of a long period of poor eating habits followed by rapid weight gain. Specifically, the autopsy stated that Karen’s death was due to emetine cardiotoxicity resulting from anorexia nervosa. Under the anatomical summary, the first item was heart failure, with anorexia as second. The third finding was cachexia, which is extremely low weight and weakness and general body decline associated with chronic disease. Emetine cardiotoxicity suggests that Karen abused Syrup of Ipecac, or Ipecacuana Wine, used medically to induce vomiting in patients who have ingested poison. Ipecac was easily obtained at the time, but there is no definite evidence that Karen abused it.
Karen singing the standard tune, “When I Fall In Love”
Her funeral service took place on Tuesday, February 8, 1983, at the Downey United Methodist Church. Karen Carpenter lay in an open white casket, dressed in pink, as a thousand mourners paid their last respects, among them her friends Dorothy Hamill, Olivia Newton-John, Petula Clark, and Dionne Warwick. Karen’s estranged husband appeared at her funeral, and took off his wedding band and threw it in the casket (according to the Ray Coleman Book The Carpenters: the Untold Story).
On October 12, 1983, the Carpenters received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, a few yards from the Kodak Theater. Richard, Harold, and Agnes Carpenter attended the inauguration, as did many fans.
Karen’s death brought lasting media attention to anorexia nervosa and also to bulimia. Karen’s death encouraged celebrities to go public about their eating disorders, among them Tracey Gold and, later, Diana, Princess of Wales. Medical centres and hospitals began receiving increased contacts from people with these disorders. The general public had little knowledge of anorexia and bulimia prior to her death, making the conditions difficult to identify and treat.
In December 2003, the remains of Karen and her parents were exhumed from Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Cypress, California and reinterred in Pierce Brothers Valley Oaks Memorial Park in Westlake Village, California.
Quick Bio Facts
|Karen Carpenter||Singer||2-Mar-1950||4-Feb-1983||The Carpenters|
|Richard Carpenter||Musician||15-Oct-1946||The Carpenters|
|Leon Russell||Musician||2-Apr-1942||Producer, session player, etc.|
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