Saturday, February 04, 2012

Spirits in the Sky - Karen Carpenter

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Karen Carpenter, self described drummer girl who could sing

They 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. Yet the Carpenters were much more than creators of beautifully crafted and hugely successful hit records. Within the space of just a few years their unique and inimitable sound had brought a new dimension to the world of popular music.

Richard Carpenter had shown an interest in music from a very early age. Born in New Haven, Connecticut, on October 15, 1946, he can remember listening to his father’s 78s when he was just three and four years old. His father, who worked for a container corporation, had everything from the classics to big band music. Richard would develop a similarly eclectic taste in music.

At the age of eight, he started to play some music himself. His first instrument was the accordion, but he soon abandoned that in favor of the piano. By the time he was 15, he was studying piano at Yale and was part of a piano/bass/drums trio, playing at venues in and around New Haven.


His sister Karen, on the other hand, initially showed no musical inclinations other than listening to records. Born on March 2, 1950, she was barely into her teens when in 1963 the whole family moved to the Los Angeles suburb of Downey. It would be the following year before Karen felt any urge to express herself musically.

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 band mate Frankie Chavez. 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 was able to play it instantly, and before long the idea of some kind of Carpenters group had been born.

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.

What happened next was every young act’s dream. The Richard Carpenter Trio had reached the finals of the prestigious amateur talent contest ‘The Battle of the Bands’ at the Hollywood Bowl on June 24, 1966 and triumphed. Iced tea was the favorite drink of Karen and Richard, and he composed an ambitious instrumental with that title that was a showcase for Wes Jacob’s tuba and Karen’s drumming. The group’s originality impressed the judges.


It was during this time that Karen saw a doctor about her weight. From her early years she had been chubby and by seventeen and weighing 145 pounds (too much for her height of five feet, four inches), she felt she had endured it long enough.  She lost 25 lbs and kept it off until 1973.

After two years of battling for a breakthrough, the summer of 1968 came with a flurry of activity that brought them an escalator to success.  At first, they again found that not one of the record companies were interested in the tapes they made, but eventually, through a circuitous route, the recordings ended up with the co-founder of A&M Records, Herb Alpert. By 1969, Alpert was the world-famous trumpeter and leader of the hugely successful Tijuana Brass. He was also the “A” in the lively record company A&M.

On April 22, 1969, Richard and Karen went to the office of Jerry Moss to sign the contract. Since Karen was at nineteen legally underage, once again her parents had to countersign for her.  In November of 1969 their first album was released. Called ‘Offering’, it included Richard’s ballad version of the Beatles’ 1965 hit Ticket To Ride. Much more than just slowing the song down, Richard tailored John Lennon’s strong melody to Karen’s alto and to the changed mood of the song, which was quite different due to the ballad approach.

Also on A&M’s books at that time was the hugely talented Burt Bacharach, who showed an early interest in the Carpenters’ work after hearing Ticket To Ride on the radio, and invited them to join him for a number of dates during 1970. In June of that year it was a Burt Bacharach song which would finally bring them worldwide acclaim.

They Long To Be Close To You had been written by Bacharach and his partner Hal David some seven years earlier, and was included in Dionne Warwick’s third album. In addition to Karen’s alluring lead vocal, the Carpenters added intricate harmonies to a beautiful arrangement by Richard who also shortened the title and, in six weeks, the song occupied the No.1 spot on the American charts. It remained one of the best sellers of the year, and sold over three million copies worldwide. The song also gave the duo their first British success, reaching No.6 in the autumn of 1970, and became a hit in several other countries.

In March of the following year, the recording also won them their first Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Vocal Performance by a Duo, Group or Chorus. There was a second Grammy for Best New Artist of 1970. In all, Close To You and the “Close To You” album were nominated in six categories, including Record and Album of the Year.

