Who Was Karen Carpenter?
Singer Karen Carpenter started performing with her brother Richard as a teenager. The pair later became world famous as Carpenters, one of the 1970s biggest soft rock acts. They landed their first number-one hit with “(They Long to Be) Close to You” in 1970. More hits soon followed, including “Rainy Days and Mondays” and “Top of the World.” Carpenter battled anorexia for many years, and the disease contributed to her untimely death in 1983.
Early Life and Career
Born on March 2, 1950, in New Haven, Connecticut, Karen Carpenter was one-half of the hit 70s pop duo, the Carpenters, with her brother Richard. The Carpenter family moved to Downey, California, in 1963, and it was there that Karen began to explore an interest in music. She took up an instrument in high school as a way of dodging gym class. As she told People magazine, “I couldn’t stand track at 8 a.m. or a cold pool, so they put me in the band and gave me a glockenspiel.”
Carpenter later switched to another form of percussion, playing the drums in a trio with her brother. They went on to win a battle of the bands at the Hollywood Bowl in 1966. Karen and Richard Carpenter later became a duo, eventually landing a record deal with A&M.
Karen and her brother put on their first album, Offering (later renamed Ticket to Ride), in 1969. While this album failed to take off, they hit it big with their next release, 1970’s Close to You. By this time, Karen dropped the drums to focus on singing. “(They Long to Be) Close to You,” written by Burt Bacharach, became the duo’s first chart-topping single. The song also earned them a Grammy win for best contemporary vocal performance by a duo, group or chorus. The album also featured another now classic Carpenters hit, “We’ve Only Just Begun.” The Carpenters picked up the Grammy for best new artist in 1970, and they continued to reach the charts with such songs as “Rainy Days and Mondays,” “Superstar” and “Hurting Each Other.”
Sometimes maligned by critics for being too sentimental and square, the Carpenters won over a substantial fan base with their soft rock sound and their carefully crafted pop songs. Karen’s lovely vocals were an essential part of the duo’s appeal. Their squeaky clean persona won over such famous fans as President Richard M. Nixon who had them play at the White House in 1973. That same year, they scored such hits as “Sing” and “Top of the World.” Unfortunately, the extensive touring and other pressures began to weigh on Karen Carpenter.
By 1975, Carpenter had lost a substantial amount of weight and was experiencing extreme exhaustion. (It was later revealed that she had an eating disorder known as anorexia nervosa.) She ended up in the hospital for a time, and she was in such bad shape that she had to cancel the Carpenters’ European tour. Carpenter spent weeks recovering at her parents’ home, but she would battle her eating disorder for the rest of her life.
Karen and Richard Carpenter continued with their music, scoring hits with such songs as 1976’s “I Need To Be In Love.” But by the end of the decade, they were no longer dominating the pop charts. Still Karen’s personal life seemed to be improving around this time. She married real estate developer Thomas Burris in 1980. Sadly, this union soon fell apart as Carpenter struggled with her illness and her husband wrestled with business woes.
The Carpenters last made their last appearance on Billboard’s Top 40 in 1981 with “Touch Me When We’re Dancing,” which was also a number-one hit on the adult contemporary chart. Karen Carpenter finally sought treatment for her eating disorder around this time. She moved to New York where she spent nearly a year getting care. Carpenter returned to California seemingly in better health.
On the morning of February 4, 1983, Karen Carpenter collapsed at her family’s home in Downey, California. She was taken to a local hospital, but the medical staff was unable to revive her. Carpenter died of heart failure, likely brought on by her longtime battle with anorexia. She was only 32 years old.
The music world mourned her passing. Songwriter Burt Bacharach told People magazine that “She was a magical person with a magical voice.” Carpenter’s only solo effort, a self-titled record, was released years after her passing in 1996.
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