We’ve Only Just Begun: The Story Of The Carpenters
In the late 1960s, Richard and Karen Carpenter formed the brother-and-sister duo the Carpenters. Richard arranged the music and played the keyboard while his younger sister Karen sang vocals and played the drums. Together, the Carpenters are still the top-selling and top-charting brother-sister group of all time. Signing their first record deal as a duo in 1969, they rocked hundreds of shows through the '70s, topping the charts in the U.S. and internationally. But one of their lives would be cut tragically short, ending the duo in 1983.
Richard Was A Quiet Music Prodigy
When his parents saw Richard's musical talent from a young age, they supported him and encouraged him to pursue arranging music and playing the piano as a career. In fact, Richard and Karen's parents decided to move the family from the Northeast to Southern California. This was in part because their father Harold was offered a job, but also so that young Richard could have more opportunities in a music education and career.
Inspired by Perry Como and jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald, he began taking piano lessons. Richard became frustrated with the structure of sitting down at a certain time and listening to the instructor, so he quit lessons and continued playing the piano on his own, teaching himself.
Karen Was The Social, Athletic One
With almost four years between them, Karen was the multi-talented younger sister. Her parents also supported her interests, and enrolled her in ballet and tap dancing lessons. While Richard was practicing the piano inside, Karen would often run around with the neighborhood kids, playing baseball.
Soon enough, Karen took an interest in music as well. She convinced her parents to buy her a high-end Ludwig drum kit. It was easy to see that she also had a natural talent for music.
The Richard Carpenter Trio Was Formed
In the summer of 1963, the Carpenter family had packed their bags and headed for California. Two years later, the first musical group with the two siblings was born: The Richard Carpenter Trio. Richard, Karen, and Richard's friend Wesley Jacobs formed the trio that played jazz music. Richard arranged and recorded the music, while Karen played the drums and Jacobs played stand-up bass and the tuba.
Together the trio won the 1966 Battle of the Bands competition held at the Hollywood Bowl. The attention gained them a contract with RCA records. However, the label didn't believe the group would be successful, and just as quickly released them from their contract.
And Then There Were Two...
After winning Battle of the Bands and creating a short-lived band called Spectrum, bassist and tubist Wes Jacobs decided to leave California. He accepted a position in the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and told Richard and Karen that he was quitting the band.
Although Jacobs was leaving, Richard and Karen decided to continue on with their music and renamed themselves: Carpenters. The duo didn't miss a beat and continued recording demos and sending them off to record labels. A&M Records replied and signed them in 1969.
Their Big Break
After all of the highs and lows -- competing in Battle of the Bands, forming groups, losing members -- it finally appeared that the Carpenter siblings had found their footing. A&M trusted their musical talent and sound, and gave them the freedom to write their own music and lyrics.
The brother and sister duo got to work and released their first album within the same year. Unfortunately, their 1969 album Offering ended up flopping. Instead of heading back into the studio, however, A&M Records rebranded the album as Ticket to Ride. It worked, and the album sold 250,000 copies.
Carpenters Toured Non-Stop
The duo played over 814 shows in the '70s. The first year on tour they played 145 concerts, increasing to 174 a year, then 203. Of all of the gigs they played, their show at the Ohio State Fair in the summer of 1971 saw the largest crowd. Approximately 50,000 people turned out to watch the siblings play at the fair, which is one of the largest in the country.
Karen was just 19 years old in '69, while Richard was in his early 20s. Their careers were blowing up and didn't appear to be slowing down anytime soon.
1970 Was A Good Year
With the success of their rebranded album, Richard and Karen Carpenter carried the momentum forward. Instead of trying to lay out an entire new album, the sibling duo focused on hit singles. In good strategy, they recorded "We've Only Just Begun" written by Roger Nichols and Paul Williams, and "Close to you." Both singles became RIAA certified gold.
The latter was nominated for a Grammy for Record of the Year, and the Carpenters began touring, performing their songs. They played both singles on The Ed Sullivan Show, and also appeared on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, The Carol Burnett Show, The Mike Douglas Show, and the Johnny Cash Show.
