The real Karen Carpenter: an energetic and pioneering woman, not a victim

Karen Carpenter in 1981

Karen Carpenter in 1981 (Image: Getty)

Their lush soundscapes helped make Richard and Karen Carpenter one of the biggest acts of the 1970s, selling more than 100 million albums as a soft rock duo with hits like Close To You, Yesterday Once More and Please Mr Postman. Yet since Karen’s early death in 1983 following complications from anorexia, the singer-drummer has often been portrayed as a victim: her brother’s frail pawn and an uncaring recording industry.

In fact, as I reveal in my new bio, that description couldn’t be further from the truth and does her a huge disservice.

She was never just a decorative leader. From the beginning, she faced her life with all her energy, becoming a pioneering musician and singer who struggled to forge her own identity in the face of industry sexism.

Even as a child growing up in New Haven, Connecticut, Karen was a tomboy who loved baseball and fought to protect her sensitive older brother, Richard, from bullies. “She was different, an iconoclast,” she recalled.

At 15, when most girls her age swooned over the photos of pop stars on their bedroom walls, Karen’s idols were middle-aged jazz drummers.

He played in the school marching band, took drum lessons, and spent hours practicing to records by Joe Morello or Buddy Guy. “I have never been someone who likes to be told what to do. I’m a bit stubborn… so I look for other routes,” she once said.

Richard and Karen Carpenter hosted the television series Make Your Own Kind Of Music in 1971 at the height of

Richard and Karen Carpenter hosted the television series Make Your Own Kind Of Music in 1971 at the height of (Image: NBC/NBCU Photo Bank/Getty)

As a gifted pianist, Richard was seen as the most musically gifted member of the Carpenter family, and when they moved to Los Angeles in 1963, six years before The Carpenters’ birth as an act, it was to jumpstart their career.

But by the time the sibling duo signed to A&M Records and scored their first number one in 1970 with the Burt Bacharach (They Long To Be) song Close To You, she had become the undoubted driving force behind the band.

“I was always part of the gang,” he said. “On tour I packed my own drums and helped pack the trunk. Then I would go to the dressing room and fix my hair.

Likable and competitive, she did the talking most of the time at record company meetings, made quick decisions, and wasn’t afraid to confront.

So why has Karen’s memory been neutralized so much? Why has the idea of ​​her as a pioneering woman been so painstakingly doctored in the four decades since her untimely death? As always, the main reason is money.

By 1971, The Carpenters had become a money machine, complete with its own logo and merchandise. Management and A&M put pressure on Karen to give up drums and focus on being the lead singer.

Karen loved the drums and felt exposed standing with just a microphone.

Karen loved the drums and felt exposed standing with just a microphone. (Image: Getty)

“Singing and playing the drums was the most comfortable,” he later said. “I finally had to get up. petrified. You have no idea. The fear! There was nothing to hold on to.” The spotlight on her made her feel completely exposed, so she became self-conscious about her weight and she began a rigorous diet.

Critics often relegated Karen to the role of “girl singer”, attributing the success of The Carpenters to Richard’s arranging and production. She was a partner or co-producer on many of her albums and musicians attest that she was in the studio 24/7.

Although she was quick to acknowledge her brother’s talent, Karen was affected by the fact that their domineering mother, Agnes, was devoted to Richard, always putting his interests first.

“She was led to believe that Richard was better than her and she was full of doubts,” says Nicky Chinn, one of Karen’s ex-boyfriends and the songwriter/producer behind glam rock acts like Sweet and Suzie Quatro. Chinn had struggled with bipolar disorder since he was 16, so he recognized something similar in Karen.

“I have listened carefully and you can hear the pain. Karen didn’t just sing a song, she understood every word and put her emotions into it because she was a child who suffered.

Karen could be very guarded with her emotions, but she trusted Chinn.

“She talked about it, saying that Richard was the favorite and that it had always been difficult for her,” he continues.

“He was the center of attention. If you grow up with your brother as a favorite and they tell you that you’re not that good, then if you have a tendency to get sick, you will.” By 1975, Karen’s steady dieting had turned into full-blown anorexia. That summer, weighing less than 91 pounds, she was admitted to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, the first of many hospitalizations.

For the next eight years, her weight wobbled as she battled the eating disorder in a private hellhole.

In the 1970s there was a lack of openness around mental health and eating disorders, leading to a culture of silence.

“The words ‘anorexia’ and ‘bulimia,’ even the term ‘eating disorder,’ were not a common part of people’s vocabulary,” says her friend Cherry Boone O’Neill, who also struggled with anorexia.

“It wasn’t part of the public discourse at all.”

Karen in 1975

Karen in 1975 (Image: Hulton/Getty Archive)

Karen’s boyfriend at the time was songwriter and producer Tom Bahler. Despite her concerns about how skinny she was, she refused to talk about her anorexia.

