The Carpenters: A (Re) Appreciation

Dedicated to Karen, the first woman to make me cry


”Love of beauty is taste. Creation of beauty is art.”, Ralph Waldo Emerson

Yesterday Once More

IT ALL started… the melancholy music, the sense of failure, the addiction, her body dysmorphia, all of this and more powering the most soothing and tragedy-filled contralto of her generation… it all started, and will end, with her brother Richard.

Born in New Haven, CT to Harold Carpenter and Agnes Tatum Carpenter, Richard was the prototypical doted-on Boomer child, the oldest son for whom no expense was spared, no inconvenience too great, for his musical development. Starting with piano, his talent was so obvious (to his mom, at least) that when Richard was 16 his family decided to move across the country to Downey, CA, in support of their son’s music career (and, as Harold joked, to get away from the snow).

Four years after Richard’s birth, Agnes had a daughter, Karen, also a prototypical Boomer child, very sporty and a massive Disney fan. And, in a pattern which would be familiar to Nannerl Mozart, Karen’s education and career took a backseat to her brother’s, her parents obviously favoring Richard in terms of education, opportunities, and contacts.

And it is Karen’s reaction to her parents internalized misogyny and obvious favoritism which became the source of her genius and the seeds of her destruction. And to Richard’s credit, he was his sister’s biggest supporter, shielding Karen from her parent’s resentment at viewing her success as coming at his expense, that is until Richard became lost in demons of his own and could no longer protect her.



Sometimes it is hard to find beauty in our civilization. Extremely rare and delicate, beauty can take on many forms, from the joyousness of a Bach cantata to the splash of color in a Monet painting. And one thing which remains constant, at least for the author, is this: beauty is not just being pretty or attractive – it involves melancholy, a hint of what was once possible and no longer is, a sense of loss. Beauty turns longing into wistfulness, passion into rapture, grace into sublimity. Mozart was supreme at evoking emotional nuance in his works, a form of beauty which could be both precious and profound in the same 16-bar stretch (K488 is a favorite example of this, as is K364).

Vocal beauty is even rarer. Hitting the notes can be (largely) trained, but placing the right emotional nuance, one that pains the heart – it’s a skill which truly can’t be taught. Taylor Swift is a good example – a fine voice, even fantastic, has a good ear for material which works for her… and, still, a four-year old will never be brought to tears by the sound of Taylor’s voice.

Karen’s 3-octave contralto was of such a pure tone that no less a personage than Frank Sinatra said she was one of the few singers he would pay to see. Her success was not just the lucky combination of genes and physiology which gave her head, throat, and lungs the most soothing voice of the past 50 years, but it was found her ability to channel her frustrations and pain into her music, making Karen the Emily Dickinson of modern female vocalists.

She’s not the most powerful of singers – sometimes she tries to belt something out in the high ranges and, while she’s doing a good job of it, you can tell it’s not 100% her wheelhouse. But let her go into the low registers, into, as Karen would say, ‘the basement, where the money is’, and that’s where the beauty is found, the melancholic desperation of a brother and sister finding success in exposing their pains, resentments, and frustrations.

For the Carpenter’s are a profoundly unhappy group, this unhappiness… like Dickinson’s… born of damaged family dynamics, a complete lack of support structures, and internalized misogyny born of the society in which she was raised. You can see this in their song selection, you can hear it in Karen’s voice.

You can see it in the family photos.


We’ve Only Just Begun

To his credit, Richard was always supportive of his sister and understood more than anybody (excepting Karen) that her talent was the key to his success. Starting from when she was 15, he included her in all his Los Angeles bands as the drummer, their unique sound evident even when they played before the acid-drenched crowds at Whiskey A GoGo by eschewing rock and roll for the more traditional “standards” style of the Tin Pan Ally era.

Many of the members of his earlier efforts joined Richard and Karen when they officially formed Carpenters in 1969, when Karen and Richard signed with Herb Alpert of A&M records. Their first song selected was the Burt Bacharach penned “(They Long to Be) Close to You”. Upon release in 1970 it raced to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, staying there for a month.

