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Karen Anne Carpenter (March 2, 1950 – February 4, 1983) was an American singer and drummer. She and her brother, Richard Carpenter, formed the 1970s duo The Carpenters. Although her skills as a drummer earned admiration from drumming luminaries and peers, she is best known for her vocal performances. She had a contralto vocal range.
Carpenter suffered from anorexia nervosa, an eating disorder about which little was known at the time. She died at age 32 from heart failure caused by complications related to her illness. Carpenter's death led to increased visibility and awareness of eating disorders.
Karen Anne Carpenter was born in New Haven, Connecticut, the daughter of Agnes Reuwer (née Tatum) (March 5, 1915 – November 10, 1996) and Harold Bertram Carpenter (November 8, 1908 – October 15, 1988). Harold had been born in China where his parents were missionaries and was educated at boarding schools in England, before working in the printing business.
When she was young, she enjoyed playing baseball with other children on the street. On the TV program This Is Your Life, she stated that she liked pitching and later, in the early 1970s, she would become the pitcher on the Carpenters' official softball team. Her brother Richard developed an interest in music at an early age, becoming a piano prodigy. Karen enjoyed dancing and by age 4 was enrolled in tap dancing and ballet classes. The family moved in June 1963 to the Los Angeles suburb of Downey.
When Carpenter entered Downey High School, she joined the school band. Bruce Gifford, the conductor (who had previously taught her older brother) gave her the glockenspiel, an instrument she disliked and after admiring the performance of her friend, Frankie Chavez (who idolized famous jazz drummer Buddy Rich), she asked if she could play the drums instead. She and her brother made their first recordings in 1965 and 1966. The following year she began dieting. Under a doctor's guidance, she went on the Stillman Diet. She rigorously ate lean foods, drank eight glasses of water a day, and avoided fatty foods. She was 5' 4" (163 cm) in height and before dieting weighed 145 pounds (66 kg; 10 st 5 lb) and afterwards weighed 120 pounds (54 kg; 8 st 8 lb) until 1973, when the Carpenters' career reached its peak. By September 1975, her weight was 91 pounds (41 kg; 6 st 7 lb).
From 1965 to 1968 Karen, her brother Richard, and his college friend Wes Jacobs, a bassist and tuba player, formed The Richard Carpenter Trio. The band played jazz at numerous nightclubs and also appeared on the TV talent show Your All-American College Show. Karen, Richard and other musicians, including Gary Sims and John Bettis, also performed as an ensemble known as Spectrum. Spectrum focused on a harmonious and vocal sound, and recorded many demo tapes in the garage studio of friend and bassist Joe Osborn. Many of those tapes were rejected by record companies. According to former Carpenters member John Bettis, those rejections "took their toll." The tapes of the original sessions were lost in a fire at Joe Osborn's house, and the surviving versions of those early songs exist only as fragile acetate reference discs. Finally A&M Records signed the Carpenters to a recording contract in 1969. Karen sang most of the songs on the band's first album, Offering (later retitled Ticket to Ride), and her brother wrote 10 out of the album's 13 songs. The issued single (later the title track), which was a cover of a Beatles song, became their first single; it reached #54 on the Billboard Hot 100. Their next album, 1970's Close to You, featured two massive hit singles: "(They Long to Be) Close to You" and "We've Only Just Begun". They peaked at #1 and #2, respectively, on the Hot 100.
Karen and Richard Carpenter, at the White House on August 1, 1972
Carpenter started out as both the group's drummer and lead singer, and she originally sang all her vocals from behind the drum set. Because she was just 5 feet 4 inches tall, it was difficult for people in the audience to see her behind her drum kit, so she was eventually persuaded to stand at the microphone to sing the band's hits while another musician played the drums (former Disney Mouseketeer Cubby O'Brien served as the band's other drummer for many years). After the release of Now & Then in 1973, the albums tended to have Carpenter singing more and drumming less. At this time, her brother developed an addiction to Quaaludes. The Carpenters frequently cancelled tour dates, and they stopped touring altogether after their September 4, 1978, concert at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. The Carpenters' Very First TV Special aired December 8, 1976. In 1980, she performed a medley of standards in a duet with Ella Fitzgerald on the Carpenters' television program Music, Music, Music. In 1981, after the release of the Made in America album (which turned out to be their last), the Carpenters returned to the stage and did some tour dates, including their final live performance in Brazil.
In addition to being a drummer and a singer, Karen Carpenter could also play the electric bass guitar. She played bass guitar on two songs on Offering/Ticket to Ride (the Carpenters first album released by A&M). The two songs were All of My Life and Eve. Although Karen's bass playing is heard on the original album(s), Richard remixed both songs (as he has done with almost every Carpenters song), and Joe Osborn's bass playing was substituted for later "greatest hits" releases.
