Karen Carpenter’s voice hits you like a ray of warm sun that can just as quickly disappear into a dusky cloud of melancholy. If that cloud happens to rain, her voice is also the velvety cloak to shelter you from the drops. In other words, by listening to Karen, you experience a surreal interlacing of dark and light.
This brilliant drummer and singer formed the musical duo Carpenters, along with her brother, Richard. They toured the world throughout the ’70s and sold over 90 million records during their 14-year career together. But sadly, Karen was struggling with persistent feelings of self-reproach and perfectionism that slowly (and literally) ate away at her. Here is the tragic story behind one of the greatest voices of all time.
Karen Carpenter was born on March 2, 1950, in New Haven, Connecticut. Her only sibling, Richard, was three years older and idolized by their parents, Agnes and Harold. Despite being close in age, the two siblings were worlds apart. Richard spent most of his time playing the piano in the privacy of his room, whereas Karen would be outside playing baseball and goofing around.
It was hard to miss how much her mother favored the young piano prodigy and how little affection she showed her only daughter. They even moved the whole family to California in 1963 to pursue Richard’s music career, which wasn’t a very appealing idea for a 13-year-old who had to leave her friends.
Agnes Carpenter was a very strong woman with a whole lot of anxieties. She would casually comment on Karen’s eating habits, questioning the number of cookies she had had that day and warning her not to eat too much. This sullen communication tormented Karen and created a distorted sense of reality in which her mother basically controlled her feelings of self-worth.
But Karen never stopped yearning for her mother’s approval. When Karen found out her fiancé had lied about a pressing issue, she cried to her mother that she wanted out of the wedding. But Agnes coldly snapped back with, “You made your bed, Karen, now you have to lie in it!” which, of course, she did.
Karen’s quest to shed a few pounds began innocently enough after high school. She attempted the Stillman diet, which consisted of mainly high-protein foods and no sugar intake. Karen was able to lose around 20 pounds, but she was never fully satisfied with the results. All it took was one glimpse at an unflattering picture from a concert in Lake Tahoe to completely throw her off.
She felt ashamed by her visible paunch and decided it was time to hire a personal trainer to help her whittle down her size even more. She was advised to go on a high carbohydrate diet, which, in conjunction with the many workouts, made her bulk up. But for Karen, big and fit was never the goal. She wanted tiny and slender. She decided to take matters into her own hands, and gradually, normal dieting mutated into deteriorating starvation.
Unlike Richard, it took Karen a bit more time to discover her musical talent. She tried different instruments, but none seemed to do it for her until she discovered a passion for the drums. She was in high school when Richard offered her to join him and his friend, Wes Jacobs, to form a jazz trio.
With Karen on the drums, Richard on the piano, and Jacobs on the tuba, they called themselves the Richard Carpenter Trio and played together for more than a year. They even won the Hollywood Bowl Battle of the Bands in 1966. The band broke up after Wes Jacobs was accepted to Julliard Music School.
The Carpenters continued to pursue a musical career, and in 1967 they joined a group of Long Beach State students to form a band called Spectrum. Karen was on the drums again and still had not begun singing, no one yet knew how incredible her voice was. The band performed regularly at a nightclub called the Whisky a Go Go in Los Angeles and played as the opening act for many artists.
They sent demos to different record labels in Los Angeles, but despite all their best efforts to get their music acknowledged, nothing managed to fully click. Their mellow and clean sound didn’t suit the rock and roll psychedelic scene of the time and in 1968, the band broke up.
Karen and Richard moved forward with their unique sound and kept recording themselves as a duo. In 1969, their record fell into the hands of Herb Alpert, who worked at the time for A&M Records. Alpert claimed that the moment he had heard Karen’s velvety voice and Richard’s incredible composition, he knew he was witnessing something special.
Signed and onboard, the Carpenters recorded their debut album, Offering. That same year, they were invited to perform for the first time on national TV in Your All-American College Show. They were finally gaining recognition as a duo, and even though Offering didn’t do so well, A&M continued the contract. In 1970, they recorded their second album, Close to You, and by the end of the year, the Carpenters were famous.
The duo’s big break came after their hit track, We’ve Only Just Begun (1970), climbed to the top of the pop charts around the world. In 1971, they won the Best New Artist of 1970 Grammy Award and the following years proved to be just as successful for the talented siblings. Album after album, the fans were captivated by Richard’s genius musical arrangements and Karen’s smooth voice.