Oddly enough, this first hit did not move Richard or Karen themselves into the limelight. At least not until the next song, discovered when Richard, sitting at home watching TV, heard a commercial ditty for Crocker National Bank. Excited, he found out who the songwriters were… a nobody duo from A&M, Paul Williams and Roger Nichols, who let Richard know that, yes, the song was available for licensing. Williams thought Richard was crazy, dismissing the song as a silly wedding tune, noting later that when Richard called him, In-A-Gadda-Da-Vita was the #1 album, his song being a completely opposite sound than what was currently selling.

We’ve Only Just Begun changed the direction of not only Richard and Karen’s lives, but also of Williams (who also wrote “Rainbow Connection” and Three Dog Night’s “An Old Fashioned Love Song”). It cemented the Carpenters as the rulers of the “easy listening” firmament, won them three Grammy awards (a bigger deal then than now), but it also established Karen as the “star” of the duo, her presence increasingly overshadowing Richard. To quote Williams:


(Paul Williams (the shorter gentleman) in 1977’s finest film. Do not @ me, you know I’m right.)

Top of the World

For the next 3 years, Richard and Karen released hit after hit, all while their music was largely dismissed by the larger rock and roll establishment as being wimpy, saccharine, the antithesis of the prevailing musical genre of the day. But it was the 1970s, an era where Bach, Coca-Cola, and Led Zeppelin could sell millions of records in the same year, and despite the critics there was plenty of room for a brother/sister combo who sang melancholy standards.

It was in this period that Karen came into her full powers as a vocalist. Her work in Superstar, Yesterday Once More, Goodbye to Love, and more, while dismissed by the critics, was lauded by her fellow vocalists who understood they were seeing a generational talent. People like Leon Russell, Jann Arden, Paul McCartney, Olivia Newton-John, John Lennon, more all had praise for Karen, but my favorite is from Paul Williams:

Sold out tours. Appearances on Carson. Constant appearances on the Billboard Top 10. Kasey Kasem spinning their records every week. The relatively recent fame machine descended upon Karen and Richard, and they appeared in AM drive-time radio interviews, Good Morning America, hell, even the Carol Burnett show.

And they paid a price.


Hurting Each Other

It is unknown when Karen’s body dysmorphia started: many of the drugs and techniques used by 1960s and 1970s pop stars… hell, 1960s and 1970s housewives… to stay thin would be considered abuse today, and Karen would have been no different. The first known incident of Karen’s desire to control her weight was when she was 17 and overheard a record executive call her 140-pound frame “chubby”. Mortified, she immediately lost 20 pounds and she never approached 140 again.

But regardless of when it started, it was surely compounded by the bizarre situation she found herself in: increasingly responsible for the success of the family fortunes (her earnings largely controlled by Richard and her parents) but resented by those very same parents, especially her mother, for overshadowing Richard. Meanwhile, Richard still needed her to help him be a success so he can prove himself in the eyes of those very parents who blamed her for his (sung) songs not being any good. Karen was also constrained by her upbringing and expectations, continuing to live in her parent’s home until late 1972, two years after winning her first Grammy award.

Karen preferred to play the drums, but her singing duties took front and center and she was pressured to stop playing the drums and come out in front of the audience, especially once TV appearances became common. For a shy woman with body dysmorphia, this was surely a triggering event, perhaps the triggering event, for the anorexia which developed in the early 1970s.

And Richard? He was learning that… well… he was learning that he wasn’t the front-man prodigy he was raised to be. Useless as a lead singer, Richard had neither presence or range. He missed notes. His voice was strained. He sounded like a 1963-era Beach Boy wannabe. He made up for his weaknesses by overproduction, song gimmicks, and doing a fair number of upbeat covers written by people not upset that it was the ‘other’ Carpenter who was going to sing their song (like “Fun, Fun, Fun”). Trust me, many things may be hazy about the 1970s but you can be assured that Burt Bacharach and Paul Williams were not writing songs with Richard Carpenter’s voice in mind.

