The story of the Carpenters

The Carpenters: what happened behind their closed doors and how was Elvis Presley connected to it?

Musical preferences come in all different shapes and sizes. Some prefer Rock, hip-hop, classical, pop, or a combination of everything. However, everyone has certain songs or artists that they hold dear and play a big part in their lives.
Many times we have moments in our lives that are connected to certain songs or artists and when we look back on those memories, we often connect those songs or artists to that time in our lives.

There have been many artists and bands throughout musical history that have given us some of the most beloved and iconic songs that are relevant from generation to generation. We’ve danced, laughed, and even cried along with to these songs that are so close to us. The famous musical husband and wife duo Sonny and Cher had their famous hit ‘I got you Babe’, The Everly Brothers were well-known in the 1950s with their hit ‘Wake Up Little Susie. The famous duo Simon & Garfunkel had many famous hits that we all know including ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’. In 1985 Tears for Fears had their big hit of ‘Everybody Wants to Rule’ that had us all singing along. As we can see.

Two seems to be a successful number in music.

One of the biggest duos of the late 60s and earlier 70s were the brother and sister duo, Richard and Karen Carpenter. Before they even released their first single, the siblings had a difficult upbringing and life. But once they signed a record deal, their fame and success being to rise. However, as we know from many tragic stories of celebrities and musicians, fame is not an easy path and is filled with sacrifices and struggles. The brother and sister duo definitely experienced their share of troubles throughout their successful career. Although their career was tragically cut short, which we will discuss later, their music and talents still live on until today and have made a major impact in the music world. This is the story of The Carpenters…


The early years

The Carpenters were a family musical group which was popular throughout the late 1960s and 1970s. The group was comprised of brother and sister Richard and Karen Carpenter. The siblings were about four years apart, but never the less, they were inseparable from one another. This was despite the fact that the two children were completely different from each other personality wise. Karen loved to talk to people while Richard preferred playing in his room.


Moving on

The Carpenter family moved out to Los Angeles, California when Karen was 13 years old and Richard was about 17. Richard ended up going to school there, studying at California State College. Meanwhile, Karen was busy learning at Downey High School. And yet, despite being in different places in life, the two really connected to their music. Karen realized that she absolutely loved playing the drums, while Richard discovered that he was gifted at playing the piano. This only brought the siblings closer together.

Joining forces

Karen and Richard both knew they wanted to move forward with a career in music together, but they had no idea as to where to even begin. Richard therefore decided to tap his college buddy Wes Jacobs to write for the sibling group and to even join forces with them. The three actually started out as a jazz trio, with Karen on the drums, Wess on the bass and tuba, and Richard on the piano. They were called The Richard Carpenter Trio.


Battle of the bands

The Trio performed for about a year before Richard decided that they should move forward with their career. So, Richard decided to sign everyone up for the Hollywood Bowl Battle of the Bands. Richard and his trio actually won the competition, and they group received a recording contract with RCA records. The next few months saw the trio performing covers of songs which were famous at the time, but none of these early recordings have ever been released.

Flying solo

Despite all of their hard work, the Trio’s record deal failed. However, they were still booked to perform in venues all across the Los Angeles area. In fact, one day, the famous bassist Joel Osborn asked Richard to stand in and be his trumpet player. Karen had nothing better to do so she just tagged along. Joel asked Karen to sing and was astounded by her voice, thoroughly impressed. He forwent Richard and signed Karen to be part of Magic Lamp Records.

Couldn’t catch a break

Despite only signing Karen onto his label, Osborn never took his eyes off of Richard, and actually used a lot of Richard’s music when writing songs for Karen. This included, amongst other songs, “I’ll be Yours” and “Looking for Love.” However, Karen and her voice were unable to get the American public excited, and none of the songs ever really became giant hits. But Osborn believed in the young kids and let them use his studio in case they were able to catch a break.



Karen and Richard were still trying hard to break into the music industry, and they believed that they may have gotten it in 1967 when they joined with four students from Long Beach State University to start a new band called Spectrum. The band became a huge hit in the Hollywood area, becoming regular appearances in various different posh Hollywood nightclubs. However, the band ended up dissolving due to irreconcilable differences in 1968. However, This did not deter Richard and Karen from continuing to make music.


Your All American College Show

Karen and Richard were invited to appear on the national musical sensation variety show Your All American College Show. It was to be the duo’s first ever TV performance, and they definitely pulled out all the stops, by all accounts rocking the stage and viewers’ living rooms. The two had been recording demo tapes up until now, but all of the studios had so far rejected them. But in 1969, following their performance on the College Show, Richard and Karen finally got their turns in the spotlight.


Free reign

Richard and Karen were finally signed to a record company called A&M Records back in 1969, and they could not have been happier. It only drove them to work harder. This hard working attitude, coupled with the fact that A&M records basically gave the musical duo the freedom to do whatever they wanted creatively, caused Richard and Karen to work harder than ever before. The two would eventually come out with their album called Offering, featuring the song Ticket to Ride.


