The Heartbreaking Saga Behind The Carpenters


We’ve Only Just Begun

As the pop group bearing their last name, Karen and Richard Carpenter tore through the 70s. They sold over 100 million records to date and have fans stretching to all corners of the world. No matter their success, personal problems continued to get in the way.

Following In Her Brother’s Footsteps

From a young age, Richard Carpenter became interested in music. He began hating the rigidity of piano lessons and taught himself to play by ear. Karen, four years his junior, joined the school band in high school to avoid gym classes as a drummer. They both began messing around with various bands until they decided to join forces in 1965 as the Richard Carpenter Trio. Within a few years, they would record hit songs, but not before Karen started heading down a slippery slope.

A Weighted Decision

When Karen graduated from Downey High School in 1967, she was 17 years old, a year younger than the rest of her classmates. At a time in her life where body image was everything, Karen began dieting. She was five-foot-four but weighed 145 lbs. After high school, Karen started the Stillman diet which focuses on lean meats and a minimum of eight glasses of water per day. The diet helped her get down to a healthy-looking 120 lbs. The stunning Carpenter was ready for the big time.

Battle Of The Bands

As the Richard Carpenter Trio continued to work hard at making music, they entered a battle of the bands at the famed Hollywood Bowl. Unlike many battles of the bands which rewards the winners with a cash prize, this specific contest would lead to a record contract with RCA. Karen, Richard, and Wes Jacobs were thrilled to find out that they won and would join RCA. Unfortunately, the company decided their music was not the right fit and released them without a record.

Beating Old Brother To The Big Time

Even though Richard was the musical savant working his tail off to become a professional musician, it was Karen who earned the first recording contract between the two of them. After tagging along to a session with bassist Joe Osborn, Osborn offered Karen a recording deal with his label, Magic Lamp Records. They were not interested in Richard as a musician but did release two of his compositions. Karen’s single did not do well and the label folded.

Doomed At Disneyland

Early into his music playing career, Richard picked up a gig on Disneyland’s Main Street U.S.A. with his songwriting partner John Bettis. They were forced to wear traditional Dixieland clothes and play era-appropriate songs. At one point, they decided to take requests from park visitors. Since it was during the Summer of Love, they would request psychedelic songs like The Doors’ Light My Fire. Disney showed them the door for not following instructions and breaking character.

A Ticket To Ride

After a variety of band names and lineups, Richard and Karen settled on the Carpenters. They signed their first big recording contract with A&M Records in 1969. At the time Karen was only 19 had to have a parent co-sign the contract. Their first single was a cover of the Beatles Ticket To Ride. It peaked at number 54 on the Billboard Hot 100. Paul McCartney would go on to call Karen “the best female voice in the world: melodic, tuneful and distinctive.”

Take It To The Bank

Over the next year, the Carpenters recorded and released two of the biggest hits of their career: (They Long to Be) Close To You and We’ve Only Just Begun. While Close to You was written by legend Burt Bacharach and rearranged by Richard, We’ve Only Just Begun came from an interesting origin. The song was originally recorded by Paul Williams and Roger Nichols for a wedding-themed television commercial for Crocker National Bank. Richard saw the ad and asked Williams for the full song.

Not Mommy’s Little Girl

Even though the Carpenters were now bona fide stars (their third album went four times Platinum), there was one person who was unimpressed with how far Karen had come – her mother. Agnes Carpenter always favored Richard and did everything to further his future without considering Karen. They moved to California from Baltimore, so Richard could be closer to the music industry. Karen began to outshine Richard publicly, but Agnes never acknowledged it, leaving a huge hole in Karen’s heart.

Marching To The Beat Of Her Own Drum

At the time of the Carpenters’ success, female drummers were few and far between. Even today, female drummers are rare outside of all-girl groups and Cindy Blackmon Santana of Lenny Kravitz and Santana fame. Although she was in a groundbreaking position for women in music, Karen was very against the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 60s and 70s. She felt a woman’s place was to cook for her husband throughout a marriage.

