It’s pretty much impossible to write about Karen Carpenter without first mentioning her tragic, premature death from the effects of an eating disorder. It’s the first thing most of us think about. But having acknowledged it, I’d like to now leave it behind because I’d much rather remember Karen Carpenter the singer.
The Carpenters began as the Richard Carpenter Trio in the late 1960’s, with Karen’s vocalizing backed by both her brother and bassist Wes Jacobs. They worked hard for a while, and even won a battle of bands at the Hollywood Bowl which led to making a few records, but none did well. Jacobs eventually left and was replaced by John Bettis, and the group was also renamed Spectrum, but it still struggled and Bettis soon disappeared too.
Richard and Karen began performing as a duo and eventually caught the attention of musical star Herb Alpert, who was also the head of A&M Records. As Alpert later said about their music, and especially Karen’s voice, “It just jumped right out at me. It felt like she was in the room with me”. He signed them to a recording contract and they were on their way.
Playing the drums in a brother-sister musical act already made Karen unique, but when the duo burst into the pop music world it wasn’t her drumsticks that drew attention. When she sang, her voice – with four-octave range and a depth and warmth that’s difficult to describe – surprised and charmed listeners. And although brother Richard’s skillful and lush arrangements certainly played a part in the act’s rise to stardom, it was her singing that made the difference.
And yet, her voice was not always appreciated by the cutting-edge crowd. Some critics dismissed the Carpenters’ music as light-weight and described her singing as too “simple” or “tame”. But others fully appreciated it. Rolling Stone said, “Hers is a voice of fascinating contrasts, combining youth with wisdom; chilling perfection with much warmth.”
But never mind the critics — audiences loved the Carpenters, as did the record-buying public. The Grammy-winning duo were regulars on the charts during the 1970’s, with a bunch of number-one hits that included “Close To You,” “We’ve Only Just Begun,” and “Rainy Days And Mondays.” They also had a lot of lesser hits, including one my favorites, “This Masquerade.”
It was a glorious decade for the pair but there were clouds on the horizon. Not only were Karen’s problems growing, but Richard’s bouts with pills required him to spend time in an addiction recovery clinic. As the 1980’s began, the pair found their popularity declining and Karen even tried a solo act for a while, with mixed results.
The two soon reunited and issued their last album, Made In America, which sold moderately well, but things were winding down. Karen’s health continued to suffer and she died in 1983. In the years after, Richard for a time devoted himself to the production side of things and eventually began performing again, but with limited success. The magic was gone.