Four years before she died, the high priestess of silly
love songs made one bold attempt to liberate herself: a
It was destined to go unheard--until now.
The New York Times Magazine
October 6, 1996
By Rob Hoerburger
The tape had been buried for three years,
behind the colonnades of stuffed animals, Disney memorabilia
and "I Love Lucy" videos that lined Karen Carpenter's
luxury Century City condo. These were the appurtenances
of a time when she was pop music's own cuddly toy: as one
half of the Carpenters, she was queen of the lovelorn,
an Edith Piaf in Tricia Nixon's clothes, and for a few
years in the early 70's practically the most popular singer
in the world.
But now it was the 80's, and the Carpenters
-- Karen and her older brother, Richard -- and their toothsome
ditties had become fodder for David Letterman jokes. A
trade-paper review of their latest single even absent-mindedly
referred to them as
"Richard and Linda." And so Karen retrieved the
cassette that until then only a roomful of people had heard,
a solo album that she made in 1979 and that was conceived
as her exit visa from a stultifying goody-two-shoes image.
She was talked into abandoning the album
on the eve of its release, the first blow in a three-year
series of career and personal disappointments: a bad marriage,
dwindling record sales, a protracted battle with anorexia
nervosa. As Karen played the tape for friends during the
early weeks of 1983, though, they sensed that she had finally
passed the point equidistant between the last happy time
in her life and the next. On Feb.2, a month before her
33rd birthday, she called her friends Karen Ichiuji and
Phil Ramone; talk inevitably wound around to the solo album,
which Ramone had produced.
"Can I use the F-word?" Karen
Ramone replied: "You're a grown woman. Say whatever
"It's a [expletive] great album."
She died 36 hours later. Anorexia, in
the end, claimed victory over her body and her name, which
became practically synonymous with the affliction. And
the solo album went back on the shelf behind Mickey Mouse.
On Tuesday, A&M records will release
Karen Carpenter, 16 years after she delivered it to the
label and 13 years after her death. Rumors have swirled
about the content as the album continued to be withheld,
including one on the Internet that claimed she was bumping
and grinding like Donna Summer, the reigning dance diva
at the time. But despite the toe-dippings into disco and
new wave, Karen Carpenter is no Bad Girls: its twelve tracks
are still love songs, only leaner and less naive than her
previous hits. The last of America's great virginal sweethearts
was even, in her own polite way, singing about the joys
of sex, and finally catching up to the women's liberation.
Releasing the album in 1996 can seem
like an exercise in necrophilia. But it's a retro world,
in which "Brady Bunch" movies generate robust
box-office and bands like R.E.M. and the Gin Blossoms continue
to reposit 70's riffs and stances, and so Karen Carpenter
makes a lot of sense. It will almost certainly be the crowning
prize for what has become a Cult of Karen; lambasted by
the pop elite during her life, she has become a mascot
to the pop underground. First, the avant-garde director
Todd Haynes cast Barbie as the tragic singer in "Superstar:
The Karen Carpenter Story," which became something
of an outlaw hit, traded back and forth on bootleg video.
(The film was withdrawn from theaters because Richard Carpenter
refused to authorize the use of the music.) Then, in 1994,
bands like Shonen Knife, Sonic Youth and Dishwalla lent
their grungy guitars and voices to If I Were a Carpenter,
a tribute album that revved up and amplified the duo's
dulcet hits. And the 1995 Off Broadway comedy "Party" ended
with seven naked gay men swaying to the gossamer strains
of Close to You. As with the "Brady" movies,
part of the appeal is kitsch nostalgia, the acute geekiness
of the brother-sister act; overriding the high-yuk quotient,
though, is an identification with the profound melancholy
in Karen's singing. "She had," says one of the "Party" boys, "the
voice of an angel."
For a few months in 1979 that angel slipped
onto more earthly ground, recording songs like My Body
Keeps Changing My Mind and Making Love in the Afternoon.
But her halo, like her brother, would be impossible to
"This wasn't just an album," says
Frenda Franklin, who was Karen's best friend. "It
was her Emancipation Proclamation."