Tipping The Scales

By 1973, the Carpenters were a household name. Karen, still haunted by her chubbier younger days, saw a photo of herself from one of their shows in which she seemed a bit heavier. She hired a trainer to help her lose weight, but the high carb, low-calorie diet only made her bulk up in muscle without appearing thinner. Karen began taking greater extremes in her diet and quickly lost 20 lbs. Soon, Karen’s weight would become the focus of everyone around her.

Staying Away From Food

As she formed her own diet, Karen did everything to keep food off her plate. She said in 1973, “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… You never get to dinner until, like, midnight, and if you eat heavy you’re not going to sleep, and you’re going to be a balloon.”

Getting Carried Away

Karen had great results from her new diet. However, she started to become obsessed with weight loss. Carole Curb, her ex-boyfriend and record executive Mike Curb’s sister, said, “She weighed 110 lb. or so, and looked amazing… If she’d been able to stop there, then life would have been beautiful. A lot of us girls in that era went through moments of that. Everybody wanted to be Twiggy. Karen got carried away. She just couldn’t stop.”

Richard Takes Notice

For a while, Richard was oblivious to his sister’s increasingly peculiar eating habits. Once he picked up on it, he initially assumed it was part of a comprehensive weight loss plan. He complimented her on her weight loss one day, telling her, ” You look great.” Karen replied, ” Well, I’m just going to get down to around 105.” Richard became worried by her answer and said, “A hundred and five? You look great now.” The comment fell on deaf ears.

Hiding Her Open Secret

Karen’s eating habits became more worrisome as she dropped to 90 lb. Those around her began pestering her about eating so she would do anything she could to hide her weight loss. Her agent, Sherwin Bash, began noticing one trend in 1975. “She would start with a long-sleeved shirt and then put a blouse over that and a sweater over that and a jacket over that… With all of it, you had no idea of what she had become.”

Audiences Pick Up On It

Her friends and family were not the only ones that were shocked by Karen’s skinny physique. Audiences could not believe how skinny she had become. Sometimes, an audible gasp could be heard when she would take the stage. Concerned fans began to approach Bash about his client assuming that Karen had cancer or some life-threatening illness. One critic wrote, “She is terribly thin, almost a wraith, and should be gowned more becomingly,” after praising her entrance from the drums to the mic.

Europe Will Have To Wait

Everyone began noticing major changes to Karen. She became overwhelmed with exhaustion frequently and would have to lie down. After some shows in Las Vegas in 1975, Karen checked into Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. She was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa, and her doctor said in a statement that she suffered from physical and nervous exhaustion. The Carpenters had a European tour lined up, but doctors would not clear her to perform. They refunded ticket costs for the 50 shows.

Not The Only Troubled Sibling

While the world’s attention stuck to Karen and her struggles with eating disorders, Richard developed a nasty habit of his own. He started taking prescription pills and began increasing his doses after their 1971 tour which lead to a major addiction. On September 4, 1978, even though they had shows lined up at the MGM Grand, Richard abruptly quit touring. He refused to make a UK television appearance, leaving Karen to fend off rumors of a split and perform on her own.

Karen’s New Man

Karen had had past relationships, but her relationship with property developer Tom Burris would define her love life. They got engaged in 1980 after only two months of dating. Her friends were worried, but Karen was head over heels for him. The good vibes died out however when Karen found out as they neared their wedding date that Tom had had a vasectomy years earlier. She wanted kids desperately, and she considered calling off the wedding before going through with on August 31, 1980.

More Trouble With Tom

Agnes refused to allow Karen to call off the wedding since it had been paid for. Things only got worse too. Karen assumed he had his own money, but Tom was broke and lavishly spent her money. He would ask for up to $50,000 at a time. Eventually, she only had investments left. In addition, he would berate her cruelly, once calling her a “bag of bones,” and would tell her that she’d never have his child. She filed for divorce after only 14 months.