Carpenter started playing the drums in 1964. She was always enthusiastic about the drums and taught herself how to play complicated drum lines with "exotic time signatures," according to her brother. Carpenter's drumming was praised by fellow drummers Hal Blaine, Cubby O'Brien, and Buddy Rich and by Modern Drummer magazine. According to her brother, Carpenter always considered herself a "drummer who sang." Despite this, she was not often featured as a drummer on the Carpenters' albums. She was, however, the only drummer on the albums Ticket to Ride and Now & Then (except for one song) and on the songs "Mr. Guder", "I'll Never Fall in Love Again", "Love is Surrender", "Bacharach/David Medley", the piano instrumental "Flat Baroque" (highlighting her use of brushes), "Happy", "Another Song" and "Please Mr. Postman." The role of drummer in the Carpenters entourage was mainly taken over by Hal Blaine as she went from behind the drum set to the front of the stage. Karen was known for endorsing Ludwig Drums and she had two setups (20" bass drum, 14 and 16" floor toms, 13" mounted tom, 4, 6, 8 and 10" concert toms and the Ludwig SuperSensitive snare drum, which was the one snare drum she favored greatly). She also used a Rogers hi-hat, a Rogers bass drum pedal, Zildjian cymbals, 11A drumsticks (brand unspecified) and Remo drumheads. On Made in America, Karen provided percussion on "Those Good Old Dreams" in tandem with Paulinho da Costa and made a final return to playing drums on the song "When it's Gone (It's Just Gone)" in unison with Larrie Londin.
In 1979, Richard took a year off to cure his dependency on Quaaludes, and Karen decided to make a solo album with producer Phil Ramone. Her solo work was markedly different from the usual Carpenters fare, consisting of adult-oriented and disco / up-tempo material with more sexual lyrics and the use of Karen's higher vocal register. The project met a tepid response from Richard and A&M executives in early 1980. The album was shelved by A&M Records CEO Herb Alpert, in spite of attempts by producer Quincy Jones to convince Alpert to release the record after a remix. A&M charged the Carpenters $400,000 to cover the cost of recording Karen's solo album, to be paid out of the duo's future royalties. Carpenters fans got a taste of the solo album in 1989 when some of its tracks (as remixed by Richard) were included on the album Lovelines, the final album of Carpenters' unreleased new material. In 1996, the complete album, titled Karen Carpenter, was finally released.
Carpenter lived with her parents until she was 24. In September and October of 1971, two years after the Carpenters' debut album, she and her brother bought two apartment buildings in Downey as a financial investment. Formerly named the "Geneva", the two complexes were renamed "Only Just Begun" and "Close to You" in honor of the duo's first smash hits. The apartment buildings are located at 8353 and 8356 5th Street, Downey, California. In 1976, Carpenter bought two Century City apartments, gutted them, and turned them into one condominium. Located at 2222 Avenue of the Stars, the doorbell chimed the first six notes of "We've Only Just Begun". As a housewarming gift, her mother gave her a collection of leather-bound classic works of literature. Carpenter collected Disney memorabilia, loved to play softball and baseball, and counted Petula Clark, Olivia Newton-John, and Dionne Warwick among her closest friends.
Carpenter dated a number of well-known men, including Mike Curb, Tony Danza, Terry Ellis, Mark Harmon, Steve Martin, and Alan Osmond. After a whirlwind romance, she married real-estate developer Thomas James Burris on August 31, 1980, in the Crystal Room of the Beverly Hills Hotel. Burris, divorced with an 18-year-old son, was nine years her senior. A new song performed by Carpenter at the ceremony, "Because We Are in Love", was released in 1981. Burris concealed from Carpenter, who desperately wanted children, the fact that he had undergone a vasectomy. Their marriage did not survive the deceit and ended after 14 months. In addition to that, Burris was said to have been broke and living well beyond his means, borrowing up to $35,000 and $50,000 at a time from his wife, to the point that she had only stocks and bonds left. He was also said to have been abusive towards her, often being impatient with Karen, who shared with close friends that she remained fearful when he would occasionally lose his temper with her. Close friend Karen "Itchie" Ramone recounted one incident where she and Carpenter went to their normal hangout, Hamburger Hamlet, and Karen appeared to be distant emotionally, sitting not at their regular table but in the dark, and wearing large dark sunglasses, unable to eat and crying. According to Itchie, the marriage was "the straw that broke the camel's back. It was absolutely the worst thing that could have ever happened to her."
In September 1981, Carpenter revised her will and left everything to her brother and parents. Two months later, following an argument after a family dinner in a restaurant, Carpenter and Burris broke up. Carpenter filed for divorce while staying in Lenox Hill Hospital.
Burris later remarried and now resides in Sedona, Arizona with his wife of over 30 years. He has not publicly spoken about his marriage to Carpenter due to a confidentiality agreement.