Karen Had A Lot of Musical Talent
Although she was predominantly a drummer and a singer, Karen's musical talents didn't stop there. On the album Offering you can hear Karen playing the electric bass. She contributed the bass line for "Eve" and "All of My Life" after bassist Joe Osborn taught her the sections.
She was often nervous about performing on stage, but said of her nerves that she "was too involved in the music to worry about it." Behind the scenes, however, Karen picked up some unhealthy habits to cope with the stress from her music career and touring.
Karen Felt That Their Parents Favored Richard's Career
While Richard was recognized as a pianist prodigy by the time he was 12, Karen felt like she had some catching up to do. More than three years younger than her older sibling, Karen felt that their parents Harold and Agnes favored Richard and cared more about his career than her own.
However, between touring, Karen still lived at their house until 1974. While she longed for marriage and a family of her own, Karen often hid her feelings about it from others, and focused on her thriving music career.
A Gruesome Touring Schedule
It took them around five years, but Carpenters had found traction in the music industry and were hitting all of the milestones of a major band, from visiting the White House to topping the charts in the UK. They had been working hard and hoping for this moment for so long, but could they handle the pressure?
Richard and Karen were touring extensively, and as any entertainer who has done back-to-back tours knows, it's exhausting. The brother and sister were essentially booked from 1969-1973, and couldn't even find time to write and record new music.
Their Image Was "Squeaky-Clean," But They Weren't
Those who spent time with Carpenters backstage were dumbfounded at how different they were in person, compared to the clean-cut image they presented on stage and in the media. A&M Records had a lot to do with this, as they sought to brand the sibling duo as "real nice American kids - in 1971." Richard didn't like conforming to the label executive's demands concerning his image, as many fans loved their music but didn't want to identify with their squeaky-clean image.
He said, "I got upset when this whole 'squeaky clean' thing was tagged on to us. I never thought about standing for anything! [The critics] took 'Close to You' and said: 'Aha, you see that number one? THAT's for the people who believe in apple pie! THAT's for people who believe in the American flag!'... And boom, we got tagged with that label."
Karen Was Not A Feminist
During the early to mid-'70s, Karen was one of the very few women who played the drums and found great success in the spotlight as a musician. In interviews, she explained that she didn't see herself dating or getting married anytime soon, with her busy touring schedule. However, she was quick to shut down any talk of her being a feminist.
Karen wasn't interested in the women's liberation movement that was taking place at the time, and even suggested that if married, the wife should be the one doing the cooking and taking care of the home while the husband worked.
She Wanted Her Mother To Show Her Affection
While her parents appeared to favor her brother's future over her own, it was her mother in particular who Karen wanted love and attention from. Karen had many close friends and thousands or adoring fans, but she could never get the emotional support she needed in her relationship with Agnes.
Author Randy Schmidt wrote a book on Karen's life titled Little Girl Blue. The friends and family he interviewed described her mother, Agnes as a controlling matriarch.
Her Husband Couldn't Give Her Children and Took Money From Her
As strong-willed as she was about not wanting to get involved in a relationship, Karen Carpenter was linked to Tony Danza, Steve Martin, and Alan Osmond, among others. She then rushed into a relationship with a real estate developer named Thomas James Burris.
The pair were quickly married on August 31, 1980, but it didn't go smoothly. Burris had previously been married and had a son, and afterward, got a vasectomy. Karen was upset they wouldn't be able to have children, and Burris' money problems became evident as he "borrowed" up to $50,000 at a time from her. He often lost his temper, and Karen knew she had to leave the marriage.
Karen's Anorexia Became A Problem She Couldn't Ignore
Always touring, and anxious about her marriage trouble, Karen saw one thing in her life that she could have control over: food. What started out as dieting in high school spun out of control in her 20s. She obsessed about her calorie intake and frequently worked out and took laxatives to maintain a dangerously low weight. Karen dropped from 145 pounds down to 120, and she still wasn't happy, aiming to lose five more pounds.
At one point, standing at 5'4", Karen reportedly weighed a mere 90 pounds. She knew she needed help and sought the guidance of a psychotherapist in New York City in 1981. She began experiencing an irregular heart beat and suffered from malnutrition.
