With their light, airy melodies and meticulously crafted, clean arrangements, the Carpenters stood in direct contrast with the excessive, gaudy pop/rock of the '70s, yet they became one of the most popular artists of the decade.
Between 1970 and 1984, the Grammy Award-winning duo had 10 gold singles, nine gold albums, one multi-platinum album and 17 singles in the Billboard Top 20, 12 in the Top 10, three number 1 songs and six songs at number 2.
Karen Anne Carpenter was born on Thursday, March 2, 1950 to Harold and Agnes Carpenter, of New Haven, Connecticut. Karen's brother Richard had arrived four years earlier on October 15, 1946.
Harold Carpenter hung swings in the basement of their home at 55 Hall Street and Karen and Richard spent many hours literally swinging to the music of their father's extensive record collection. It was in that basement that the Carpenter siblings first heard the sounds of Les Paul and Mary Ford, Spike Jones, and Patti Page, all figures that played a huge role in the development of the Carpenters' sound, nearly 20 years later.
Initially, it was Richard who took an interest in music. Karen recalls, "While Richard was listening to music in the basement, I was out playing baseball and football, and playing with my machine gun! I was very tomboyish, quite a character I hear. I remember I wanted to be a commercial artist, or a nurse, or an airline stewardess." She laughed recalling these early ambitions, saying, "One, I can't stand the sight of blood; two, if I fly one more mile...!"
Karen, watching Richard's talents exploding, tried her hand at music as well back in New Haven, and began practicing the flute while attending Nathan Hale School, just around the corner from Hall Street. The lessons went nowhere and she continued watching her brother and his talents in awe.
The Carpenter family moved from their New Haven home to suburban Downey, California in June 1963. Harold Carpenter hated the frozen winters in Connecticut and had been yearning for sunny southern California since the mid-1950s, not to mention Richard's musical abilities could pay off in the L.A. area. Hollywood and such surroundings would surely aid in establishing the career in music he dreamed of. After the Hall Street house sold back east, the Carpenter family bought a house at 13024 Fidler Avenue on Downey's south side.
While Karen loved sports and other outdoor activities, she hated Gym class at Downey High. With Richard's help, she was allowed to substitute Band for Gym, and ultimately joined the school's choir to avoid Geometry. In the Downey High School Band, Karen marched in the drum line with her glockenspiel. She soon became fond of the drums around her and finally asked her parents for a drum set.
A fellow drummer in the Downey Band, Frankie Chavez, helped Karen with the rudiments of drumming and she was soon showing off on her own set of Ludwigs. "Boy, could she play 'em!" exclaims Richard. Agnes Carpenter reportedly had to keep a stock of band-aids for her daughter's ailing, overworked fingers. "Luckily, drumming came naturally," Karen said in a 1981 interview. "I started right off playin', and time signatures came naturally... I don't know how, I mean, it felt so comfortable when I picked up a pair of sticks.
With Karen still in high school, her seventeen year-old brother Richard entered California State University as a music major in the fall of 1964. He soon became buddies with a tuba and bass player named Wes Jacobs, who joined Richard and his drum-playing sister to form the Richard Carpenter Trio. Growing accustomed to playing for dances and weddings, the trio reached the finals of the prestigious talent contest "The Battle of the Bands" at the Hollywood Bowl. Playing Richard's "Iced Tea" along with "The Girl From Ipanema," Richard, Karen, and Wes took top honours and were soon approached by an RCA Records representative. The trio was signed to the label and cut 11 tracks, but the deal was soon dissolved with no commercial release.
On May 13th, 1966, Karen, just discovering her vocal capabilities, was signed to Magic Lamp Records, a small, independent label. The label was owned by Joe Osborn, a well-known session bassist in the L.A. area. It was in Osborn's garage studio that Karen recorded "Looking for Love," "I'll Be Yours," "The Parting of Our Ways," and one other. Karen was the drummer of course, while Richard played keyboards and Joe played bass. A lone single was released in the summer or 1966. With a pressing of 500 records, a lack of distribution is blamed for the unsuccessful release. That Magic Lamp 45 RPM is today reportedly worth $500-$1,000!
That tape from the session however, was directed toward Herb Alpert , the head of A&M Records. Alpert liked what he heard and in April of 1969, signed "The Carpenters" to the label.
The Carpenters' debut album, "Offering", was released in November of 1969 and featured their first single, a ballad version of "Ticket to Ride," which peaked nationally at #54. That was soon followed by "Close To You," which would become Karen and Richard's breakthrough recording that took just six weeks to reach #1 where it remained for four consecutive weeks.
"Close to You" became an international hit, beginning a five-year period where the duo was one of the most popular recording acts in the world. During that period, the Carpenters won two Grammy Awards, including Best New Artist of 1970, and had an impressive string of Top Ten hits, including "Rainy Days and Mondays," "Superstar," "Hurting Each Other," "Goodbye to Love," "Yesterday Once More," and "Top of the World."