At 29, Karen Carpenter was, for the first
time, working without Richard Carpenter, her producer,
arranger and frequent songwriter -- part Pygmalion, part
Gepetto, the master carver of her sound. She had become
a musician only as a tagalong to Richard, a piano prodigy
three and a half years older. When they started out, she
was the drummer; her deeply pining contralto was discovered
almost by accident, when it became clear that her brother's
voice wasn't commercial enough. "Richard's contributions
were enormous, and underrated," says Herb Alpert,
who signed them to A&M Records in 1969, when Karen
was 19 and Richard 22.
Karen's opinions -- or the inclination
even to have them -- were subsumed not just by Richard's
but by the duo's success. With songs emphasizing melody
over beat and washed by sudsy strings and four-part harmonies,
the Carpenters appealed to a country disenchanted with
the Vietnam War, campus unrest and the generation gap.
These were songs that were played at weddings and graduations;
when We've Only Just Begun or Rainy Days and Mondays came
on the car radio, kids AND parents would turn it up. (Hipper
fans, especially college students, had to be discreet;
more than a few smuggled Carpenters albums into their dorms
under their Led Zeppelin T-shirts.) This was musical white
bread, to be sure, but it was feeding masses of a biblical
Karen was suddenly being painted as a
poster girl of the young, gifted and square -- and as she
was squeezed out from behind the drums she found her appearance
under constant scrutiny. Big-boned and tomboyish all her
life, she cracked under the pressure and developed anorexia.
Complicating matters was her troubled relationship with
her mother, Agnes, who, according to friends, unabashedly
favored Richard. "Karen's mother never told her she
was a good singer," Franklin says. 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 Richard. At least
she would control the size of her own body.
Strangely enough, it was Richard's illness,
not Karen's, that prompted Karen to try a solo album. Around
1976, his divining rod for hit material started coming
up dry. Americans would continue to be sucked in by love
songs but had started to forsake the snail's-pace, hyperglycemic
Carpenters for harmonic disco groups like Abba and the
Bee Gees. Richard became addicted to Quaaludes and by the
end of 1978 was unable to perform. When Karen told him
she wasn't interested in remaining idle, he considered
it practically an act of treason, especially when she asked
for his blessing. After months of pleading, and tugging
on his sleeve like the loyal sister she had always been,
he finally gave in. There was one caveat, according to
his biographer, Ray Coleman: "Don't do disco."
This was wishful thinking at best. Like
cars at the gas pumps that spring and summer, pop singers
were lined up around the block, waiting for their turn
at the disco trough--everyone from Cher to Johnny Mathis,
Barbra Streisand to Ethel Merman. Soon Karen was on a plane,
flying into the land of Studio 54.
Phil Ramone, now approaching 60, is ever
the music-biz hipster, draped from head to toe in basic
black but with a silver mane that lends him an avuncular,
Walt Whitman cum Grandpa Walton air. Based on the polished
pop records he produced in the late 70's for Barbra Streisand,
Billy Joel and Paul Simon, he seemed the perfect choice
for Karen Carpenter. Though he had been a fan of Karen's
voice, he was not interested in making any sexually clueless
songs like Sing and Top of the World.
"I said to her: 'A lot of your fans
aren't teenagers anymore. Why don't you grow up with them?'" Ramone
says. From the outset Carpenter agreed that a sexier approach
could win those fans back; her good friend Olivia Newton-John
"Grease," transformed herself from pop Kewpie doll
into a kind of slut-next-door and was ringing up the charts.
So Ramone recruited a bunch of relative ruffians (Billy Joel's
backup band), as well as Rod Temperton, who wrote Michael
Jackson's Off the Wall. The songs they chose had come-hither
titles like Make Believe It's Your First Time and Remember
When Loving' Took All Night. Some of the grooves were disco,
some were rock-and-roll; the few ballads, like Simon's Still
Crazy After All These Years, avoided the syrupy choirs and
string sections favored by Richard.