Richard’s strengths were in arranging, production (at times, though he could be heavy-handed especially when it was his work) and in recognizing that his sister was the meal ticket. But Richard couldn’t escape the fact that it was his sister who was having his recognition, the fame and adoration he was raised to believe was his God-given right, given enough work. Richard, sitting silently while she was chatted up by Merv Griffin, Mike Douglas, and Johnny Carson for years, eventually fell into a 5-year quaalude addiction which corresponded with the end of the Carpenter’s productive years.


Rainy Days and Mondays

All told, by 1976 the peak was over. Karen and Richard still toured, still made albums, but the country which once found comfort in Karen’s voice was looking for more materialistic, more optimistic means of expression. Disco, born of the Philly Soul aesthetic, was starting to rule the pop charts, cocaine and cocaine energy was becoming a force in movies and music culture. Boomers began to shed the anti-materialism dialectic quite rapidly, becoming the “Me Generation” no later than 1975 and the “Yuppies” of 1980, and the futuristic optimism of Star Wars was far more appealing than Karen’s internal troubles.

Even to Richard, who… still dependent upon drugs and still favored by his mother… took it upon himself to write, compose, and produce his magnum opus, 1977’s Passage, an experimental album which had, as its featured single, a song inspired by UFO’s and Richard’s fascination with a band named after the alien in The Day The Earth Stood Still, Klaatu. The only good things about this album is that (1) Richard doesn’t sing, and (2) Trainwreckords did a fantastic review of this album.

Karen’s dieting had transformed into a battle with anorexia nervosa by 1973, with audiences gasping at her gaunt appearance 2 years later. Originally presumed to be fighting a battle with cancer, the eventually-diagnosed condition – anorexia – was too new for treatment options to have been developed, much less approved. Finally checking into Cedar-Sinai in Los Angeles in 1975, she spent 5 days in treatment with their European tour being canceled.

The immediate pressure off her for the first time in over a decade, Karen slept 12-14 hours a day, every day, for months.

Then there were the TV shows. 1976’s The Carpenters First Television Special (starring Victor Borgia and John Denver) is a standard 1970s variety show filled with racist caricatures, bad comedy skits (including a Hee-Haw based skit starring John Denver and Richard), with Karen’s singing (check out her fantastic live Superstar/Rainy Days medley @ 28:30-32:00 (ish), as well as the final medley starting at 41:00) being the only reason to watch it. Richard did not want to do this, but Karen loved the genre and pushed them to do it. And, if you watch it, you can tell her enthusiasm for venture this vastly exceeded his.

Worse still was The Carpenters Space Encounters, a televised 1978 variety show featuring Suzanne Somers in comedy skits while Karen crooned to John Davidson. TCSE just may well be the most painful relic of the 1970s, exceeding Star Wars’ own Holiday Special or that time Cher danced with Donny Osmond while lip-synching to her own covers of various Stevie Wonder songs, though Karen’s rendition of Janis Joplin’s Little Girl Blue @ 27:50 in is the one true Karen moment in an otherwise steaming pile of 1970s shlock.

If you watch the above, you are watching a family barely keeping it together, both of them controlled by their own internal demons as Richard was deeply into his barbiturate addiction and Karen’s anorexia was painfully obvious to anyone knowing what the condition looks like… which wasn’t many people in 1978.

This was the year they stopped touring, Richard’s barbiturate addiction impacting his memory and his playing, Karen’s anorexia and resentment over her family issues coming to the fore in their lives, if not their official photographs:


Goodbye to Love

In 1980, Karen married a hustler named Tom Burris, who, by all accounts and actions, was after her money. And if you’ve read through all this still thinking that her family gave Karen full and complete agency over her wealth, then I need to up my game. Tom did drain Karen of her available cash assets, but her financial advisors (and Richard and her parents) refused to cash in any stocks/real estate/investments for Tom’s benefit. Tom left after 9 months, with Karen filing for divorce 14 months after the wedding.