After 1975's number four hit "Only Yesterday," the group's popularity began to decline. For the latter half of the '70s, the duo were plagued by personal problems. Richard had become addicted to prescription drugs; in 1978, he entered a recovery clinic, kicking his habit. Karen , meanwhile, became afflicted with anorexia nervosa, a disease she suffered from for the rest of her life. On top of their health problems, the group's singles had stopped reaching the Top Ten and by 1978, they weren't even reaching the Top 40. Consequently, Karen decided to pursue a solo career, recording an album in 1979 with Phil Ramone. The record was never completed and she returned to the Carpenters later that year. The reunited duo released their last album of new material, "Made in America" in 1981. The album marked a commercial comeback, as "Touch Me When We're Dancing" made it to number 16 on the charts. However, Karen's health continued to decline, forcing the duo out of the spotlight.
She had an extreme case of anorexia and she fought to over come the disease throughout the last two years of her life. Her body couldn't take anymore. She'd been starving herself for seven years, using laxatives, drinking water with lemon, taking dozens of thyroid pills daily, and even throwing up.
The emergency call came at 8:51 am on February 4, 1983. Karen Carpenter's mother found her naked and unconscious on the floor of a walk-in wardrobe closet in their home in Downey, California. She was rushed to the hospital where attempts were made to save her life, but within an hour, Karen Carpenter was dead. She died of a cardiac arrest caused by the strain that the anorexia had put on her heart. At the age of 32, she was 5'4", but weighed only 108 lbs. Karen was laid to rest in the Carpenter family crypt at Forest Lawn in Cypress.
Following Karen's death, Richard produced several albums of previously unreleased material and numerous compilations. "Voice of the Heart", an album that included some finished tracks left off of "Made In America" and earlier LPs, was released in late 1983. It peaked at #46 in America and was certified Gold. Two singles, "Make Believe It's Your First Time", reached #7 on Billboard's Adult Contemporary chart, but stalled at #101 on the Pop chart. "Your Baby Doesn't Love You Anymore" was also an Adult Contemporary hit, reaching #12. Richard also released a solo album, "TIME" in 1987, which featured guest appearances by Dusty Springfield and Dionne Warwick.
In 1989, Richard served as executive producer for the TV movie The Karen Carpenter Story, which painted a stark and honest picture of the duo's personal lives and Karen's struggle with anorexia. In the first few weeks after the original airdate in the Fall of 1989, sales of Carpenters' albums soared. He went back into the studio to remix and sometimes re-record parts of the Carpenters' repertoire for such compilations as 1991's boxed set, "From The Top".
In October 1996, Karen's solo album "Karen Carpenter", which was recorded with producer Phil Ramone in 1979 and 1980, was finally released. The material covered a wide range of musical styles including Rock, Jazz, Blues and even Disco. In the liner notes, Richard explained that when the LP was first previewed by A&M executives, including Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss, the reaction was negative, with Alpert calling the effort "unreleaseable." Many fans completely disagreed and snapped up the limited number of CDs that were issued.
Richard settled in Thousand Oaks, California with his family and in 2004 pledged a $3 million gift to the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza Foundation in memory of Karen. The first Richard Carpenter Scholarship Competition Award Show was held at that venue on September 20th, 2006, with Richard and daughters Traci and Mindi performing after the show. Richard and his wife Mary won the Philanthropists of the Year Award of Ventura County in 2007.
In January, 2017, Richard was back in the news again when he filed a lawsuit against Universal Music for unpaid royalties he claimed were owned to him and Karen's estate from downloads on sites like iTunes and Amazon. He said he had been unable to resolve the dispute without suing.
At the height of their popularity, The Carpenters became one of the most popular groups in history, selling nearly 100 million units worldwide. They toured internationally through the '70s, and their 1976 tour of Japan was the largest grossing tour in that country up to that point. Karen's voice is considered by many to be the finest and most expressive in popular music. She is praised for her control, sense of pitch, and the subtle nuances of personal expression she introduced to a melody. The Carpenters were awarded eight Gold albums, five Platinum albums and ten Gold singles in America. They were the #1 best-selling American group between 1970 and 1980. In their first year, from July 1970 to June 1971, the Carpenters had four Top 5 hits , twice the number of any other artist during that period. They are still second on the list of "Artists With The Most #2 Hits": Carpenters had five, while Elvis Presley had six.
1966: "Looking for Love/I'll Be Yours" (Karen's solo with Magic Lamp Records)
1969: "Ticket To Ride",
1970: "Close To You", "We've Only Just Begun", "Merry Christmas, Darling",
1971: "For All We Know", "Rainy Days And Mondays", "Superstar", "Hurting Each Other",
1972: "It's Going To Take Some Time", "Goodbye To Love",
1973: "Sing", "Yesterday Once More", "Top Of The World",
1974: "I Won't Last A Day Without You", "Please Mr. Postman"
1975: "Only Yesterday", "Solitaire",
1976: "A Kind Of Hush", "I Need To Be In Love"
1977: "Calling Occupants Of Interplanetary Craft", "Christmas Song",
1978: "Sweet, Sweet Smile", "I Believe You",
1981: "Touch Me When We're Dancing", "Back In My Life Again", "Those Good Old Dreams"
1982: "Beechwood 4-5789",
1983: "Make Believe It's Your First Time",
1984: "Your Baby Doesn't Love You Anymore",
1985: A&M Memories Series Singles (10 total),
1987: "Something In Your Eyes" (from Richard's album),
1989: "If I Had You"