Meanwhile, Karen Ichiuji, Ramone's wife
and a glamorous, street-smart singer, became Karen Carpenter's
cultural compass. "This really was the girl next door," Ichiuji
says. "She didn't know how to hail a cab, wasn't comfortable
even ordering for herself in restaurants." Russell
Javors, who wrote two of the raunchier songs on the album,
"had this very sexy voice, but she wasn't a sexy person
Though it could seem that Carpenter traded
one Svengali for another, even moving into Ramone and Ichiuji's
home in Pound Ridge, N.Y., Ramone sees it differently. "I
didn't feel like her mentor," he says. "There
wasn't one part of this album that she wasn't involved
in, when she didn't have the reins." It was Karen,
who had often been photographed with Richard in a matching
outfit, who encouraged the glam photo session for the album
cover. When she saw the proofs of one shot, which showed
her elegantly coifed and made up and wearing an oversize
white sweatshirt (a precursor of the "Flashdance" look),
she ran to Ichiuji in a rare outburst of self-worth. "Look
at me, Itch," she said. "I'm pretty. I'm really
After four or five songs were completed,
Carpenter flew back to Los Angeles, tape happily in hand. "She
was so in awe of Phil and these cool, hip musicians, who
were treating her like an equal," Franklin says. "She
wasn't used to that." (Richard Carpenter told Coleman
that he sometimes wouldn't even tell Karen what she was
going to sing until she got to the studio.) "She told
me that working on this album was the happiest time of
Ramone remembers that Karen looked good
during the early sessions and ate like everyone else. (He
had been warned about Karen's illness but was unschooled
in the wiles of the anorexic.) But when she returned to
New York in the fall of '79 to resume recording, Ramone
says he was faced with an 80-pound "Auschwitz figure"
and then started finding laxatives all over his house. He
suspected that Karen had played those first tracks for her
parents and that they had disapproved. "She had too
much class to say,'My parents think you're screwing me up,'" he
says. As Franklin explains, it offended them to hear their
daughter, who a few years earlier had been hailed by President
Nixon as "young America at its best," singing lines
like "I remember the first time / I laid more than eyes
Carpenter's anxieties were compounded
by the excessive overtime on the project. She had spent
the standard $100,000 allotted by the record company, plus
almost half a million of her own money. As her anorexia
intensified, she became too weak to travel, and so Ramone
had to fly to Los Angeles to complete production.
"It was almost militaristic there," he says. "She
would meet Richard at the same restaurant at the same time
for breakfast every day -- you know, Belgian waffles at 0800."
They finally finished in January 1980,
delivering 11 of the 21 songs they recorded. Karen chose
the white sweatshirt shot for the cover, and Olivia Newton-John
invited Karen to sing on her latest TV special. All that
was left was the routine playback for the label presidents,
Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss, the A and M of A&M. Also
in attendance, at Karen's request, was Richard Carpenter.
The silence was deafening. "She
was expecting them to come up and hug her after every track," Ramone
"But they just sat there."
Alpert remembers liking the album but
not loving it. "It just didn't ring my bell the way
a Carpenters album would," he says between heavy pauses.
A friend of Karen's recalls a management meeting in which
she was accused of trying to sound
"like a black chick." It's unclear what everyone
was expecting, but what they clearly weren't hearing was
"It was an attempt to get as far
away from the Carpenters as possible," Rod Temperton
says. "Some of it didn't ring true."
John Bettis, Richard Carpenter's longtime
lyricist and no fan of the solo album, agrees: "Everybody
knows how great a producer Phil Ramone is, but in the end
I think Karen missed the chemistry." Lost amid the
carping and strategizing was what Karen herself felt. Alpert
says she vacillated between loving the album and hating
it, but the Ramone camp doesn't buy this. "This wasn't
a woman given to tears," Ramone says. "When she
was upset, she just wouldn't eat. But when we got out of
that meeting and far enough away, she just crumpled in
Ramone set up another listening at the
home of Quincy Jones, but A&M wouldn't budge: the record
still had to be "improved." And then there was
Richard, who was out of drug rehab.
His criticisms of the album were the
sharpest. According to Coleman, he said that the songs
were weak and that the keys were too high for Karen's voice.
At another point he accused Karen of "stealing" the
Carpenters sound, because of the Carpenter-like harmonies
on a few of the songs. "Nobody is saying Richard had
to like the record," Franklin says. "But he could
have supported her. When he didn't, I think it forever
put a division in her mind about him."
Richard began to pressure Karen to start
the next Carpenters album, and then at what Franklin calls
her "most vulnerable point," she met Thomas J.
Burris, a real-estate developer from Beverly Hills. "He
seemed nice," Ichiuji says. "Karen really thought
he was going to be her knight in shining armor." With
Richard in one ear saying, essentially,
"Come back, all is forgiven," and Burris whispering
a fast proposal in the other, her conviction on the solo
album wavered, and on May 5, 1980, it was officially jettisoned.
