The Standard Journal
Remembering Karen Carpenter, 1950-1983
Forty years ago this week, I was doing my radio show when I heard that Karen Carpenter had died. We had no internet, so there were no sources of instant information, analysis, or gossip. We had an Associated Press teletype service with only the minimum facts. The popular vocal half of the Carpenter siblings was only 32 years old. I was numb.
By 1983, the Carpenters’ time had pretty much passed. On my top-40 radio station, I hadn’t played a Carpenters record in years, with the exception of “Merry Christmas Darling” which was in the stack of holiday records that every station played.
I was not yet a teenager when the Carpenters’ run of soft-rock hits began. Their first release was a re-working of the Beatles hit “Ticket to Ride.” It was performed as a ballad by Karen and her brother Richard, a gifted pianist and producer. I didn’t particularly care for it.
The following year, they found the right formula. They took an old Burt Bacharach song called “Close to You” that had been recorded by several artists and made it their own. It soon went all the way to number one, followed by “We’ve Only Just Begun,” which was originally a bank commercial. These were followed by a long string of hits in the 1970s.
Karen was special. Even though she was barely out of her teens, her voice had a very mature, womanly “lived in” quality. Karen often sang in a low, deep range, so when she sang about “Rainy Days and Mondays” always getting her down, she sold every word of it.
She could also brighten our day by singing about “The Top of the World” or reminiscing about the songs she and her brother grew up with, in “Yesterday Once More.”
At their peak, the Carpenters were the hardest-working act in show business. Between 1970 and 1976, no one recorded more songs, appeared on more TV shows, or performed more live concerts, worldwide. It was not unusual for them to sell out a show in Chattanooga one week, go to Los Angeles to record an album the following week, and then host a prime time network TV special before jetting off to Japan to do a week’s worth of shows. Eventually the breakneck schedule took its toll.
The siblings each battled their own demons. Richard took Quaaludes to get to sleep each night, and suffered from severe depression. Karen, once a normal sized healthy woman, began to lose weight at a frightening pace. When a British TV host observed her skeletal frame and quizzed her about it, Karen shrugged it off. “I’m just pooped,” she said.
A few days after Karen’s death, the medical reports confirmed what many had suspected. She had succumbed to heart failure brought on by her long, largely secret battle with a disease called anorexia.
I had never heard that word until after Karen’s death. It made no sense to me. How could a beautiful, healthy woman look in the mirror and see such a distorted reflection of herself that she would take drastic measures to lose weight? This was no laughing matter. It was starvation.
In the months and years to come, a slew of news stories and TV movies spotlighted anorexia and its warning signs. Of course, it had been around before Karen, and it still is today. We now understand it a bit more, and we cheer those who have managed to cope with it, and those who have overcome it.
Recently I dusted off my old Carpenters greatest hits CD that I hadn’t touched in years. In some quarters it isn’t cool or manly for a guy to admit he’s a Carpenters fan. Let me repeat, I was (and still am, sort of) a rock ‘n roll deejay. People expect me to talk about the Stones, the Who, and U2. Not those syrupy love songs.
So this is my confession. I’m proudly listening to “Superstar,” to be followed by “Goodbye to Love” and “Only Yesterday.” Karen Carpenter is responsible for some of the greatest music ever recorded, and it still sounds great today. She did it all in only 32 years. I miss her.