The tragic story of Karen Carpenter, one of the greatest vocalists of all time

21 August 2023, 11:10

The tragic story of Karen Carpenter, one of the greatest vocalists of all time
The tragic story of Karen Carpenter, one of the greatest vocalists of all time. Picture: Getty

By Tom Eames

Karen Carpenter had one of the greatest voices of all time during her days as part of the Carpenters with brother Richard. Her death at the age of 32 in 1983 shocked the music world but her legacy lives on.

But where did Karen get discovered and what led to her untimely passing? Here are all the important facts:

  1. Who was Karen Carpenter?

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    Karen Carpenter was an American singer and drummer, who was part of the iconic duo the Carpenters alongside her brother Richard.

    She was particularly known for her contralto vocals, and her drumming abilities were also rated highly by other musicians and critics.

    Born on March 2, 1950 in New Haven, Connecticut, she was the daughter of Agnes Reuwer (1915 – 1996) and Harold Bertram Carpenter (1908 – 1988).

    Her only sibling, Richard, her elder by three years, became interested in music at an early age, and was a piano prodigy.

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    Karen was nervous about performing in public at first, but said she "was too involved in the music to worry about it".

    Her first band was Two Plus Two, an all-girl trio with friends from her high school. They split up after she suggested her brother Richard join.

    After forming the Richard Carpenter Trio with his college friend Wes Jacobs, A&M Records eventually signed them as the Carpenters in 1969.

  2. Karen Carpenter's death: What happened?

    Karen Carpenter
    Picture: Getty

    Karen started dieting while still in high school. Under doctors' advice, she began the Stillman diet, eating just lean foods and drinking eight glasses of water a day, and avoiding fatty foods.

    This reduced her weight to 120 pounds (8 st 8 lb) until 1973, when the Carpenters' career peaked. Later that year, she saw a photo of herself at a concert which made her appear "heavy".

    She hired a personal trainer who told her to change her diet, which caused her to build muscle, making her seem heavier rather than slimmer. Karen fired the trainer, and began her own weight loss schedule by counting calories.

    She soon lost about 20 pounds (1 st 6 lb) and hoped to lose more. Her eating habits saw her getting food off her plate by offering it to others.

    By 1975, her weight was just 6 st 7 lb. Some fans had noticed and wrote to the pair to ask what may be wrong. She refused to publicly say she was in ill, and in 1981 she said she was just "pooped".

    The Carpenters Interview 1981-Anorexia

    Richard later said he and his parents didn't know how to help her. She told Richard that she needed help with her anorexia. She chose to be treated in New York City by psychotherapist Steven Levenkron.

    In the 1980s, Karen also started using thyroid replacement medication, which increased her metabolism, and laxatives, which made food pass quickly.

    Her condition continued to get worse, and she lost even more weight. In September 1982, she was taken to Lenox Hill Hospital in New York, where she was placed on an intravenous drip.

    The procedure was a success, and she started gaining weight, but this put a strain on her heart. She managed to keep a stable weight for the rest of her life after this point.

    On January 11, 1983, Karen made her final public appearance at a gathering of past Grammy Award winners. She looked frail, but according to friend Dionne Warwick, she appeared outgoing, telling everyone: "Look at me! I've got an ass!"

    The Carpenters
    Picture: Getty

    On February 1, 1983, Karen saw her brother for the last time, discussing plans for a new Carpenters album. On February 4, she collapsed in her bedroom at her parents' home.

    Paramedics said her heart was beating once every 10 seconds, and she died at Downey Community Hospital at 9.51am.

    An autopsy ruled out drugs or a medication overdose, describing her death as "emetine cardiotoxicity due to or as a consequence of anorexia nervosa". She had a blood sugar level of 1,110 milligrams per decilitre, more than ten times the average.

    The coroner said that Carpenter's heart failure was caused by repeated use of ipecac syrup, an over-the-counter emetic used to induce vomiting.

  3. Was Karen Carpenter married and did she have children?

    Karen Carpenter and Thomas Burris
    Karen Carpenter and Thomas Burris. Picture: Getty

    Karen Carpenter once said: "As long as we're on the road most of the time, I will never marry".

    She later dated the likes of Mike Curb, Tony Danza, Terry Ellis, Mark Harmon, Steve Martin and Alan Osmond.

    After a quick romance, she married real-estate developer Thomas James Burris on August 31, 1980, in the Crystal Room of the Beverly Hills Hotel.

    Burris was divorced with an 18-year-old son, and was nine years older than her.

    She was said to have desperately wanted children, but Burris had undergone a vasectomy and refused to get an operation to reverse it. Their marriage ended after 14 months. Karen's friends also claimed he was abusive towards her.

    In 1981, Carpenter and Burris broke up, and she filed for divorce on October 28, 1982, while she was in Lenox Hill Hospital.

  4. Did she release any solo albums?

    Karen Carpenter solo - If I Had You - HD - Carpenters

    Carpenter released her first solo single 'Looking For Love' in 1967, but only 500 copies were made.

    In 1979, when Richard took a year off to treat his addiction, Karen wanted to make a solo album with producer Phil Ramone. Several sessions produced music that was quite different from the usual Carpenters output, focusing on disco and up-tempo tracks.

    The album met with a negative reaction from Richard and A&M executives in early 1980. The album was then shelved altogether by A&M Records co-owner Herb Alpert, despite attempts by producer Quincy Jones to convince him to release it after a fresh remix.

    A small section of the solo album was released in 1989, when some of its tracks (remixed by Richard) were featured on the album Lovelines.

    In 1996, the complete album, titled simply Karen Carpenter, was finally released.