Karen told all involved that now that Richard was healthy,
she wanted to return to the Carpenters. Besides, she was
The reunion album, and the marriage,
failed in short order. Richard later said that anything
he and Karen put out was doomed to fail because of their
image--a problem Karen's solo album was designed to fix.
The details of the marriage are murkier; she and Burris
separated after a mere 14 months.
Faced with a triple dose of rejection
in less than two years, Karen finally sought treatment
for her anorexia, eventually agreeing to hyperalimentation,
an intravenous feeding procedure that alarmed her friends
as a quick fix. "I knew something was all wrong when
I went to the hospital and saw she had gained 10 pounds
in a week," Ichiuji says.
By Thanksgiving 1982, she was back above
100 pounds and returned to Los Angeles, blatantly gorging
at the holidays in front of her family. She gave what turned
out to be her final live performance -- at her godchildren's
school, two months before she died -- without Richard.
The initial coroner's report showed an
abundance of ipecac, a common vomit-inducing syrup, in
her system. Taken in high quantities, it can cause potassium
deficiency, which can lead to heart arrhythmia. But neither
her family nor her friends have ever been satisfied with
that explanation. "I talked to the coroner myself," Ichiuji
says, "and he said it was only a matter of time. She
had just starved her organs for so long."
Richard Carpenter, 49, still lives in
Downey, California, near his mother; in 1984, the year
after Karen died, he married his cousin Mary Rudolph and
is now the father of four. In 1987, he made his own solo
album, Time, a critical and commercial failure, and since
then he has spent most of his time overseeing the repackaging
of Carpenters recordings--and making a handsome living.
In Japan alone this year, a new greatest-hits set outsold
such international juggernauts as Mariah Carey and Celine
Dion. But when fans buy that collection, or any other one
anywhere in the world, they won't hear the same versions
of Superstar or Yesterday Once More that dominated American
radio in the 70's, but doctored versions of those songs,
some with new piano or drum parts. Unable to remix or rerecord
the events of his sister's life, Richard continues to slave
over the master tapes of the music they made together,
certain that perfection is only one take away.
Though a few of the songs from Karen
Carpenter dribbled out on various Carpenters releases,
Richard had steadfastly refused to release the whole album.
After declining several requests to be interviewed for
this article, Richard said through his manager, Sherwin
Bash, that he was only respecting what he understood to
be Karen's final wish, that she didn't like the album and
didn't want it released. "He only acquiesced," Bash
says, "when fans and writers kept begging him for
this last piece of her legacy."
In a note to The Times Magazine, Richard wrote, "I wish
the album nothing but success."
When Richard called Ichiuji last spring
to say he was releasing the album, he asked if there had
been a dedication; she unearthed her notes and found one: "Dedicated
to my brother Richard with all my heart."
"Karen knew that the Carpenters
needed more of an edge," Ichiuji says, "and by
dedicating the album to Richard, she was saying, here,
I did this for you and for me. Accept me, because I did
this for the both of us." Ichiuji says that when Richard
heard the dedication, he bawled over the phone.
Karen Carpenter may not be the great
American pop album, but it holds up with anything that
like-minded singers -- Barbra Streisand and Olivia Newton-John
-- were recording at the time, and especially with anything
the Carpenters put out immediately before or after. If
there is no We've Only Just Begun on the album, it doesn't
really matter. Fans typically crave an artist's most personal
work -- even it it isn't a masterpiece.
"It was a beginning," Ramone
"I'm not saying that Karen was Ella Fitzgerald or Sarah
Vaughan, but a voice like that could have done anything --
an album of Dylan tunes, country ballads, Broadway. But not
from where she was."
Instead Karen Carpenter remains frozen
in the 70's, singing gooey love songs with her brother.
And for her fans, who never got to judge the album when
she was alive, Karen Carpenter ends up a cherished souvenir
from the collection of a woman who was never allowed more
than a vacation from her own image.
Home | People
76, Feb. 83, Nov.
83 | Hardwick
Interview | Christmas
Portrait | NY
Washington Post | Fate
Magazine | TV Guide | In
Memorium | Drummer Who Sang