Everyone wanted a piece of the Carpenters, and touring around Europe meant they were doing 118 shows in five months. Their hectic routine made it easy for Karen to spiral into distorted eating. She described that “When you’re on the road, it’s hard to eat. Period. On top of that, it’s rough to eat well. We don’t like to eat before a show because I can’t stand singing with a full stomach…”
Karen loved being behind the drums and always considered herself “a drummer who sings.” She was comfortable there and in full control of her instrument. When anxiety would creep in during large scale performances, she would lose herself in the reverberating hi-hats and pulsating beats. Her mom was satisfied because “Richard is the star, Karen is just the drummer.”
But after fans complained that the band lacked a focal point in live shows, her manager suggested she move out of her comfort zone and into the spotlight. He believed her real strength lay in her vocals, which were incredibly angelic. Karen eventually complied and did what was best for the band’s image, but she struggled with being in the spotlight, and it affected her to the core.
To be fair, Karen wasn’t the only one constantly scrutinized by the public. The Carpenters, as a musical duo, were sometimes mocked for their squeaky-clean image and assigned names like Colgate Smiling or Bland Middle America. But when Karen took center stage, she started making a lot of headlines, and they weren’t always pretty.
When she would switch up her looks a bit, magazines would fire back remarks like, “Karen’s not gorgeous, but at least she’s trying.” She was uncomfortable enough as it is because she felt that she owed her success to Richard and that he deserved to be the star of the show. Bashful and self-conscious, Karen was vulnerable in the face of the relentless media.
Karen tried to slyly distract others from noticing her self-destructive behavior. To make it seem like she was eating, she would compulsively play around with her food, moving it from side to side as she talked. She would go on about how delicious everything was and would offer others a bite, that way, she could disperse everything onto their plates.
But as her weight dropped dramatically, her dodging tactics became apparent and extremely concerning. To stop people from worrying, she hid her frail figure under layers and layers of baggy fabric. But again, when you weigh 80 pounds, no amount of coverage can conceal the declining body that lies underneath.
After five years of performing, Karen was completely exhausted. Whatever bit of fuel was left to keep her going completely gave way in 1975 when she collapsed on stage in Las Vegas. Severely malnourished and dehydrated, Karen was in dire need of hospitalization. As a result, the Carpenters had to cancel their tour to Japan and Europe, disappointing their eager fans.
Richard explained that Karen was simply exhausted and that a little bit of rest was all his little sister needed. But fans weren’t convinced. Her protruding bones and emaciated face gave rise to speculations that she had cancer, and people believed the duo was taking time off so she could begin chemotherapy.
Karen was suffering tremendously at a time when anorexia nervosa wasn’t a phenomenon many people were aware of. Doctors referred to it as some sort of hysteria or “slimmer’s disease.” The people surrounding Karen knew something was terribly wrong with her, but they couldn’t quite wrap their heads around it. The fix seemed easy enough – just eat.
But the complexity of an eating disorder requires a long and profound analysis, and Karen went far too many years untreated. People were questioning her condition, but Agnes would brush them off, insisting that any problems Karen was having with over-dieting could be treated within the family circle and without professional help.
Anorexia robs you of any reasonable self-image you might have had of yourself. As was the case for Karen, who, despite her alarming and gauntly look, she still looked for ways to shrink herself even more. Starving wasn’t enough, and soon she began to exhaust her body with strenuous exercise and laxative pills.
She would take around 80 pills a day and would supplement with thyroid medication, which is said to speed up metabolism. She would hide the pills around the house, in her shoes, behind different furniture. Terrified that others would find out, Karen did whatever it took to keep her detrimental habits a secret.
In December of 1976, Richard and Karen got their very own television special on ABC TV. The show was full of skits and jokes, and special guests. They performed live music and Karen seemed to have a great time showing off her drum skills and goofy humor. Richard was less fond of the idea and didn’t enjoy the comedy sketches and canned laughter.
He saw himself as more of a “behind the scenes” kind of guy, which meant that Karen had a lot of screen time and was clearly the star of the show. Even then, Karen’s mother overlooked her daughter. Bob Henry, the TV producer on set, recalled how Agnes approached him one day and said, “Wasn’t Richard wonderful?” It was obvious that Karen was doing most of the performance, yet her mom was blind to it.