Richard broke free of his addiction in 1979, 1980 – checked himself into rehab and by all accounts it worked. Karen was a harder nut to crack. Resentful that her voice still seemed to be Richard’s to command, still upset over her mother’s favoritism (which never stopped, even when it was obvious (like, 1970-obvious) that Karen was the money machine), Karen decided to record a solo album in the early 1980s, a decision which created a massive fight in the family given that Karen needed $250,000 to finance this and had no money after the Tom Burris fiasco. But… until she succeeded on her own, Karen felt that she had no control of her life, voice, and career.

However, society always allowed her the agency to control her weight.

One thing which people inexperienced with anorexia don’t understand is that the very act of refusing food is the reward, not the weight itself. And, even more subtly, when you starve your body you are also starving your brain. So your brain becomes more… inefficient, for want of a better word… causing the sufferer to try to be in even more control. This makes anorexia one of the rare psychological diseases where the physiological impacts of the psychological condition (exhaustion, constant pain from daily activities like sitting, etc, all emanating from the starvation)) also require control, which itself manifests in an acceleration of the psychological condition.

I can imagine it now…

God, I can’t wear this top, Mom will ask questions… here, let me put a jacket over my shoulders. I hope the chairs will be padded. Dammit, they’re going to want me to eat and I’m already so full… plus, I have that Good Morning America appearance Tuesday. And my constipation is making me so bloated, time for another Ex-Lax.

If you can understand how one can hold two contradictory truths in your head… for example (1) that you are overweight, and, (2) you need to hide the effects of your malnourishment from your loved ones… then you may understand anorexia.

Or, to be honest, people.

Karen never released her album, being persuaded by Herb Alpert of A&M Records that it was not up to standards. Of course, Karen Carpenter was released in 1996 and while none of the songs rose to the heights of their 1970s work, they offered a glimpse of what Karen may have sounded like later in her career had she worked with differing songwriters and arrangers than Richard.

You can hear it in its entirety on this YouTube playlist:


Karen passed away at her parent’s home on February 4th, 1983. Ipapec, a common drug taken to induce vomiting, was found in her system and poisoning was ruled the cause of death. Her body, weighing less than 80 pounds, was found by Agnes Carpenter, Karen’s mother. Her death hit Richard hard as their (now) final studio album was scheduled for release in March 1983.

If Agnes Carpenter didn’t understand the centrality of Karen to her son’s success, she got her nose ground into this reality for the rest of her life as Richard effectively went into a 25-year funk, doing minor composing/production/arranging work, releasing a couple of albums and singles which disappeared without a sight. His biggest contribution to the culture was the Dusty Springfield song Something In Your Eyes a rather typical 1980s power pop tune that showed that Richard still had a good ear of matching artist to song – Dusty does a quality job delivering this rather standard material.

But Karen may have elevated the same material to art. She did so for a bank commercial, for God’s sake.

Richard, playing Bach but in the wrong manner, married his cousin Mary Rudolph… a woman cousin by marriage, not by genes, to be fair… in 1984, Mary eventually having five children with Richard. Richard puttered around until 2008 when he announced he was returning to the music business. So now he goes on the occasional concert tour, does more production and arranging work, but has largely settled into his role as the curator and archivist of Karen’s memory, doing more benefit concerts, documentaries, website (last updated in 2008, wtf Richard?) and YouTube channels. Today, Richard comes across as that nice guy who came across the other side of a major life issue via the Grace of Jesus, but he also comes across as a little grifty. It’s in his eyes and I can’t explain it.

Their reputation was/is slow to rehabilitate. Oh, those in the know, artists like Madonna, Beyonce, Dionne Warwick, Billie Eilish, hell even Sonic Youth (?) have praised Karen’s work. There are an increasing number of articles which have been published in the last decade, hell, apparently The Times of London did a Carpenters retrospective just yesterday (thanks for stepping on my toes, assholes. Just who the Hell do you think you are, Times of London??? :wink: ).

Fortunately, unlike Jenny Lind, we don’t just have the second-hand narratives of those who saw her, we can hear her ourselves, hear Karen as she descends, in her mind’s eye likely in her parent’s home, down the basement stairs to find the Pain which created the Beauty inherent to her Art.


