Karen Carpenter at the White House in 1972
(Photo: Robert L. Knudsen via Wiki Commons)

On February 4th, 1983, one of the most beautiful voices in the history of modern popular music was silenced forever when Karen Carpenter was rushed to a California hospital and pronounced dead. She was only a month shy of her 33rd birthday. The cause of death was heart failure brought on by a long term battle with anorexia.

Back in November of 2008, I began what was to be a series of articles called “Rock and Roll Heaven” that would examine the controversial deaths and lives of artists in the modern music world. At that time the series began with articles on Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, Michael Hutchence, and Jim Morrison. This examination of Karen Carpenter continues that series.

Karen and her brother Richard were born and raised in Connecticut, but their parents moved out to California in 1963. Richard became a piano prodigy, but Karen was more of a tomboy into sports and showed little interest in music as a young girl. On entering high school she joined the school band, and from that developed an interest in playing the drums.

Karen fell in love with the drums and became an outstanding drummer. She joined up with Richard and a friend named Wes Jacobs, and the three became ‘The Richard Carpenter Trio’, playing mostly jazz at local clubs. They also played with a band known as ‘Spectrum’ and recorded numerous demos, but they had little recording success throughout the mid-1960’s.

Karen and Richard finally were signed to a recording contract by A&M Records in 1969, and then in 1970 released their second album and first big smash titled ‘Close to You’. The album and the two hugely popular singles “(They Long to Be) Close to You” and “We’ve Only Just Begun” proved to be hits, the songs becoming modern masterpieces.

As the band moved through the 1970’s, Karen was pushed by her label to get out from behind her drum set and perform at the front of the stage.

She loved the drums and was more than good at it. The greats of drumming such as Buddy Rich considered her outstanding, and in 1975 she was voted as the Best Rock Drummer of the Year by the readers of Playboy magazine. Richard said that she always considered herself a drummer who sang.

Back when she was 16 years old, Karen had begun a rigorous diet program because she thought that at 5’5 and 145 pounds she was too heavy. She was under a doctor’s supervision and dropped to 120 pounds, which she maintained for years.

As anxiety over her career direction began to mount in the mid-1970’s, she developed what would later be confirmed as the beginnings of anorexia nervosa, a now well-known but then little-understood illness. With Karen battling anorexia and Richard battling an addiction to Qualludes, The Carpenters cancelled many of their concert performances.

Karen’s personal life proved difficult as well, as she moved in and out of relationships including one with comedian Steve Martin, and an especially difficult breakup with songwriter Tom Bahler. After their breakup, which came because he fathered a child with another woman, Bahler penned the song “She’s Out of My Life“, which became a hit for Michael Jackson.

The Carpenters performed live for the final time in Brazil in 1981, which was also the year the Karen ended what had been a one year marriage to real estate developer Tom Burris. In April of 1982 she recorded her final song “Now” and then returned home to her parents house in California. The family was startled by her appearance and low weight.

After a hospital stay that forcibly put 30 pounds on her via intravenous feeding, Karen left the hospital and went back to California. Here she made her final public appearance as a singer when she performed at her godchildren’s school singing Christmas standards.

The strain on her heart after years of binge dieting had taken it’s toll, however, and she returned to her parents home where she suffered the heart failure that led to her death.

It was well known that Karen exhibited many of the deceptive eating, purging, and medicating practices of those with eating disorders during her lifetime. In the wake of her death her family started up the “Karen A. Carpenter Memorial Foundation” to help raise awareness and research funds to combat eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia. It is now known as the “Carpenter Family Foundation” and provides funding for the arts as well.

With songs such as the previously mentioned ‘Close to You’ and ‘We’ve Only Just Begun’, as well as hits like ‘I Won’t Last a Day Without You’, ‘Only Yesterday’, and ‘There’s a Kind of Hush (All Over the World)”, as well as the immortal Christmas classic “Merry Christmas, Darling”, Karen Carpenter left an indelible mark on the music-loving world.

But perhaps as much as her music, her talented drumming and her lyrical voice that caused Rolling Stone magazine to rank her as one of the 100 greatest singers of all-time in 2008, we remember Karen Carpenter for her death as a direct result of anorexia. As someone who has experienced the devastating effects of an eating disorder within my own family, it is one of the greatest challenges that an individual and family can face.

Where is the origination of a true eating disorder? Is it the same as a drug addiction, an alcohol dependency, a sexual disorder? Are they all part and parcel of individual human beings who simply cannot cope, for whatever reason, with life’s challenges, and at some point make a conscious choice to take a known alternate route to find that happiness they so greatly crave?

NOTE: This is the continuation of the series ‘Rock and Roll Heaven’ begun in 2008, all entries of which can be viewed by clicking on to that Tag below.