By then they had another million-seller to their name. We’ve Only Just Begun, taken from their second album, ‘Close To You’, only just missed the top spot in the US, peaking at No.2. The impact of We’ve Only Just Begun on millions of people cannot be overstated. Written by the then unknown team of Roger Nichols and Paul Williams expressly for a television ad campaign for the Crocker Bank, a California concern, the song caught Richard’s attention, who felt that with the right arrangement, the song would be a hit.

Joining (They Long To Be) Close To You in the Grammy Hall of Fame, We’ve Only Just Begun for years has been considered Karen’s and Richard’s ‘signature’ song.

In 1971 there were three more hugely successful singles, all of which became million sellers. For All We Know had been featured in the film ‘Lovers And Other Strangers’. With music by Fred Karlin and lyrics by a certain Arthur James and Robb Wilson – actually pseudonyms for Arthur Griffin and Robb Royer of the group Bread – it went on to win an Oscar for the Best Film Song of 1970.

A few months later it was the turn of Superstar, which reached the No.2 spot on the American charts but, backed with For All We Know, it also brought the pair their third British success, reaching No.18. Superstar is considered by many to be the ultimate Carpenters’ track, with its haunting melody, off-beat lyric, heartfelt reading by Karen and Grammy nominated arrangement by Richard.

By 1971, the Carpenters were performing all over the world. In London, they packed the Royal Albert Hall during their first European tour. In America, there were sell-out appearances at such prestigious venues as the Hollywood Bowl, and in Japan they performed the first of what would be many sell-out concerts.


Yesterday Once More finally gave the Carpenters’ British career the boost it needed. In mid-1973, the song raced up the British charts, peaking at No.2 – the same position that it reached in America, and higher than that reached by all of the Carpenters’ previous British singles. It would also provide them with yet another million-seller and prove to be a phenomenal success in Japan.

On May 1, 1973, there was an accolade of a different kind. President Richard Nixon invited the brother and sister to perform at the White House, at a dinner in honor of West German Chancellor Willy Brandt.


The next year began well, too, with another change of pace and another enormously successful single. Please Mr. Postman had been an American chart topper for R&B group the Marvelettes in 1961, and well known in Britain, too, thanks to the Beatles. The Carpenters again took it to the top spot in America, easily selling another million on the way. The recording reached No.2 in the UK charts, and ultimately became their largest selling single worldwide, a fact with which Richard has mixed feelings.

The constant round of recording and touring was beginning to take its toll on Karen Carpenter. Slimming and health foods were becoming fashionable in the early 1970s, particularly in image-conscious California. So was the cachet of having a trainer visit private houses to supervise exercises. Despite the myriad pressures on her body through travel, erratic eating, her appetite for junk food, and a punishing work schedule, Karen had maintained her weight of 120 pounds from the summer of 1967 all the way through to early 1973.

When Karen saw pictures of herself in concert in Lake Tahoe in August 1973 she was appalled. An unflattering dress revealed her paunch, and she hired a “workout guru” to visit her home. She bought a “hip cycle” and lay on her bed with it every morning and took it on tour. Her “guru” advised her to go on a high carbohydrate intake, and she eliminated most of the known calorie-packed foods from her diet, particularly ice cream which she loved.

Then something happened to truly frighten her. As she stepped up her exercises, instead of losing weight she became somewhat muscular. “She definitely began to bulk up. She wasn’t too heavy,” Richard says, “but the weight was coming on her.” This threw her into a muddle and could have been the chrysalis of her problem.


On November 13, 1973, the Carpenters guested on a Bob Hope TV special. When Karen saw the video of the show soon afterward, she remarked to Richard about her appearance. Self-consciously unhappy about how she appeared, she assured him she intended to “do something about it.” He agreed that she looked heavier than she had previously. The conversation passed as insignificant.

She stopped most of the exercises, which she believed to be too muscle-building, and began what she considered to be a normal diet, nothing remarkable or even noticeable by others. It was just sensible enough, she assured Richard, to shed a few pounds which was necessary. With the benefit of hindsight, he now thinks that the “bulking up” caused by the exercises might have been the turning point that intensified her decision to maintain a strict check on her weight.