Taste is a purely subjective thing, given to us by a complex array of experiences, genetics, knowledge, environment, and even willful application. As some wags have noted, there is literally no accounting for it.

That being said, please note that this is an appreciation thread, the purpose of it being where people who appreciate Karen… or want to know more as to form an opinion… can discuss her. If you wish to provide an educated criticism to her work, that’s fine. But, really… if you can’t stand them and their entire oeuvre, and the above piece didn’t do anything to move you one way or another, the best way to express that opinion is by not expressing that here. Let us know of your distaste via your silence.

Thank you.

I obviously could not write the above without a deep dive into their lives and work and wanted to provide some reference materials in this post, as well as my top-10 list of Carpenters songs. Let’s go ahead and start with that latter, first:

Doing a top 10 was easy/hard – I knew what was #1 pretty much from the start, #’s 2-6 can be in almost any order depending upon my mood, and 7-10 were put on the list with an eye of showing Karen’s talents off or filling out the history.

Before I begin, let’s do one with Richard. I have been rather rough on the man this entire piece, and please understand: he was a great arranger and producer, especially of Karen’s ballads. However, in any other life (and, really, not in this one either), he never would have sniffed the top-10 as a lead singer. A typical outing was his version of Bobby Vee’s The Night Has a Thousand Eyes, a song so desperate for attention it literally ends with a faux radio call-in DJ asking the ‘caller’ who the mystery group was behind this song… and the caller gets it wrong, end of record.

Truly amazing stuff speaking to the psychological state of this man even in 1973.

Anyway, it’s cute, kind of. He gives it a good 1963 sheen to it, and… and I may be wrong on this… it sounds like his voice is double-tracked through the entire song. Which is fine but may also signify someone not confident enough in the sound of their voice to carry the tune. And, to be fair, the radio call-in thing was used by a gimmick on other covers on the same album (Now & Then, 1973)… but it still reeks of ‘can you see me?’ desperation.

Regardless, this is emblematic of his work. He could craft a song, but he cannot carry one.

Richard’s genius is shown by the one correct production decision he constantly made: when his sister was singing a ballad, cut the shit and put her front and center. And that’s one of the reasons why you won’t find her more up-tempo stuff here – Richard just couldn’t help himself and overproduced those songs.

Honorable Mention:

I Need to be In Love. When asked in 1981 what her favorite song was that she recorded, this was Karen’s answer. For a woman who always wanted the white picket fence of middle-class maternity, this song was especially meaningful. “So here I am with pockets full of good intentions, but none of them will comfort me tonight” sings the woman who will starve herself because of this sentiment.

10 This Masquerade (Leon Russell, 1973). Leon Russell loved Karen’s version of his most famous song, though it was George Benson who pushed it through to the top of the charts. Her rendering of “thoughts of leaving disappear each time I see your eyes” strongly evokes how people can remain trapped in situations it appears easy (from the outside) to extract themselves from.

9 (They) Long to Be) Close to You (Burt Bacharach, Hal David, 1970). Their first #1 song, this is Karen before she internalized how ‘the money is found in the chamber’. Also, big production issue – Karen’s last independent note is sang at 3:00, but then the song does 1:30 of “whaaaaa, close to you”’s, a section which itself has a false ending (3:36). It’s a big mistake, but this song can’t be overlooked for the simple reason is it put them on the map. (BTW, that’s Hal Blaine on the drums. Never doubt A&M’s session work of the early 1970s.)

8 I Won’t Last a Day Without You (Williams, Nichols, 1974). In some ways the best of both worlds: Karen staying deep in the verses, rising up her register to belt out the choruses. Originally recorded in 1972, it wasn’t released until 1974, rising to just #11 on the charts.

7 The Rainbow Connection (Williams, Ascher, 1979). This is the only song on this list in which Karen’s version did not become the definitive one, losing out to a frog, and it’s the only song on this list which wasn’t even released, much less fully produced.

So why include it?