Extreme Weight Loss Measures

Karen would seek any method possible to lose weight. She eventually found herself in the habit of taking tons of pills. Each night, she would take 80 to 90 laxative tablets. In addition to laxatives, she would take thyroid medication in the hope of speeding up her metabolism. Her thyroid was fine, so it put stress on her body. Karen began seeing psychotherapist Steven Levenkron. Anorexia was rarely discussed publicly, and Levenkron specialized in treatment of eating disorders.

Turning A Blind Eye

No matter who tried to help Karen, Agnes continued to ignore her daughter’s deteriorating health. Levenkron called Richard and their parents once to tell them just to tell her that they love her. Agnes scolded him for using her first name and said they don’t do things that way. Sherwin Bash had tried years earlier to approach Agnes about it, and he was also brushed off and told it was a family matter. Agnes believed psychiatrists were for the crazy, not her skinny daughter.

Denial Ain’t Just A River In Egypt

Richard returned from rehab ready to hit the studio. During a Europe trip and press tour, Nationwide host Sue Lawley surprised the sibling by asking Karen about the rumors that she was anorexic. Karen shot them down saying that she was just tired. When Lawley pushed further, Karen attempted to laugh it off before rolling her eyes at Lawley. Richard then came to her defense saying “It’s really not what we’re here for.”

The End Of Days

By the end of 1982, Karen weighed under 80 lbs. Richard became incensed with Levenkron’s treatment plan. Finally, her parents and Richard helped her move back home to Los Angeles. She seemed to be resuming a normal life, but curiously took more naps than usual. Her housekeeper found her lying on the closet floor once. On February 4, 1983, Agnes found Karen passed out and naked in her wardrobe. She died of ipecac poisoning, a drug used for vomiting, as a consequence of anorexia nervosa.

Enshrined In Her Hometown

Karen’s death hit Richard hard. He called it “the worst thing in my life.” A little over a month after her death, Richard and Karen would receive a great honor which Richard was forced to accept on his own. They received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, not far from their hometown suburb of Downey. A teary-eyed Richard stood with their parents as a 32-piece choir sang We’ve Only Just Begun. Their final studio album was released that day.

I Ain’t Afraid Of No Ghost

For years, people have claimed to see the ghost of Karen Carpenter at the Jim Henson Company entertainment complex. They have described seeing a woman in the dressing room area at the soundstage with strikingly similar features to Karen. Her office used to be above the stage when A&M Records was in the building. The ghost witnessed claim that the woman stays in the dressing room but never exits the room.

Not Thurston For Moore

The Carpenters have had plenty of their songs covered over the years. In an interview on NPR, Richard openly discussed the Sonic Youth cover of Superstar. Not surprisingly, Richard cannot stand listening to the Thurston Moore fronted cover. He said, “At least when it comes to something like this, I will say I don’t care for it, but I don’t understand it. So I’m not going to say it’s good or it’s bad. I’m just going to say I don’t care for it.”

Turning Down A Night At The Heartbreak Hotel

Before her obsession with body image took over her life, Karen was incredibly beautiful. One of the biggest stars on Earth took an interest in her too. During one of Elvis’s shows in Las Vegas, Karen and British singer Petula Clark were hanging out in his dressing room. The King propositioned both women. Clark put an end to it and “shoved both of us out of the room.” Clark said he seemed quite amused by possibly his first rejection.

Returning To The Game

In 2008, Richard Carpenter made a shocking announcement: he was planning a comeback. Due to the Carpenters’ success in Japan, he first announced it at a luncheon for the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan. He said, “It’s a different business. Music is a different world from when Karen and I were signed by Herb Alpert in 1969, but I feel I have some talent.” Richard planned to produce a Carpenters tribute album, a Christmas album, and a solo collection of original tunes.

Musical Style

As individuals, Karen and Richard had unique musical styles. While Karen’s contralto vocals were not considered to be synonymous with a powerful singing voice, her three octaves were a goldmine for Richard’s vision when it came to composing the songs. Ultimately, it was Karen’s low, soulful voice that made the band so iconic, but Richard’s creative vision could not be ignored and was the perfect foil for her raw talent. According to Richard, if you lack the right arrangements, you fail the singer.

