Memoriam | Drummer Who Sang
by Rod Fogarty
To say that Karen Carpenter was one of
the finest female vocalists of her generation is nothing
new. Songs like "We've Only Just Begun," "Superstar," "Rainy
Days And Mondays,"
and "Top Of The World" weren't just radio staples in the
'70s, but have withstood the test of time. And a whole new
generation, inspired by a fondness of all things groovy and
smiley-faced, has embraced Karen's amazing singing and her
brother Richard's wonderful songs and arrangements. In fact,
the 1994 album If I Were A Carpenter featured a stellar
cast of alternative artists like Sheryl Crow, Cracker, Sonic
Youth, The Cranberries, and Redd Kross interpreting the duo's
hits in a whole new way.
Yet many have failed to recognize just how
good a drummer Karen Carpenter was. This can probably
be attributed to the fact that many of the better-known Carpenters
recordings featured studio drummers like Hal Blaine, Cubby
O'Brien, Jim Gordon, and Ronnie Tutt. Fortunately, in recent
years we've seen the release or reissue of many recordings
where we can hear Karen playing. These bring into focus the
real gifts of Karen Carpenter the drummer.
Karen was born on March 2, 1950 in New Haven,
Connecticut. It was after the family moved to California
in 1963 that she began a love affair with an instrument that
would last her entire life.
According to friends and family, Karen took
the drums very seriously from the start, spending endless
hours practicing. Her brother Richard recalls, "She seemed
to take to them in nothing flat." In time, Karen came under
the influence of The Dave Brubeck Quartet, with drummer Joe
Morello. So keen were her ears that she soon taught herself
the intricate, odd-time rhythms of Brubeck's "Take Five" and "It's
A Raggy Waltz." Karen had been playing little more than a
year by this time.
The first incarnation of The Carpenters
as a working group came in the form of The Richard Carpenter
Trio. Consisting of piano, bass, and drums and performing
strictly as an instrumental combo, they won first prize in
the Hollywood Bowl Battle Of The Bands in 1966. The trio
can be heard twice on The Carpenters: From The Top (A&M-31454),
a four-disc boxed set that offers a complete overview of
the group's recording years.
The first example is a rendition of Duke
where we hear a very young Karen playing with assurance and
technique. After a respectable display of swinging and comping,
she launches into a solo that can best be described as an
explosion of energy and chops. The next tune, "Iced Tea," is
a jazz waltz with some intricate, classical-style snare drum
work, and a short solo that adds up to a real tour-de-force
for a drummer just past her sixteenth birthday.
In 1969, The Carpenters recorded their first
album for A&M. The album, originally released as Offering, was
later reissued as Ticket To Ride (A&M-82839).
On this disc, nineteen-year-old Karen plays drums on all
the tracks, and also sings lead on the lion's share of the
tunes. The drum track on "Your Wonderful Parade" has Karen
overdubbing snare and bass drum parts to create a huge drum-corps
"All I Can Do" is an uptempo jazz tune in 5/4 that swings
from the word go. Here we witness a drummer in full command
of her technique, assured and full of fire, playing imaginative
fills and great hand/foot combinations. Her drumming is alive
with the joy of self-discovery.
In 1970 all the pieces came together for
The Carpenters on their recording of "Close To You." "When
the producers finally decided to go with professional musicians," recalls
studio legend Hal Blaine, "they talked to Karen about my
playing drums. It was fine with her because she and Richard
really wanted a hit.
"I always said that Karen was a good drummer,"
Hal insists. "I knew she could play right away when she'd
sit down at my drums on sessions. She played on a lot of
the album cuts, and she played when they performed live,
as well. But after their third or fourth hit, I remember
saying to her, 'When are you going to get off the drums?
You sing too good, and you should be fronting the band.'" In
time, it was decided that Karen would remain behind the drums
on the uptempo numbers, and come down front to sing the ballads.
"Karen was a very good player and very knowledgeable
about the drums," recalls former Carpenters drummer Cubby
"Some of the things we did together weren't easy. Richard
wanted things played exactly like the record. We worked out
all the drum breaks from the records, and I played exactly
what she did. The whole idea of bringing me in was to get
her off the drums so she could sing more. But Richard
had grown up with her playing, so it was hard for someone
else to take over the drum chair."
One of the things that Karen and Cubby did
together can be heard on The Carpenters Live At The Palladium (A&M-68403).
A percussion feature was arranged where Karen would move
around the stage and play various configurations of drums
and percussion. The medley of Gershwin tunes kicks off with
a stop-time rendition of "Strike Up The Band," where Karen
fills in the spaces like a great tap dancer, dividing this
rudimental workout between the head and rim of the snare
drum. Moving to full drumset, she sails into some fast swing
on the hi-hat, while maintaining a samba ostinato with her
feet. Jumping out from behind the kit, she moves to timbales
and cowbells for a brief Latin turn, trades solos with Cubby
O'Brien, and ends it all on her multi-tom set for the big
In 1973, work began on a new album, Now
And Then (A&M-CD3519). After using session players
for their three previous recordings, this one was cut almost
entirely with road musicians-with one exception. Karen
returned to her roots and supplied the drum tracks for
every song except one. On "This Masquerade," Karen lays
down a Latin rhythm that can only be described as elegantly
hip. With a stick and a brush, she weaves an almost ethereal
groove. Hi-hat accents and an uncluttered clave offer a
textbook example of musical and creative drumming. Towards
the end, she plays some fills that break up the time and
are phrased in a very personal manner.
Karen Carpenter was a more accomplished
player than most people realized. No less a figure than Buddy
Rich considered her to be a superior player. "I remember
one time when Karen and I went to see Buddy's band," says
"I knew Buddy fairly well, so before the show I took her
backstage to meet him. I said, 'Buddy, this is Karen Carpenter.'
He said, 'Karen Carpenter, do you know that you're one of
my favorite drummers?' As tough as Buddy could be on drummers
sometimes, he always respected someone who played the instrument
On February 4, 1983, at the age of thirty-two,
Karen suffered a fatal heart attack brought on by the anorexia
she had struggled with for the last seven years of her life.
Once, when asked how she hoped time would view The Carpenters,
Karen said, "We want to be remembered for our contribution
to music. That's the main thing in our lives: to present
what comes from within us through our music. We want to be
remembered as good musicians and nice people."
And this is precisely how we'll remember
Karen Carpenter, who, to the end, always considered herself
a drummer who sang.
Extra thanks to Jim Catalano, Todd Trent, and Richard Carpenter
for the photo of Karen behind the kit.
Copyright 2001, Modern Drummer Publications, Inc. Used by
permission. All rights reserved.
NOTE: Many thanks to Modern Drummer for sending and for the
use of this article!
It's a great magazine for any and all drummers!
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