Karen’s voice and tone are as clear as ever in this 1980 recording, showing she still had it going into the 1980s. Made prior to her marriage, this is not a full version: Karen didn’t like the song so it was never fully produced. However, because of that decision, it avoided the overproduction which would have occurred had they made this outtake ‘ready for release’ and, frankly, it was improved by that decision. So we really got lucky here, listening to Karen effortlessly tackle one of the more analyzed melodies of the 70’s.

6 Goodbye to Love (Carpenter, Bettis, 1972). Many consider this Karen’s finest work, and with good reason. Her melancholia worked perfectly with such lines as “all I know of love is how to live without it” and “No one ever cared if I should live or die”, with Richard at the peak of his songwriting and arranging powers.

The problem? Holy hell, it’s a bit too sad! “All the years of useless search will finally reach an end. Loneliness and empty days will always be my friend.” Yikes, someone says this to me and I’m starting a suicide watch on that person. Also, there’s a guitar solo and while it’s a nice guitar solo, it really breaks the golden rule of producing Karen – you only need Karen front and center, thanks.

5 We’ve Only Just Begun (Williams, Nichols, 1970). Easily the most positive song on this list, I’ve already talked about the origins of one of the all-time wedding classics enough on here. Regardless, Begun is where the magic truly began for these two as it was Richard’s song as much as Karen’s, with his arrangements and, hell, even finding the song and thinking it would work. You can hear the influence of the Beach Boys on Richard in this song with the harmonies. Really, just one where everyone was hitting on all cylinders.

4 Rainy Days and Mondays (Williams, Nichols, 1971). One of the unexpected joys of doing the research for this was finding a large number of reaction videos based upon people hearing the Carpenters for the first time. My favorite is the one linked at the front of this paragraph, by DayOne Reacts (Her “Superstar” react video is classic as well). DayOne starts tearing up on the first note sung by Karen and then gets completely overwhelmed within a minute and her reaction upon seeing Karen drumming while singing is priceless – it takes her 30 seconds to process that the “Voice”, as she constantly refers to Karen, is also drumming.

3 Yesterday Once More (Carpenter, Bettis, 1973).

Richard’s second songwriting entry on this list, Karen hits what I think is the clearest note of her career with “shine” at 0:56-0:58 in the link. Note that Richard falls back on his nostalgia kick, and this songs placement on the album does precede that bizarre faux radio call-in gimmick mentioned above (which was apparently repeated for SEVEN iterations).

This can be also considered a companion piece to my #2 – I imagine the singer of this song to be much older than the person who sings the next sone, finally ending her reminiscing with “oh, honey, I loved those songs so much I once hooked up with a guitarist like a damned groupie and, when he left, I then poured my heart out in anguish for a month… and I wouldn’t trade that for the world.” “What? What was that last, grandma? What?”

Which takes us to…

2 Superstar (Bonnie Bramlett and Leon Russell, 1969). “Loneliness, is such a sad affair….” Yes it is. and loneliness comes through in every note of this brilliant recording, the production and arrangements a perfect match for Karen’s 1971 vision of the emotional journey of a young starstruck woman who had a one-night relationship with a guitarist. Karen took the subjects pain at face value, internalized it instead of mocking it, and gave us this classic. Many vote this the best song of her career and I won’t argue. But it’s not #1 here.

1 For All We Know. This Fred Karlin song (with lyrics by Robb Royer and Arthur James) won the Academy Award for Best Song in 1970 as sung by Larry Meredith for the film Lovers and Other Strangers. However, it was the Carpenters version which made the song famous during the voting period, though they were not allowed to play the song at the Award ceremony as they had never appeared in a movie. Regardless, For All We Know is 2:33 of melancholic Karen perfection, a supposed love song, it’s about a woman settling for a man she doesn’t love, but is telling herself how love may grow, for all we know. If you gave me the task of pointing out the one song which highlighted their best qualities while minimizing their worst, this is the song I would choose. And, for that reason, it is #1.

And to think she would literally be playing out this scenario in 1980 with Tom Burriss… just gives me chills.

Reference Materials.

