Unique Karen Carpenter, died unfulfilled, although she had a remarkable voice that none have managed to match. She died way too young from a disease few knew about and didn’t understand.
Karen’s father worked in a printing business and was the child of missionaries in China. Her mother, Agnes Carpenter was a proud stay-at-home mom, but with a chilling, mean streak in her nature that led to devastating results. Richard was her favourite, and she never recognized that Karen had musical ability that could equal the three-year-older sibling, Richard. The lack of maternal love led Karen down a deep rabbit hole of psychological distress and ultimately led to her too-young death.
Growing up, Karen was a tomboy and very passionate about baseball, while her brother was seen as a musical prodigy. The family moved to California so Richard could explore his musical talent. Karen was interested in music simply because it was her brother’s passion, even though the two siblings were lifelong competitors.
At school, she took an interest in playing the drums, which was most unusual for a girl, but it was something that she became very proficient at. Karen idolized Ringo Starr, the Beatles’ drummer. Eventually, her parents relented and bought her a set of expensive Ludwig drums, the same as Ringo’s.
Early Beginning of the Carpenters
Richard as a tuba player, with Karen on drums, formed an ensemble called Dick Carpenter Trio. Karen kept silent behind the drums, so the others didn’t realize that Karen was hiding a secret: her unique voice. They played nightclubs and an All-American College talent show.
Karen’s astonishing, low-register, three-octave range, soothing voice was found almost by accident. She took one singing lesson, but her teacher said she couldn’t help her, as her voice was so good. One wonders if there were some shenanigans in the background from Mother Agnes? After all, why spend money on someone who would never go anywhere?
In the late swinging 1960s, with singers like Elvis Presley and the Beatles on the rise, the Carpenters were playing Dixieland Jazz tunes to families at Disneyland. The first big break for Richard and Karen came in 1969, when A & M Records signed up the sibling duo, to do a Beatles song, ‘Ticket to Ride’. Lennon-McCartney heard the song and amazingly said, “She has the best female voice in the world”.
Karen Carpenter Out Front
In the Battle of the College Bands, Karen played the drums dressed in a white coat and white high-heel boots. She was one of the most accomplished drummers of her day.
Karen was only 5’4” tall and her enormous drum kit hid her from view. Richard failed to grab the audience’s attention, and it was Karen’s unique voice that was getting all the attention, and the audience wanted to ‘see’ her. Richard and their agent, Sherwin Bash decided to put Karen out front and hire another drummer. Reluctantly, Karen agreed, but all three members of the Carpenter Trio would sacrifice their personal lives, for their career, with no room for love.
1970, Richard and Karen shot to stardom. The Carpenters had made it to the top, competing with Simon and Garfunkel, the Beatles, and the Jackson Five. The two kids, who had originally made music in the family garage, won the coveted Emmy Award. They weren’t rock-and-roll, which was the rave of the 70s, but Karen’s voice was totally unique.
Karen was an unsophisticated country girl with no grand ambitions. The Carpenters weren’t interested in ‘flashy’ stardom, they only cared about what happened in the studio. Richard was a perfectionist, while Karen was Einstein-genius-level at portraying the depth of the lyrics. She did not need any fancy vocal manipulations. They were honest performers, with little or no pretense, but the fans did not know of the agony that Karen hid behind her singing.
Personal Nightmare for Karen Carpenter
Karen Carpenter personally had many Number One hit songs and several platinum albums. Yet, no matter how hard she worked, Karen never won the approval of her Mother Agnes. Richard wrote and composed the music Karen sang, but Richard was always the ‘star’ in their mother’s eyes. Like Judi Garland, the Gabor sisters, the Kennedy sisters, and many more high profile people, Karen had and a highly controlling mother.
Critics also failed to recognize the quality of the Carpenters. They were classed as ‘easy listening’ and ‘square’, yet their records sold like hot cakes. Even though Richard had been groomed for stardom, Karen was getting all the attention.
The Deadly Spiral Begins
On top of that, the press had a field day about the way Karen Carpenter dressed. She looked at photos of herself on stage and was flung back into a high-school drama, when she had first begun dieting because she thought she was a ‘little chubby.’
Karen hired a personal trainer to keep her weight under control. The sight of the muscle build-up led Karen to fire the trainer and she started to obsessively count calories. When dining with friends, she would fill her plate, rave about the food, then happily share her food around the table. That way she didn’t have to consume many calories.
The Carpenters were on tour 250 days a year, but Karen had lost so much weight she had difficulty coping with their grueling schedule. She was emaciated and exhausted. By 1975, fans began to notice how thin Karen had become. Karen was under a lot of pressure, as the siblings were still living at home and the influence of Agnes never relented. For Agnes to admit that Karen had a problem eating disorder, anorexia nervosa, was to admit Karen was a failure and that would reflect on Agnes.
Unique Karen Carpenter Going It Alone
Karen had little control over her life and had lost her identity. She felt cheated, as she had a wonderful gift, but couldn’t use it to build the lifestyle she wanted for herself. In 1976, Karen flew the coop. Being financially independent she purchased two apartments in Los Angeles, which she promptly turned into one, just for herself.