1979: Karen's Health Was Deteriorating
It became obvious to those around her that Karen was rapidly losing weight and not getting enough nutrition. Anorexia wasn't talked about at the time, and it was more difficult to find support. Ramone recalls seeing Karen weighing 80 pounds in 1979 and resembling someone from the concentration camp Auschwitz.
When they went back to her house after recording, Ramone saw laxatives in various places strewn around Karen's home. Soon after, Karen was too weak to travel, and could barely leave the house.
Richard Struggled With Insomnia, Depression, and Quaaludes
While Karen was having problems in her marriage, and taking dangerous measures to lose weight, the other half of the brother-sister duo was having troubles of his own. Richard struggled from insomnia and took Quaaludes to help him sleep, as recommended by his mother Agnes, who took them herself and thought them to be safe.
While traveling on the rigorous touring schedule, Richard was also feeling the effects of depression, and would have panic attacks. His Quaalude addiction spun out of control.
Cancelled Shows Led To Suspicion
The music industry and fans knew something was wrong behind the scenes when the Carpenters continually canceled shows. Richard was often in a sedated state, and Karen was visibly worn down and thin. In 1978 they made the firm decision to stop touring so Richard could get help with his addiction to Quaaludes.
Nick Talevski recalled in Rock Obituaries, "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, a tour had to be canceled. Richard, meanwhile, had become addicted to a prescription drug, Quaalude."
1979: Richard Faces The Music
In January 1979, Richard was in a semicomatose state backstage at a show when he fell down a flight of stairs. That was the last straw. His family and friends begged him to go into treatment for his Quaalude problem.
He agreed to seek the help he knew that he needed, and entered himself into treatment for substance abuse. He'd been touring relentlessly for a decade, and his mind and body felt the wear. He signed up for a six-week program in Topeka, Kansas to kick his habit.
While Richard Was In Rehab, Karen Kept Going
Although it was evident that Karen was wrapped up in a serious battle with anorexia, she refused to stop singing and performing, and carried on while Richard was at the rehab facility. She started a solo project with Phil Ramone, a music producer in New York. Her team was top notch, with songwriter Rod Temperton (who went on to work with Michael Jackson) along with Billy Joel's backup band.
Karen wanted to make her look and sound more cutting edge, but A&M Records, along with her mother, did not approve. Karen had also spent $400,000 of Carpenters' own money on the project. It was finished in 1970, but the label chose not to release it. Karen was devastated.
The Presidents Of A&R Records Didn't Like The Album
In January 1980, Karen and Phil Ramone played her solo album for the presidents of A&R Records. Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss were there to give their approval, and her brother Richard was there to support. As the music played, Karen could tell that the men weren't receptive to her new sound.
Ramone told the New York Times, "This wasn't a woman given to tears. 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 my arms."
Richard Wasn't Supportive Of Her Solo Music
Although he sat in on the first listening of his sister's solo album with the executives of the recording label, Richard Carpenter wasn't supportive of Karen's new sound. Karen's best friend Frenda Franklin told the New York Times, "Nobody is saying Richard had to like the record, but he could have supported her. When he didn't I think it forever put a division in her mind about him."
Richard told her that he thought the songs that she chose were too high for her voice, and overall, they sounded weak. Along with his criticisms, he pressured her to come back to their band Carpenters, as he was getting out of rehab.
1983: Karen's Last Year
Although she had moments of optimism, exclaiming that she had "a lot of living left to do," Karen's health was deteriorating. Many noted her fragile appearance as she attended a party for past Grammy Award winners and performed Christmas carols at a school in Sherman Oaks.
With her divorce nearly finalized, Karen reached out to her brother, wanting to start a plan for writing new songs and touring. They met on February 1, 1983. It would be the last time they'd see each other. Three days later, Karen got out of bed at her parents' home and collapsed. Her heart was only beating once every 10 seconds. At 9:51 am on February 4th, she was pronounced dead.
