Karen Carpenter

The biography for this weeks illustrated woman in history was submitted by Anna Sanderson. Illustration by Thom Kofoed.

Karen Carpenter was a singer and drummer with the brother-sister duo Carpenters. A pioneer for female percussionists, her untimely death brought much needed awareness to the eating disorder anorexia nervosa.

Karen Anne Carpenter was born on March 2nd 1950 in New Haven, Connecticut. A self-confessed tomboy with a passion for baseball and music, she would often spend time with her older brother, Richard, listening to their father’s extensive record collection. 

In 1964, following a move to Downey, California the previous year, Karen enrolled at Downey High School where she joined the choir in order to get out of geometry class. Also keen to avoid gym, she joined the school band, playing the glockenspiel. Karen took an instant dislike to the instrument and asked to try out the drums instead. Though female drummers were a rarity at the time, Karen proved to be a natural, and within a year she was performing on stage with instrumental jazz outfit The Richard Carpenter Trio. 

A talented singer, Karen signed as a vocalist with Magic Lamp Records in 1966. When the label folded, she joined Richard’s vocal harmony group, Spectrum, but success was not forthcoming. Determined not to give up, she and Richard formed a duo, Carpenters, in which Karen sang and played drums. 

The Carpenters were signed to A&M Records in 1969. Their debut single, a ballad version of the Beatles’ Ticket to Ride, sold moderately, but it was their second single, (They Long to Be) Close to You, that catapulted the group to fame. With a string of hits including We’ve Only Just Begun and Superstar, the Grammy award winning Carpenters became the biggest selling band of the 1970s. 

During the duo’s early career, Karen continued to drum. However, this was considered a problem when it came to live shows, as the audience struggled to see Karen behind her kit. Despite being terrified to do so, she was finally persuaded to step out and front the band. 

For almost a decade, the Carpenters adhered to a gruelling schedule that included near constant recording and touring. The workload eventually took its toll on both siblings’ health, but when Richard was forced to take time out in 1979, Karen continued working. 

She recorded a solo album with producer and friend Phil Ramone. An eclectic mix of disco, pop and folk, the album was shelved unexpectedly by the record company, leaving Karen devastated. Throwing herself back into work, she recorded a new Carpenters album, Made in America, and a fifth TV special. In 1980, she married partner Thomas Burris, but the short-lived union only further dampened her already flailing spirits. 

Unbeknown to the public, Karen had been battling the eating disorder anorexia nervosa since the mid-1970s, and in late 1981 she decided to seek professional help. She spent the next year in New York undergoing extensive therapy. In 1982, following a short hospital stay, Karen returned home believing herself cured. But although she was able to maintain a steady weight and even return to work, years of strict dieting had weakened her heart. On the morning of February 4th 1983, whilst at her parents’ house in Downey, Karen suffered a cardiac arrest and passed away; she was just 32. 

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