One night, when Bahler begged her to finish her meal, she felt cornered and turned aggressive, hissing, “You can’t make me.” Like many eating disorder victims, it was important for her to feel in control.

Meanwhile, her brother Richard had problems of his own: an addiction to painkillers that in 1979 led her to a stint in rehab.

While there, Karen decided to record her own solo album, seeking recognition among her peers as a solo artist. She noted her transformation into her good friend Olivia Newton-John who, the year before, had enjoyed astronomical success with a starring role in the musical Grease. Newton-John made a dramatic transformation from middle-of-the-road singer to a vision in leather and skin-tight Spandex.

This piqued Karen’s sense of competence: maybe she could explore a new direction? Initially supported by A&M, Karen went to New York to record her album with Billy Joel producer Phil Ramone.

He chose Joel’s backing band for Karen’s solo work, because he liked their gritty exuberance.

She came from a sheltered background, but was willing to experiment.

Guitarist Russell Javors remembers the band as “kind of loud. We weren’t the studio presence Karen grew up with. Phil said, ‘Let her be one of the guys, she’s never actually done this.’ And I think she enjoyed being in that environment.”

When recording was finished, Karen and Phil Ramone were delighted, but the record label received the album with indifference, with co-founder Jerry Moss claiming that it did not contain a hit song.

Although the A&M sales team was prepared, the artwork had been prepared, and Karen had invested $400,000 of her own money in the project, A&M decided to cancel the album.

“I have to get my money back. Go in and get my money back,” Karen told her attorney in a panic.

She had made a female soul album, her first compelling statement as a solo artist, but A&M executives couldn’t see past The Carpenters’ success and refused to risk upsetting fans. Doing so could cost them money. The soulful sound Karen explored was part of a scene featuring singers as diverse as Donna Summer, Linda Ronstadt and Diana Ross.

In retrospect, it’s clear that the album’s release would have strengthened Karen’s career and given The Carpenters a whole new audience.

After the rejection, Karen seemed to falter. She and Richard recorded Made In America, which turned out to be The Carpenters’ last album.

A short-lived marriage to real estate developer Tom Burris ended acrimoniously, and then, for the last year of her life, Karen spent nine months in therapy with New York psychotherapist Dr. Steven Levenkron, trying to overcome her anorexy.

“He had this way of talking: ‘I’m going to lick this thing, I know I can do it,’” O’Neill recalls. “Karen she had this public persona of being feminine and frail looking, but she could talk like a trucker.

“That was a surprise. She was very determined and hopeful.”

Karen as a baby in 1950 with her mother Agnes and her brother Richard

Karen as a baby in 1950 with her mother Agnes and her brother Richard (Image: Richard Carpenter Collection)

However, Karen’s illness was so chronic that treatment came too late.

In September 1982 he was admitted to Lenox Hill Intensive Care Hospital, weighing just 77 pounds.

After six weeks she felt stronger, declared herself cured, and went home to Los Angeles.

“She was in such a difficult position being the center of the big wheel that was The Carpenters,” says O’Neill. “She had so many people who depended on her to be functional and to be present.”

Then, on the morning of February 4, 1983, her mother Agnes found Karen unconscious on her dressing room floor in her bedroom. She was admitted to Downey Community Hospital after going into total cardiac arrest and at 9:51 am she was pronounced dead. She was only 32 years old.

As reports of Karen’s death spread through the music industry and the general public, there was collective shock and disbelief.

Lead Sister: Karen Carpenter Story Releases Thursday

Lead Sister: Karen Carpenter Story Releases Thursday (Image: )

But in the years since then there has been a steady growth in awareness about eating disorders and the pressures that are placed on Karen.

Singer and friend Petula Clark says: “She didn’t fit in with all the glamor of Hollywood and I think that had something to do with her becoming anorexic. Mixing with the beautiful people, she didn’t realize how special she was.”

Karen’s lonely battle with anorexia and tragic death have overshadowed her legacy and we have come to see her as a victim.

But she was also a young woman with a sense of agency and a unique musical gift, finding her identity.

Her self-titled solo record was released posthumously in 1996 to critical acclaim, and what Karen achieved, despite her enormous struggles, is now considered by many friends to reveal her as a pioneering artist at the peak of her career.

“Let’s hope we don’t look back on Karen’s life with sadness,” says Rebecca Segal, the Carpenters’ former road director.

“He left an extraordinary musical legacy. She has one of the most distinctive and beautiful voices ever. You put on a record and you have no doubt who she is, that’s a real rarity. More and more people will discover it. Some burn brighter because they may not burn as long.”

  • Lead Sister: The Karen Carpenter Story (Nine Eight Books, £20) is out on Thursday. For free UK P&P visit expressbookshop.com or call 020 3176 3832

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