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It’s In The Logo

Most bands have an iconic logo, and The Carpenters were no different. The inspiration for their logo came in 1971, when Craig Braun designed their third album cover. “I recognized it to be a great logo as soon as I saw it,” he said. Since then, the logo has appeared on nearly every album by The Carpenters. Richards reasoning for this was “to keep things consistent”. Although it didn’t appear on the cover of Passage, it was on the back sleeve.

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Karen’s Legacy

Regardless of her divided fan base, Karen Carpenter is often regarded by music critics as one of the greatest female singers of all time. She was ranked by Rolling Stone as number 94 in their “100 Greatest Voices of All Time” list. She was also highly praised by National Public Radio and even Paul McCartney himself referred to her as “the best female voice in the world: melodic, tuneful and distinctive.” Herb Alpert called her “the type of singer who would sit in your lap and sing in your ear.”

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Hours Of Footage

It wouldn’t take long after Karen’s death that rare archived footage was found, showing one of the Carpenters’ first appearance on TV. The person who found the footage got in touch with Richard and eventually transformed all of the footage into a home video called Yesterday Once More, which is also the name of one of their albums. The video, which was released in 1985, is essentially like an album. Eventually, a greatest hits album called Gold came out on the back of its success.

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Change Of Heart

The mainstream opinion of The Carpenters has evolved in a way that no other band has experienced. Originally, many looked at the duo’s sound as too soft and too pop-like to be considered rock and roll. However, as time has gone on, especially at the turn of the Millenium, many documentaries have been made that have explored the band’s music style. Some of these include Close to You: Remembering The CarpentersThe Sayonara, and Only Yesterday: The Carpenters Story.

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Award Winners

Both during their career and after it came to end,  The Carpenters have received numerous awards and nominations for their contribution to music. When they were active, Karen and Richard won many Grammy Awards, including Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals, and Best New Artist, with many nominations too. Then, both their songs “We’ve Only Just Begun” and “(They Long to Be) Close to You” received the highest of honors – Grammy Hall of Fame awards.

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Many Followers

The list of artists who have cited Karen Carpenter as inspiration for their own styles and sounds is absolutely staggering. Some of today’s biggest female singers, such as Madonna, Sheryl Crow, and Shania Twain have often regarded Karen as one of their major inspirations. Other artists have honored her in a variety of ways. For example, Sonic Youth released a song called “Tunic (Song for Karen.)” Many artists recorded alternate rock covers of Carpenter hits on the tribute album, If I Were a Carpenter.

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Iconic Shows

The Carpenters had some pretty unique shows in their heyday. Their largest ever recorded show took place at the Ohio State Fair. The 1971 summer show saw them play in front of about 50,000 people. Another unique performance came just a year later when they received the ultimate honor of performing at the 1972 edition of the Academy Awards. However, they received criticism due to the fact that they lip-synced the entire performance of “Bless the Beasts and the Children.”

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Hello, Mr. President

Apparently, former President Richard Nixon was a huge fan of The Carpenters, and not just for their music. He invited the duo to the White House in 1973 and wanted to personally praise them for their huge contributions to cancer research. Believe it or not, but at the time, 22-year-old Karen was the national youth chair of the American Cancer Society. Also, both the siblings and Nixon were originally from areas very close to each other in California.

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In Memory Of…

In light of Karen Carpenter’s untimely passing, her family decided to open the Karen A. Carpenter Memorial Foundation. The foundation was designed to raise money to help raise awareness and further research for anorexia nervosa, the condition that claimed Karen’s life. Since then, the foundation has changed its name to The Carpenter Family Foundation. It has since evolved and now funds numerous initiatives that help raise awareness of the eating disorder. These include art programs, entertainment facilities, and education programs.