Karen wasn’t the only sibling leading a double life. Behind closed doors, Richard was struggling with a terrible addiction to sleeping pills. The demand to constantly create new music took a toll on him and he sedated himself daily to cope with the pressure. From 1971 to 1978, Richard gradually increased his intake until his fingers shook, and he simply couldn’t keep it together anymore.
Even though the duo were in the middle of touring, they decided to cancel all shows for Richard to finally check himself into rehab. He looked at his sister in pain and told her that he finally owned up to his problems and that she should too. It’s clear that both siblings were perfectionists, each one dealing with their internal chaos differently.
With Richard unable to perform, Karen decided to fulfill a dream of hers – to record a solo album. She eagerly mentioned it to Richard and waited for his blessing on the new project, but he replied with a lot of skepticism. In part, it was because of how sick she looked. He found it hard to believe she could pull it off.
Ultimately, he agreed but pleaded with her to stay away from the disco. The ‘80s were approaching and the new upbeat style was growing in popularity, and Richard warned her not to be persuaded by it because “It’s just not for you Karen.” But she set out to do her own thing, and if that meant taking on a new style completely, so be it.
Karen flew to New York to record her album with producer Phil Ramone in 1979 and 1980. She swapped delicate melodies for dance beats and sang lyrics, which were quite unlike her usual style. One song in particular, My Body Keeps Changing My Mind, was a bit provocative and didn’t fit her image at the time.
Unfortunately for Karen, her album was met with rejection and shelved. She cried over her unsuccessful attempt at branching out on her own. Her emaciated looks were part of the issue as well; trying to project a sexual image when you look very frail is concerning.
Recording a solo album wasn’t just about the music for Karen; it was about the independence that came along with it. While in New York, Phil Ramone let her stay at his house with him and his wife, Karen Ichiuji, and those proved to be some of the happiest days of her life.
Without Richard to guide her on how to do things, Karen was slowly finding a voice of her own. Ichi recalled how surprised she was to realize how little Karen knew about the most basic things, like how to hail cabs or order at restaurants. So, when her album was rejected, it meant something a lot more profound than a simple dislike of her music.
Karen was often described by her friends as someone who just wanted the simplicity of a house with a picket fence and a husband to cook for. She longed to get married, even though she understood how difficult it would be because of her lifestyle. But in 1980, Karen met property developer Tom Burris, and she fell in love really quickly.
After just two months of dating, the couple got engaged, and Karen’s friends were concerned. Many didn’t know Tom that well and had their suspicions about this new man. Turns out, they were right to doubt the guy because Karen discovered that he hid the fact he underwent a vasectomy. Karen wanted kids badly and mentioned it several times, so his lie tore her completely apart.
Karen eventually went ahead with the wedding, only to quickly discover what a bitter mistake that was. She believed Tom was financially stable, but apparently, he was broke and relied heavily on her money. He took huge loans and led a lavish lifestyle with the fortune he now felt was his. Karen wasn’t pleased, and the couple soon began fighting continuously.
A year into their marriage, Karen was severely depressed and spiraling deeper into her eating disorder. Tom would verbally abuse her, calling her a “bag of bones that would never have his children.” After 14 months, Karen filed for a divorce and changed her will so that the money she owned would be passed on to her family and not her deceptive ex-husband.
Karen began treatment with Psychotherapist Steven Levenkron in 1982. He was a successful author of many books on eating disorders, including The Best Little Girl in the World, which was later adapted into a film. Karen arrived at his office five times a week for an hour-long session, and her family was optimistic that he would be the one to “save” her.
A few months into the treatment, Levenkron decided to invite the Carpenter family for deep psychoanalysis of their mutual history. Karen burst into tears during the session and expressed feelings of guilt and shame after which Levenkron told the family, “I think Karen really needs to hear that you love her.” Richard quickly replied, “Of course, I love you.” Agnes’s reply on the other hand, was, “Well, I’m from the north, and we just don’t do things that way.”
The Carpenters viewed the ‘80’s as the start of a promising new decade. Richard had left his Quaalude addiction behind, and Karen looked like she was slowly on the path of recovery. After being admitted to a hospital in New York and receiving , her body looked steady and a lot livelier than before. But sadly, Karen was still engaging in disastrous behavior.