Nobody can be certain of exactly when her anorexic habits took root, Richard insists – chiefly because Karen had always been conscious about her weight. She remarked often on how much she hated her ‘hourglass’ figure.

The year 1974 set no alarm bells ringing, as Karen was seen as one of the many health-aware young women – and since she had a historic reason for weight watching, why should anyone have been surprised? Photographed for the cover of Rolling Stone magazine on May 22, 1974, wearing a tank top, a cap, and the upbeat expression that was part of her trademark appeal, she looked radiantly happy and healthy.

Within less than a year, however, Karen plunged into what Richard believes was the period marking the start of the decline that was to prove deadly. By September 1975, due to the onset of anorexia nervosa, her weight had dropped to just 91 pounds, depleting Karen of her normal high energy and forcing her to take two months off to recover.


Later that month, Richard flew to both Tokyo and London for press conferences at which he explained that Karen was exhausted and that sold-out tours in both Japan and the U.K. were being postponed to the following year, a monstrous blow to the fans, the promoters involved, and to A&M Records as well. It pained Richard and Karen, as both were raised to honor commitments but, given Karen’s condition, there really could be no second thoughts.

Had Karen been in perfect health, the touring schedule set up by management for 1975 was not realistic, especially given the fact that time for recording was supposed to be factored in to any year’s schedule, and recording by a rested Karen and Richard. Richard maintained what he felt was obvious, that the Carpenters were first and foremost a record act and that all of their other successes had stemmed from the records.

So much touring had been scheduled in 1974 that not enough time had been set aside to record an album, much to the record company’s dismay, as a Carpenters album following the tremendous successes of “Now and Then” and “The Singles 1969-1973” would have been a monumental seller; witness the success of “Horizon” two years later. Clearly the time had come for a change in management and, in early 1976, that is precisely what happened.

At about the same time, Karen and Richard were working on their seventh studio album, “A Kind Of Hush.” Included were a remake of There’s A Kind Of Hush (All Over The World), the 1967 Herman’s Hermits’ hit, which did reach No.12 in the U.S., but was not an object of Richard’s affection for very long, and a lovely Carpenter/ Bettis/ Hammond ballad, I Need To Be In Love, that would reach No.24 in America, but would vindicate Richard’s belief in its hit potential some years later.

As the album was being recorded, a deal was being finalized which would procure for Karen and Richard a prime-time network television special, an achievement that had eluded them since the “Make Your Own Kind Of Music” chapter, five years before. Richard and Karen rightfully felt that an act of their stature should have at least one special; after all, every major record act from Barry Manilow to Olivia Newton-John had headlined theirs.

All of this was about to change, as in mid 1976 a deal between the Carpenters and the ABC network was announced and on December 8, 1976, “The Carpenters Very First Television Special,” with guests John Denver and Victor Borge aired to outstanding ratings, placing No.6 for the week. As a result, a deal for more specials was offered, and by 1980 Karen and Richard had completed five specials for ABC.

Richard was never as fond of these as Karen, who was clearly the star and enjoyed the experience of making them. He feels that, while still being palatable to the average viewer, the specials should have taken more of the musical high road, such as those of Barbra Streisand and Barry Manilow, emphasizing Karen’s remarkable voice, rather than including so many comedy sketches and canned laughter.



Richard firmly believes that one reason Karen is relatively underrated as a great singer today is due to the sweet, square image promulgated by the record label, management, and their public relations firm alike, one that he was battling, with little success, throughout their career. Richard believes that the specials, well-executed and successful though they were, did nothing to change that image.

With A Kind Of Hush delivered to A&M for June, 1976 release, it was time for Karen and Richard to embark on the first of the postponed tours, this one in Japan, where they performed 21 concerts in a 27 day period in March and April. All were SRO, the tour was a resounding success, and Karen, Richard, and all concerned left for home a bit spent but happy all had worked out so well.

After completing the U.S. summer tour and wrapping the first T.V. special, the Carpenters left for Europe and the second postponed tour. Another success, this tour culminated with a record-breaking run at the London Palladium, where an album “Live At The London Palladium” was recorded, mixed by Karen and Richard at AIR Studios, starting about the third night into the engagement, and released within days of the Carpenters’ departure.