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Mommy Issues

There is no denying that Karen and Richard had an extremely traditional upbringing. However, this didn’t take anything away from the fact that Karen’s relationship with her mother was rocky, at best. The general consensus about Karen was that she was a loving, caring individual who always put others before her. But when it came to her mother, she just struggled to see eye to eye with her. Many speculate that these issues had a part to play in her eating disorder.

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A Couple Of Superstars

Every song has a story, and if there was ever a story that needed to be told, it is surely the one behind arguably The Carpenters’ most iconic song, “Superstar.” The song is sung from the perspective of a diehard fan who feels dejected by the iconic singer that they love. “Don’t you remember you told me you loved me, baby? You said you’d be coming back this way again, baby” certainly makes this clear. Although Sonic Youth covered the song, Richard reportedly didn’t care about it.

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Karen’s Favorite

It is always fascinating to know what a musician’s favorite song of theirs actually is. You know what they say, every artist is their own biggest critic. This certainly applied to The Carpenters. It turns out that Karen’s favorite song was 1976’s “I Need To Be In Love.” This is probably due to the fact that it is heavily connected to her own life. She spent so much time dipping in and out of failed relationships, never finding true love.

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Brief Hiatus

It wasn’t just Karen who had her own health issues. It turns out that Richard had his own problems, after struggling with an addiction to prescriptive medicines. As a result, he was forced to take a year off in order to deal with it. He entered rehab and eventually made his way back to full recovery. On the flipside, Karen was dealing with her anorexia and instead of taking a break, like her brother, she decided to go solo.

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What was so fascinating about The Carpenters was their desire to be conventional, but with the outcome appearing to be quite the opposite. For example, Karen happened to live at home with her family until she was 26 years old. This was after they moved to Downey, California. Although it’s perfectly normal for people in their mid-20s to still live at home, back then, it was considered strange. In a tragic twist of irony, she also ended up passing away in the same home.

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Superstars On The Walk Of Fame

Just eight months after Karen passed away, Richard found out that he and his sister would be honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. “This is a sad day, but at the same time a very special and beautiful day to my family and me,” he said. “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.”

Named Their Apartments

People love to name things – their pets, their toys, their babies. For Karen and Richard, they enjoyed naming their apartments. This happened once the duo got their first taste of fame and success. As the money started filling their bank accounts, they acquired their own apartments and decided to name them after some of their early hits. One of their buildings was called “Close To You,” while the other was named “Only Just Begun.” This kind of made sense!

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We’re Just A Pair Of Carpenters

It’s trivial, to say the very least. However, if you ask any diehard fan, they will tell you that this band should only be referred to as “Carpenters.” The “the” that is often included is completely unnecessary. Similar to the way that the Eagles are actually just “Eagles.” Also, consider the fact that Facebook was originally called “The Facebook,” and Sean Parker told Mark Zuckerberg to drop the “the,” because it sounded cleaner. It was the same reasoning for “the” Carpenters.

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Keeping It In The Family

It might sound more bizarre than it actually is, but Richard actually married his own cousin, and had five children with her! Now, before you start making judgments, let’s clear things up a little. In 1984, Richard married his adopted cousin, who happened to be Mary Rudolph, who was actually the band’s road manager. She also made an appearance in the promotional video for their hit single “I Need To Be In Love.” The couple are still married to this day.

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Family Band

Not only did Richard marry his cousin and have five kids together, he also goes on the road with his kids from time to time and performs with them! His kids are Kristi Lynn, Traci Tatum, Mindi Karen (who was named after her late auntie), Colin Paul and Taylor Mary. In order to honor his sister, Richard still brings his family into his musical endeavors, taking his kids on the road with him and performing together at Carpenter events.

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Richard’s Reflections On Karen

In an interview with People magazine, Richard opened up following Karen’s death. He said, “I did a lot of soul-searching after her death, and I realize now that I did as much as I could have done. All of us who loved her did. But I still can’t believe she’s gone. We spent so much time together. There’s a void there now. I miss her more and more each day.” He continued, ” You simply have to deal with it. And I’m doing the best I can.”