On the morning of February 4, 1983, Karen woke up and went to prepare herself some coffee, as usual. As she was waiting for the water to boil, she went upstairs to get dressed. When Karen didn’t return downstairs, her mother went up to check on her. Tragically, Agnes found her daughter lying naked on the floor with her eyes opened and rolled back.
The doctors listed the cause of death as ipecac poisoning. Ipecac syrup is a drug that induces vomiting. It was once used to rid the body of poison and was sometimes mixed in low doses with cough syrup to clear the airways of mucus. But it rapidly became a substance misused by people suffering from eating disorders.
Once Karen discovered the drug, she started using it daily. Apart from its horrible taste and painful cramps, Ipecac can cause severe damage to the muscles of the heart. Tragically, that is what happened to Karen Carpenter, only 32 years old at her time of death. Years and years of abusing her body led her to this unbelievably sad moment.
Karen Carpenter is considered to have had one of the greatest voices of all time. Her unique and warm tone has affected many musicians, including Madonna who admitted she is “completely influenced by her harmonic sensibility,” and Paul McCartney who referred to her as “the best female voice in the world: melodic, tuneful and distinctive.”
There was something truly personal about Karen’s voice. Hearing her, you felt like she was singing to you, not just at you. She was able to tap into melancholic and profound emotions because behind her little smile lay deep and unresolved sorrow. Listening to her sing infuses you with some sort of feel-good sadness, an emotion that seems to lie at the core of anything we do.
In 1996, A&M Records decided to release Karen’s solo album. It was her personal project and dear to her heart. The day before she passed away, she spoke with Phil Ramone on the phone and enthusiastically said, “I hope you don’t mind if I curse, but I still love our f***ing record!”
Fans were ecstatic to hear Karen’s soothing voice again, and the album sold over 1 million copies worldwide. Her songs contain a personal triumph and show that regardless of the person producing the tune, her voice is the star. She recorded it at a delicate time and dedicated it to the person who was initially opposed to it. The album liner note reads, “Dedicated to my brother Richard with all my heart.”
Four years after Karen’s death, Richard released his first solo album, Time. One of the songs, When Time Was All We Had, is said to be dedicated to Karen. He sings, “I never will forget your face in silhouette.
Your voice will be the sweetest sound I’ll ever hear, and yet, we knew somehow the song would never end, when time was all we had to spend.”
Since then, Richard has released several albums, mostly tribute covers and collections of their greatest hits. He continued to work on his own original tunes and confessed that “Music is a different world from when Karen and I were signed by Herb Alpert in 1969, but I feel I have some talent.”
One of the first known celebrities to suffer from anorexia, Karen’s death brought eating disorders to the public’s attention. It raised awareness of the potent dangers of the illness and the urgent need for further research. It also encouraged other public figures like Princess Diana and Tracey Gold to come forward and share their struggles with the illness.
In 2004, the band Sonic Youth came out with a song named Tunic (Song for Karen). The lyrics include, “Another green salad, another iced tea. I feel like I’m disappearing, getting smaller every day. But I look in your eyes, and I’m bigger in every way.” Karen’s untimely passing is nothing less than a tragedy, but it jumpstarted a much-needed conversation on a dark topic.
In 1989, a biographical film about Karen’s story aired on CBS. It was directed by Joseph Sargent and received a lot of mixed reviews. The movie featured actors Cynthia Gibb as Karen and Mitchell Anderson as Richard. While some appreciated the tragic reenactments, others criticized it for overdramatizing and wrongly portraying what had actually happened.
The movie did change a few details to create that extra drama (even though Karen’s life was quite intense without any need for more fluff). The most famous fictional scene is when Agnes tells Karen a few hours before her death, “I love you.” Sadly, this didn’t happen in real life.
Eight months after her death, a 32- piece choir came together to sing. We’ve Only Just Begun as a new star was imprinted on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In his speech, Richard said, “This is a sad day but at the same time a very special and beautiful day to my family. My only regret is that Karen is not physically here to share it with us, but I know that she is very much alive in our minds and in our hearts.”
The Mayor of LA declared it “a Carpenters day,” and Herb Alpert described it as a bittersweet moment and continued with, “The Carpenters, Richard & Karen represented to the entire world the best of what America is all about.” As the years went by, a crack appeared across the star, but in 2017, fans came together and raised enough money to repair it.