I spent four days writing the above, the barest minimum you can do is listen to their “Singles (1969-1981)” collection. :stuck_out_tongue: This doesn’t contain all the songs listed above, but if you do not like the songs represented here, you won’t like the rest of their work. Unless you’re a Richard stan.

Randy Schmidts Little Girl Blue is considered the major book-length work about her life, and there are a wealth of documentaries on YouTube, some linked above, some below:

Only Yesterday

This10 minute snippet from the BBC has Karen and Richard’s first TV appearance. You can see the entire documentary, again in 10-minute chunks, in the corresponding channel.

BBC radio also had a documentary, well worth the listen.

I also mentioned reaction videos, and every single one of them is charming. Worth a 30-minute YouTube deep dive.

There is more, far more. And if you find something especially interesting, feel free to share it here.

A few weeks ago, I learned that Karen had recorded a version of Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina.

I don’t think I’ve heard it performed better by anyone, including Patty Lupone.

Excellent write up, @JohnT, thanks for your efforts.

It was standard procedure back when the Carpenters were current for me and my Kiss-loving friends to mock them. We wanted to rock and roll all night, not party every rainy day and Monday.

However, in adulthood I’ve come to appreciate the seemingly effortless perfection that Karen accomplishes with her voice. It really does seem flawless.

BTW, there is a new Carpenters book due to hit the shelves next month.


Karen had one of the finest singing voices of our time; a tone so pure, diction so spot-on and, I swear, she could sing deeper than I can. I get very angry when I think of what pushed her to her death. Her like will never come again. I have a copy of their singles collection and my wife had one when I married her. YMMV, but my favorite is Little Altar Boy, which is becoming a Christmas standard (if I have anything to do with it – even though there really aren’t any Xmas references in it).

I have to mention Richard’s incredible arranging, piano playing and singing because the man doesn’t get enough credit.

Thank you for your indulgence; I’ll shut up, now.

@JohnT That was a great piece of writing. Nicely done. I really enjoyed it, and appreciate the work it took to put it together.

When was that first family photo taken? Because in that picture Karen is definitely fighting anorexia already. My wife managed an eating disorders unit, and saw a number of young girls die of that horrible disease. The outfit Karen is wearing, with the bare midriff showing off her very small waist, is ‘classic’ anorexia garb - when they aren’t feeling ‘fat’. People who feel that anorexia is ‘stupid’ or not a real problem should have attended the funerals my wife has gone to over the years.

BTW, she said the most likely cause of Karen’s death was heart failure due to lack of potassium. It’s a common killer of anorexic women. Perhaps that in combination with too much ipecac pushed her heart over the edge.

I used to feel that the Carpenters were a ‘guilty pleasure’ that my friends would laugh at if I said I liked them. The ‘guilty’ part went away when I got old enough to realize what a unique and rare voice she had.

The Carpenters had the bad luck of hitting it big just as the ‘rock’ audience and critics were looking to get away from the folk music of the 50’s and 60’s, and they suffered a popular backlash among young people. It was just ‘uncool’ to losten to them, or even to say you liked them. They were supposed to be everything that was wrong about ‘old’ music. Today they’d be labelled alt-country or alt-folk or something and be totally accepted.

The closest modern voice to that warm contralto she had is Neko Case.

I listen to the Carpenters hits album. I love Karen’s voice.
I’ve always wondered if their music would have matured. I could easily see Karen singing music similar to Billie Holiday and Lena Horne.

Carpenters were always a favorite of mine. Karen did indeed have the most amazing voice. The thing that always struck me was how absolutely effortless her singing was. She looked nonchalant while performing, not really trying hard at all, and this warm, shining voice just poured out of her.

Great write up, but:

(quoting Paul Williams)
Dangit, quit reminding me that I kind of want to marry Paul Williams.

Hehhe, I’m edumacated through art and music enough that I know all my pleasures are guilty when viewed through the right lens. But I love even Passage. How could I love Hawkwind and not love that? Ok, I could forsake it, maybe if I wasn’t addicted to the sugary-sweet tones of the Carpenters already from my dad listening to them. But that had already happened, and I’d already heard Hawkwind by the time I heard it, so my fate was sealed.

