If you were a teen in the 70’s, you had “The Carpenters” albums and sat for hours impersonating Karen’s smooth, creamy voice that was a ubiquitous presence on U.S. top-40 radio. Karen was known as the “one take” singer in the studios because she nailed the songs with perfection in just one take. The endearing lyrics of love and dreaming of love pulled us away from the rock sounds that were the polar opposite. Since Karen’s death [in 1983] their legacy has catapulted to one of the top easy-listening groups of our time. Their songs are still played on the airways every day.
Sadly, Karen died on February 4, 1983, of complications from anorexia nervosa . She was only 32 years old at the time of her passing and making her the first “poster face” of the disease. Despite her prodigious talent, Karen was never comfortable in the spotlight and obsessed over her weight. “Karen had been a little overweight as a teenager — she loved tacos and chili,” revealed Richard Carpenter, 69, the other half of The Carpenters, adding that his sister started dieting at age 17 and lost from 20 to 25 pounds. This success likely began her addiction to dieting. Desperate to look slim on stage – and above all desperate to please the domineering mother who preferred her brother – she became the first celebrity victim of anorexia. The story of Karen’s tragic death is well documented, but her brother Richard has battled his own demons.
The Carpenters’ hectic concert schedule took its toll on both siblings. In his 2010 book Rock Obituaries – Knocking on Heaven’s Door (2010), author Nick Talevski wrote:”Constantly on the road since 1970 with their Vegas-style act, both Karen and Richard Carpenter were in ill health by late 1975. With Karen’s weight down to 80 pounds, sold-out tours to Japan and the United Kingdom had to be cancelled. Richard, meanwhile, had become addicted to a prescription drug, Quaalude.”
The pressure on the duo was overwhelming. Something had to give and it did. Karen became obsessed with her weight and Richard suffered from depression and insomnia. He turned to Quaaludes (a sedative) for relief. In January of 1979, while in a semi-comatose state, he fell down a flight of stairs backstage. Finally, in an effort to deal with his dependency on the drug, Richard checked himself into a treatment program at the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas. He also decided to take the rest of 1979 off for the sake of his health and well being.
On August 31, 1980, Karen Carpenter married real estate developer Thomas James Burris in the Crystal Room of the Beverly Hills Hotel in Beverly Hills, California. During the ceremony, “Because We’re in Love,” an original song sung by Karen was played. Unfortunately, however, the union was not a happy one and the couple separated after 14 months.
In January, 1982, Karen went to New York City to undergo treatment for her eating disorder. She spent most of the next 11 months in the Big Apple, returning to Los Angeles briefly in April to record some rhythm tracks. After many therapy sessions and a hospital procedure, she returned to L.A, in November, hoping to move forward with her life and her career. On the morning of February 4, 1983, the day she had planned to finalize her divorce, Karen collapsed at her parents’ home in Downey. She was rushed to the hospital, but her heart had gone into full cardiac arrest and she died.
In 1996 journalist Rob Hoerburger powerfully summed up Karen Carpenter’s tribulations in a New York Times Magazine feature: “If anorexia has classically been defined as a young woman’s struggle for control, then Karen was a prime candidate, for the two things she valued most in the world – her voice and her mother’s love – were exclusively the property of her brother Richard. At least she would control the size of her own body.” And control it she did. By September 1975 her weight fell to 80 pounds.
The Carpenters were one of the biggest-selling American musical acts of all time. Between 1970 and 1984 brother and sister Richard and Karen Carpenter had 17 top 20 hits, including “Goodbye to Love“, “Yesterday Once More“, “Close to You” and “Rainy Days and Mondays“. They notched up 10 gold singles, nine gold albums, one multi-platinum album and three Grammy awards.
Ref. MTV.com, joanne16.com, closerweekly.com, theguardian.com, nytimes.com
Photo via Bing