During the tour, it was becoming increasingly apparent to Richard (and many around him) that his use of a prescription sleeping pill that he had been taking before bed sporadically since late 1971, was no longer sporadic, but now habitual. The medication, Quaalude, had been prescribed by the family doctor who, quite correctly said that, taken as directed, the pill was safe and effective.  To Richard, who had never smoked through high school and college and had not had his mood altered by so much as a beer, this proved quite the experience!

For Karen and Richard, 1978 was dedicated to concert performances, video taping two television specials, and a project the pair had wanted to devote considerable time to since 1971, the making of a Christmas album. Karen’s voice, of course, was perfect for interpreting holiday music, both sacred and secular, and Richard’s talent in arranging and writing was a natural for the genre as well; Merry Christmas, Darling and the duo’s 1974 Christmas release, Santa Claus Is Coming To Town being excellent examples.

The result was most impressive; with an outsize orchestra and chorus comprised of the finest studio talent in Hollywood, great songs, great arrangements, all interpreted by Karen, who was born to the genre, “Christmas Portrait” could not have missed, and it didn’t; it was a hit when released in October 1978, and over the years has passed the 14 million mark in sales.

By late 1978, Richard, with much encouragement (and brow-beating) from family and friends, decided to ‘face the music’, and in January of 1979, entered a rehab facility for a six-week program. Karen, however, not one to stand idly by, wanted to take this time and record a solo album, something she and Richard felt she deserved.

The only problem was that Richard (and others) knew she was not in the proper physical condition to tackle such a project. (During Richard’s six-week stay, Karen had to enter a hospital once again, due to exhaustion and low weight.) Karen would hear none of it and enlisted the talents of the highly successful East Coast producer, Phil Ramone.

Phoning Richard in May for his ‘blessing,’ Karen then departed L.A. on the first of many trips to New York. Due to a number of factors, including Phil’s incredibly ambitious multi-artist studio schedules, Karen’s album took quite a bit longer to complete than originally planned. Ideally, the plan was to release the album in early 1980, while Richard and Karen finished their fifth T.V. special and began work on their album.

When it transpired that A&M was not particularly happy with the finished solo album and suggested, at the very least, that some new songs were needed, the time came for Karen to make a decision as to the album’s future. After much soul-searching and some pragmatic thought, she, understandably unhappily, decided on shelving the project, at least for the present time.

By 1980 the Carpenters were back in the studio working on more tracks. The resultant album, ‘Made In America’, released in June 1981, confirmed that the duo still had a considerable following among the album-buying public.

In January 1982, Karen moved to New York to spend most of the next 11 months seeing a therapist five times weekly for treatment of anorexia nervosa. She made a short trip to Los Angeles in April for a visit, during which time several rhythm tracks with work leads were recorded, including Now and You're Enough.

Karen returned to New York where, from late April through mid November, she spent more time in therapy and ultimately, the hospital, as the therapy was getting her nowhere and she had dropped to 80 pounds.  Karen no longer possessed her boundless energy, and most importantly, the life had gone out of her eyes. Feeling the worst was behind her, Karen returned to L.A. in November with plans to resume her life and career.

In December 1982 she gave what would be her last performance at her godchildren’s school. (Given what was to transpire, it turned out that the Carpenters' last performance was December 3, 1978, a benefit performance at the Long Beach Pacific Terrace Theater, for the CSULB choir.)

Just weeks later, on February 4, 1983, she was found unconscious at her parents’ home in Downey where she had been visiting. Although she was rushed to the hospital, she was pronounced dead of a heart attack soon afterward – a side effect of her long battle with her illness.


Karen Carpenter, the drummer girl with the magical voice, was dead at age 32.  To this day the songs remain contemporary classics and favorites in America and around the world.

For more information go to the following website for Richard and Karen Carpenter, the official site for the Carpenters and source for much of this story.


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