Dang, she does have that warmth, and can belt it.

Thanks, @JohnT for that! I’ll admit to having an academic/cultural interest in the Carpenters, but am not a “fan” in the true sense of the word. Some tracks I just love (Rainy Days and Mondays being maybe my favorite), but it hasn’t translated into a love for the group or an emotional connection with Karen’s singing.

That said, I feel like this is a decent place to mention that I have a friend who’s in a Carpenters tribute act, and who takes it all very seriously- she’s got a collection of Carpenters memorabilia and artifacts, and is a bit of an expert on all things Karen. I played for her as a sub in one or two very early iterations of her act… she’s out in Vegas now:

Thank you so much, JohnT, for that amazing tribute to one of my favorite singers. I have always found it ironic that Karen considered herself “a drummer who sings”, much the same as Streisand considering herself “an actress who sings”. Is it common for singer/____s to always put their singing second?

I liked them when they were new. There was enough room in my ears for Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, The Bee Gees and The Carpenters. And if anyone made fun of me, I’d thump them.

Given that, Superstar is the one and only true no other will do best Carpenters song. The fact that the version we all know was the first time she sang it just makes it magic.

“You can’t have that, but…if you’re an American citizen you are entitled to…a dream date (in kneepads) with Paul Williams.”

Well, you are a dog.

JohnT that was fantastic. Thank you very much. I always liked the Carpenters and didn’t give a rat’s ass about anyone who scoffed. I don’t live for others’ acceptances. I loved Karen’s voice. Still do.

My favorite is For All We Know. I also really like Goodbye to Love, but yes, those lyrics are depressing. I wallowed in it when I was in my own pit of despair, going through my divorce. I do like the melody.

In 1978-79 I had a high school friend who struggled with anorexia. She was committed to a hospital and they controlled who she could have phone calls with. None from her family, and I was one of the very few she could confide in. We’d talk for what seemed like hours on the phone. I did my best to help, as I could, but I was just a high school kid myself. I’m only 2-3 years older than she.

We lost touch many years ago, but I have heard she is well and living in Minnesota, in a very small town. Ada MN. I hope she has completely purged her demons, long ago. We exchanged letters when I shipped out to join the Marine Corps back in 1980. I was falling in love with her over letters, the old fashioned way, with she in Connecticut and me in California, back then. But that was so long ago.

Anorexia nervosa. It is a terrible affliction.

She’d be about 57 now. JW, wherever you are, I think of you from time to time and I wish you well.

And, yes Sam_Stone, Neko Case does have a similar vocal quality as Karen Carpenter. I’ve been listening to her now, for the first time, as I write this. Good music.

@JohnT, I didn’t read the paywalled Times of London piece, but it couldn’t possibly measure up to what you’ve written here. Fascinating. I was moved to go back a couple times and re-read that paragraph on beauty and loss.


You write that “Richard… took it upon himself to write, compose, and produce his magnum opus, 1977’s Passage…”

At Allmusic, the review of Passage says “there are no Richard Carpenter-authored songs.”

If that’s the case, then what was it about Passage that made it Richard’s magnum opus? Was it the idiosyncratic selection and arrangement of the songs?

There are some voices that just make me turn up the volume. Karen is one, but Eva Cassidy is another.

It’s my understanding that Richard rearranged the works of others in order to bring out Karen’s voice and infuse harmonies to stamp the “Carpenter sound” onto a song. I think that’s what JohnT was saying. At least that’s what I got from his excellent storytelling.

After reading JohnT’s posts, especially about the family dynamics and dysfunction, I don’t know about anyone else but when I see and hear Richard, he gives me the creeps now.

I read that Richard has remixed and tinkered with the old hits. The cds and digital downloads on Amazon have a lot of reviews complaining that it sounds different.

I bought the greatest hits on vinyl (a vintage copy in mint condition) from Ebay. Captured it and made mp3’s. I wanted the original music that I heard in school.

JohnT that was the best writing I’ve read in a long time (and I say that after having just finished reading about a half dozen recent articles in The Atlantic).