Richard Was Devastated
Speaking with Independent in 1997, Richard recalled how he felt at the time of Karen's death. "Have you ever lost a sister?" he asks, "I heard the only thing that's worse is losing a child, which I can well image. That great voice, that great lady, gone at 32. I don't see any rhyme or reason for it."
As she neared her death, Richard could sense that she was slipping away. "I could see it in her eyes. But even though you say to yourself, 'you can die from this,' you never really believe it's going to happen."
Her Last Words to Phil Ramone
Just 36 hours before her death, Karen Carpenter called A&R Records producer Phil Ramone, and brought up her never-released solo album, that he had produced. Recorded in 1979, Karen had hopes that the album would be her rebirth from her wholesome image into who she thought was her more edgy, authentic self.
The record label ended up not agreeing with the direction that it went in, but Karen was still passionate about it. According to the New York Times, Karen asked Ramone, "Can I use the F-word?" To which he replied, "You're a grown woman. Say whatever you want." Karen said, "It's a [expletive] great album."
The Carpenters Go Down In History
After Karen's death in 1983, Richard continued making music while also paying tribute to his late sister. He went back through previously recorded material of the Carpenters' and produced several compilations, including Voice of the Heart, which went certified gold.
The duo received a star in their honor on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, which Richard accepted on their behalf. "This is a sad day," he said, "but at the same time a very special and beautiful day to my family and [me]. My only regret is that Karen is not physically here to share it with us, but I know that she is very much alive in our minds, and in our hearts."
She Had Friendships With Other Female Artists
Although Karen was quick to distance herself from feminists and the women's liberation movement, she ran in a group of friends of talented female artists. Some of her friends included Olivia Newton-John, Petula Clark, and Dionne Warwick.
When Karen was searching for a way to transition her image, she saw how Newton-John revitalized her singing career after appearing as Sandy in Grease. However, she wouldn't end up getting her opportunity that she desperately wanted, and she wasn't happy with her music career stalling.
Richard Still Struggles With Being Called A Square
While Karen tried to break free of her cookie-cutter image by releasing a solo album, Richard fought back against critics who tried to brand him in interviews. In an interview with Independent in 1997, Richard said: "Can somebody who wrote and arranged `Goodbye to Love' really be square?"
However, he now realizes that all of the posed photoshoots of his sister and him, as well as the outfits they were given, guided people to think a certain way. "I'm not square," Richard insisted, "I think those cheek-to-cheek shots of us didn't help the image whatsoever."
He Daydreams About If His Sister Were Here
Now 71 years old, Richard still talks about if his sister were around. In his 50s, he discussed what it would be like if Karen hadn't passed away in 1983. He told Independent, "We'd be making more albums, spend more time in the studio and do an occasional tour. Summer tours, a week per venue, every other year a UK tour."
Having spent so much time together, both as siblings and as a music act, Richard still feels great loss, over three decades later.
Some People Thought Their Closeness Was Odd
Richard quickly steps up to defend his relationship with his sister, to anyone who says that Richard and Karen's relationship was freakish close for siblings. "We spent a helluva lot of time together," he told Independent.
"With the exception of the occasional squabble we always got along very well as kids and growing up. It was a damned good thing, cause we were together in the studio and together out on the road." Had the pair been the same gender, it's likely that no one would question their chemistry.
Richard Feels Guilty Thinking About The Band
Now that Karen has passed away, Richard feels a weight on his shoulders. Around the time of her death, Richard was feeling guilty that aside from mourning the loss of his sister, he was upset that their band was over.
"It was a little bit selfish of me. In addition to everything else I thought of all these songs yet to be recorded which she was not going to be able to do." While it's impossible to control his thoughts and emotions, especially going through such a difficult situation, Richard beat himself up about it.
Richard Carries On Their Legacy
While he no longer has his sister, or their band, Richard Carpenter has stepped into the role as a composer, arranger, and conductor, and has continued to release albums for Carpenters. He's taken the various songs that the duo recorded, and turned them into compilation albums.
Since Karen's passing, Richard has released Carpenters: The Love Songs, An Old-Fashioned Christmas, Lovelines, and As Time Goes By. The Christmas album, released in 1984, went Gold.