Karen plucked up enough courage to make a solo album without Richard. He had been the engineer of the Carpenter train-ride to super-stardom, but he too, had his own problems, with prescription drug-addiction. It was the first time that Karen had a real say in the studio. However, the record never made it to the marketplace.
Karen stepped right back into the life she had wanted to get away from and went back on tour with Richard.
From start to finish the relationship with Thomas James Burris, a real estate developer was a disaster waiting to happen. Within months, the pair announced their wedding day. From a young age, Karen had wanted a husband and children, but had never managed to get into a suitable relationship. It all looked as if things were about to change, when only days before the big day, Tom told Karen his previous vasectomy and inability to have children.
Devastated, Karen turned to her mother for empathy and guidance. Agnes told her daughter that under no circumstances was the wedding to be cancelled. “You have made your bed, now lie in it!”
The marriage was a fantasy and a total disaster. Tom was a crook and a fraudster and like Karen’s mother, had a cruel streak in him. His short fuse meant he frequently lost his temper with Karen, as he spilled his way through her finances. He would not have the vasectomy reversed as ‘She was nothing but a bag of bones.” Thomas already had an adult son from a previous marriage.
Reached for Help
Unique Karen Carpenter finally recognized she had a problem and sought professional help. Steven Levenkron, a psychotherapist, was a proven authority on anorexia treatment, and used to hearing patients tell him they took 80-90 laxatives a night. Karen had gone one step further and was taking thyroid medication to raise her metabolism, even though her thyroid was normal. He took the pills from her and suggested they have a family session, to get to the root cause.
Mother Agnes and Richard flew in from the West Coast, but the session was a total disaster. Her mother insisted on being called Mrs. Carpenter and instead of telling Karen how much she was loved, ended the session. Agnes and Richard flew back to California, leaving Karen to work out her own problems. It was then Karen was told that Dr Levenkron was not actually a medical doctor.
After the marriage breakup, Karen was exhausted, and the devastating effects of the disease were little understood. She went into therapy five days a week, but her lifestyle was against her getting better. Finally, she was admitted into hospital and managed to gain some weight.
Yet, there was a deep inner darkness underneath. Karen returned to the family home in Los Angeles and seemed to be doing okay. However, unbeknown to the family, Karen had given up using laxatives, and turned to something far more dangerous – ipecac syrup. This induces vomiting and when overused, slowly dissolves the heart muscle.
Unique Karen Carpenter Died Too Young
Unique Karen Carpenter collapsed, and died alone in her old bedroom in the family home, in February 1983, only 32-years-old. She was much too young to have died. The glorious voice would no longer sing those haunting ballads.
However, her death brought the crippling disease, Anorexia Nervosa, to the public notice. The Carpenter family finally recognized the deadly problems that anorexia causes and started the Karen A. Carpenter Memorial Foundation to help raise money for anorexia research. Too little, too late for Karen.
In the 1990s, the Carpenters were retro re-birthed. Her voice remains unique, and no one has been able to copy her and her voice continues to have a lasting resonance. Karen was a woman pioneer that changed the way the world looked at female singers. Karen found it difficult to be a ‘star’ and didn’t see herself as a pop star. She never really felt she belonged, was not a sex symbol, but the girl next door.
Many of her singles became million-sellers and by 2005, combined worldwide sales of her albums and singles well exceeded 100 million units. She had unique skills as a drummer, and an equally unique voice that gave romantic ballads a sound all their own, as shown so beautifully in songs like ‘Close to You’. Karen was listed as one of the greatest 100 singers of all time by the Rolling Stone magazine. Her voice lives on.
Others Who Died from Anexoria
Here is a tiny sample of people who have died from anorexia nervosa:
1387 – Pierre de Luxembouge – French Catholic bishop, ages 17
1909 – Renee Vivien- British poet, aged 32
1982 – Helga Braathen – Norwegian gymnast, aged 29
1994 – Christy Henrich – American gymnast, aged 22
2003 – Helen Moros – New Zealand long-distance runner, aged 35
2003 – Debbie Barham – English Comedy writer, aged 26
2006 – Luisel Ramos – Uruguayan model, aged 22
2007 – Hila Elmalich – Israeli model, aged 33
2021 – Nikki Grahame – English television personality, aged 36
The list is endless, even in this day and age when anorexia nervosa should be better understood and can be treated. Above all, we need to have empathy and a kind word for others, as we have no comprehension of what personal hell someone else is living in. The old saying is, “There but for the grace of God, go I”. All we can do is to remember that life is a journey, with no say in our beginning or when it will end. We have to enjoy the good times and deal with the bad times as best we can, with no residue of bitterness or anger. Tomorrow remains untouched and is a new day. Remember that laughter is the best healing medicine in the world and sharing your anxieties with a trusted friend.
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Wendy is an inspirational writer, for which she has a strong passion. She is also very passionate about her garden and family. She says life is too short to waste, so live it to the fullest.