"Now", recorded in April 1982, was the last song Carpenter recorded. She recorded it after a two-week intermission in her therapy with psychotherapist Steven Levenkron in New York City for her anorexia, during which she had lost a considerable amount of weight. During her illness, in order to lose weight, she had taken thyroid replacement medication (to speed up her metabolism) and laxatives. Despite her participation in therapy, her condition continued to deteriorate and she only lost more weight, leading Carpenter to call her psychotherapist to tell him she felt dizzy and that her heart was beating irregularly. Finally in September 1982, she was admitted to Lenox Hill Hospital in New York and hooked up to an intravenous drip, which caused her to gain a considerable amount of weight (30 pounds) in just eight weeks. The sudden weight gain further strained her heart, which was already weak from years of dietary restriction.
Carpenter returned to California in November 1982, determined to reinvigorate her career, finalize her divorce, and begin a new album with Richard. On December 17, 1982, Karen gave her last singing performance in the multi-purpose room of the Buckley School in Sherman Oaks, California, singing Christmas carols for her godchildren, their classmates who attended the school, and other friends. On January 11, 1983, Karen made her last public appearance at a photocall of past Grammy Award winners to celebrate the award's 25th anniversary. Karen appeared somewhat frail and worn out, but according to Dionne Warwick, she was vibrant and outgoing, exclaiming to everyone, "Look at me! I've got an ass!"
On February 4, 1983, less than a month before her 33rd birthday, Carpenter intended to sign papers making her divorce from Tom Burris official. Shortly after waking up, Carpenter collapsed in her bedroom at her parents' home in Downey, California. Paramedics called to the scene by Karen's mother found her heart beating once every 10 seconds. She was taken to nearby Downey Community Hospital for treatment, where – by then in full cardiac arrest – she was pronounced dead 20 minutes later at 9:51 a.m.
The acting Los Angeles County coroner Dr. Ronald Kornblum performed the autopsy on Karen Carpenter. The results of the autopsy and cause of death were released to the public on March 11, 1983, by way of a press conference and accompanying press release. A drug or medication overdose was explicitly ruled out. The cause of Karen Carpenter's death was stated as "emetine cardiotoxicity due to or as a consequence of anorexia nervosa." What was not specified in the report was how the emetine got into Carpenter's system.
The March 11, 1983 press release for the autopsy did not use the word "Ipecac", and causation between the use of ipecac syrup and Carpenter's death was not made at that time. Media reports describing the primary cause of Carpenter's death frequently used the phrase "'heartbeat irregularities brought on by chemical imbalances' associated with anorexia nervosa", phrasing used by Dr. Ronald Kornblum during the press conference. He explained in a 1985 interview, "It never occurred to me to mention ipecac. In my mind, emetine and ipecac are the same thing." Two years after Carpenter's death, March 21, 1985, Kornblum was a part of a teleconference with other medical doctors. At that time, Kornblum explicitly stated that Carpenter's heart failure was caused by repeated use of ipecac syrup, an over-the-counter emetic often used to induce vomiting in cases of overdosing or poisoning. During the teleconference, the process was explained "...over time, (emetine) attacks the heart muscle, ultimately causing disorders in the small electric impulses that coordinate the heart's beating. Those disorders lead to heartbeat irregularities, which in turn lead to death." Doctors on the 1985 conference call urged making Ipecac syrup available only by prescription, or at the least, the addition of warning labels to the product.
The conclusion that Carpenter's death was caused by chronic use of ipecac syrup was disputed by her mother and brother, who both stated that they never found empty vials of ipecac in her apartment, and have denied that there was any evidence that she had been vomiting. Richard has also expressed the belief that Karen was not willing to ingest ipecac syrup because of the potential damage that both the syrup and excessive vomiting would do to her vocal cords, and that she relied on laxatives alone to maintain her low body weight.
Dr. Richard Shepherd, a forensic pathologist, believed that Karen's abuse of ipecac syrup and synthroid contributed to her death along with the singer's anorexia and shrunken heart.
Carpenter's funeral service took place on February 8, 1983, at the Downey United Methodist Church. Dressed in a rose-colored suit, Carpenter lay in an open white casket. Over 1,000 mourners passed through to say goodbye, among them her friends Dorothy Hamill, Olivia Newton-John, Petula Clark, and Dionne Warwick. Carpenter's estranged husband Tom attended her funeral, where he took off his wedding ring and placed it inside the casket. She was entombed at the Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Cypress, California. In 2003, Richard had Karen re-interred, along with their parents, in a newly constructed outdoor Carpenter family mausoleum at the Pierce Brothers Valley Oaks Memorial Park in Westlake Village, California, which is closer to his Southern California home.
Carpenter's death brought media attention to anorexia nervosa and also to bulimia. The general public had little knowledge of anorexia nervosa and bulimia prior to Carpenter's death, making the condition difficult to identify and treat. Her family started the Karen A. Carpenter Memorial Foundation, which raised money for research on anorexia nervosa and eating disorders. Today the name of the organization has been changed to the Carpenter Family Foundation. In addition to eating disorders, the foundation now funds the arts, entertainment and education.
On October 12, 1983, the Carpenters received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. It is located at 6931 Hollywood Blvd., a few yards from the Dolby Theater. Richard, Harold and Agnes Carpenter attended the inauguration, as did many fans.