Karen's Loved Ones Insist The Coroner's Report Is Wrong
After her passing, it was clear that Karen's death was caused by complications due to her anorexia nervosa. Her friends and those she worked with at A&R Records had seen laxatives around her house, scarcely saw her eat, and knew she was also taking thyroid replacement medication. However, when the coroner's report was given, they weren't happy with the explanation.
The report claimed that a good amount of ipecac was found in Karen's system. The syrup induces vomiting, which can rapidly decrease potassium in the body and lead to heart arrhythmia. But those who knew her said she would never have taken the syrup, and they don't believe it was the cause of death.
Richard Was Still Holding Back His Sister's Solo Album
While Richard has remained devoted to releasing compilation albums of the duo's recorded works, he was stubborn on releasing the full album of his sister's self-titled solo album, Karen Carpenter. He allowed a few of the songs to be released without any major promotion, but insisted that he was only following his late sister's wishes of not releasing the album, saying "she didn't like it."
Nevertheless, letters from fans poured in, pressuring him to release it.
Karen Carpenter's Solo Album Is Finally Released
After much convincing from fans, Richard decided that he would allow his late sister's solo album that was recorded in 1979-80 to be released sixteen years later, in 1996. The album had been recorded by Karen and Phil Ramone while he was in rehab receiving treatment for his quaalude addiction, and he was still salty that his sister would record music outside of their duo together.
He called Karen Ichiuji, Phil Ramone's wife, and let her know that he was giving his permission to release the album. He also asked if Karen had planned on dedicating the album to anyone. ichijui said Karen had planned on listing, "Dedicated to my brother Richard with all my heart."
Ichiuji Tells Richard, Karen Had Good Intentions
Richard always felt like his sister was going behind his back recording a solo album, so when he found out that his sister had dedicated her solo album to him, he was extremely emotional. Ichiuji toldIndependent that when she told Richard that album was dedicated to him, he began bawling over the phone.
"Karen knew that the Carpenters needed more of an edge. And by dedicating the album to Richard, she was saying, here, I did this for you and me. Accept me, because I did this for both of us."
Richard Provides An Explanation
Once Karen's solo album was finally released, Richard included a note to fans, for closure. He felt that he owed it to them to explain why he chose not to release the album until late 1996. He wrote, "As time passes and events unfold, one's perspective on certain matters can change, as has mine regarding this album."
His note continues, "Karen was with us precious little time. She was a great artist. This album represents a certain period and change of approach in her career. As such, it deserves to be heard, in its entirety, as originally delivered.... plus one bonus track."
Ramone Had Words To Share As Well
Nearing her death, producer Phil Ramone and Karen worked closely and passionately on her album. He also had some words to share on her solo album's liner. "To completely understand the love and adventure of Karen's solo project, people should know that we made a conscious decision to experiment with music and styles that were not in the Carpenters' albums."
It continues, "We wanted their fans, as well as a new audience, to hear one of the greatest voices in a different surrounding. We knew some things were trendy and that the intimate songs would express her love of all music."
One Million Copies Sold
Although the album had little promotion, and was released posthumously, after Karen Carpenter's death, her self-titled solo album sold one million copies worldwide. It featured talented musicians including Billy Joel's band, Steve Gadd, Greg Phillinganes, and Louis Johnson.
The album featured eleven of the twenty-one songs Karen recorded. However, someone at A&R copied the remaining songs onto a cassette tape and mailed them out to her fan club. In 2000, the songs were leaked on the internet, including, "I Love Makin' Love To You," and "Truly You."
Richard Carpenter Is Close To You, The Musical
In late 2018, a musical comedy play centered on Richard's life will tour in the UK.Richard Carpenter Is Close To You stars Matthew Floyd Jones and portrays both the wholesome side and the bittersweet dark comedy side of Richard's life as one half of the Carpenters.
The tour isn't endorsed by Richard himself, and Jones says he is, "so lucky that he hasn't sued yet." However, the musical promises to show Richard's character with all due respect, as Jones says, "Playing Richard Carpenter just feels so right to me. He was my first musical inspiration growing up."