Onwards and upwards

The Carpenter’s debut album was a chart topper as was their hit single Ticket to Ride. A&M was clearly pleased at having picked up such incredible talent (coupled with an insane work ethic). The brother and sister duo stayed with A&M throughout their career, generating millions of dollars in revenue for the company. The Carpenters have had 30 hit singles over ten different albums throughout their career. Overall, the Carpenters have sold over 100 million records.

The Carpenter sound

One of the things that made the Carpenters so successful was the fact that the musical duo employed such a raw and unique sound. With Richard’s creative talent behind the sibling couple, he was able to create and contrive a sound that America simply wanted to hear. He tried to take aspects of The Beach Boys, The Mamas and the Papas, and other soft rock stars of the 1970s. He took all of this and tried to infuse their styles with beautiful harmonies.


Microphone problems

As the Carpenters began to get more and more famous, the musical duo bean to perform in more live concerts. However, performing live is a lot different than recording in a studio, and they were lackluster when they performed live – to say the least. There was no autotune, so it was harder to make Karen’s voice stronger artificially. Richard tried to fix this by simply moving the microphone closer to Karen’s mouth.


An honorable invitation

By the time the mid 1970s rolled around, The Carpenters had built up a huge fan base of people from all over the United States and from all different walks of life. However, it was not only the average citizen of the United States who was enthralled with the young duo. It turns out that then United States President was also a big fan of the rock duo, and even invited them to come and perform at a ceremony honoring German Chancellor Willy Brandt.


Their name

One of the things that people do not realize when writing about the band is that the word “the” in the Carpenters is not meant to be capitalized. Instead, Richard and Karen wanted to their band to be a one word name, something they felt was a lot more hip and cool for that time, much like how the band Bread was simply that – Bread. Therefore, when referring to the musical group, it is more correct to write their name as the Carpenters.

A Carpenter hiatus

The late 1970s rolled around and the Carpenters were on top of the world. They were dominating in the charts, and everyone wanted to be like the clean cut, seemingly happy brother and sister singing duo. However, Richard was not taking fame well. In order to deal with all of the stress, Richard became addicted to Quaalude sedatives. He was able to seek help for his addiction by going to a rehab center in Kansas, but it meant that he had to take a break from being a part of the Carpenters for a year.


An awkward moment

After Richard was finally released from the hospital having overcome his Quaaludes addiction, him and his sister immediately set off on a worldwide tour to thousands of adoring fans from every corner of the planet. In fact, they even performed on a Japanese Telethon show in 1981. Sadly, it was on this show that the couple had a Milli Vanilli moment, when the world discovered that they were lip syncing when up on stage.


Teenage struggles

However, despite the groups’ resounding success on the Billboard charts and the love that the two instilled in the hearts and minds of America, Karen still was fighting a plethora of personal demons. She had been struggling with the disease Anorexia Nervosa. However, at the time, no one really knew what Anorexia was, and people just tried to force feed her. In fact, she lost over 25 pounds in about a month when she only drank water and ate close to nothing.


The pressures of fame

Meanwhile, with the Carpenters’ meteoric rise to fame, Karen herself was beginning to feel the pressures of having all the nation’s and world’s spotlights pointed at her. This made her more nervous and more stressed out which only served to exacerbate her anorexia. This actually began to affect their concert schedule, as the Carpenters had to cancel shows in Europe and Japan following a concert in which Karen fainted. Doctors realized that she had eaten nothing in days, and that she weighed less than 90 pounds.

A constant cycle

Following Karen’s ordeal in Las Vegas, Karen went home after being yelled at by doctors to eat and warned that she could die if she did not gain weight. However as her career and mood saw ups and downs over the next few years, so too did her weight. She would gain weight when things were good and she was happy, and she would lose it all when things turned south and became more difficult. She simply was not able to beat anorexia.

Seeking help

Even though she tried as hard as she could, Karen carpenter seemed to simply be unable to beat her anorexia. So, she decided to go to a psychotherapist in New York City named Dr. Steven Levenkron. She hoped that the doctor would be able to help her to beat her condition. However, nothing the doctor was doing seemed to be working. And yet, in September of 1982, Karen called the doctor from her home in California and said that her heart felt funny.


A trip to the hospital

It would only be several weeks after that phone call to Dr. Levenkron that Karen decided to check herself into a hospital in order to try and gain some weight. She was taken in and put on a feeding tube as well as having an intravenous drip put into her arm which infused nutrients directly into her bloodstream. After gaining 30 pounds, Karen felt that she was well enough to go home. Her friends and the doctors told her she wasn’t ready but Karen was not having it.


Sending a message

Perhaps the best thing to come out of Karen Carpenter’s death was the fact that people finally began to speak about Anorexia Nervosa and its impact on girls all over the United States. People began to learn to identify the symptoms of the horrible disease and more research was getting done in order to learn how to fight it. Anorexia and Bulimia were coming out of the shadows and people began to learn how to help those suffering from the affliction.


A rocky marriage

Unfortunately, Karen was unable to find happiness in her marriage. Her husband hid many lies that took its toll on her personal life. Tom was completely broke and hid that from Karen. He was supposedly a property investor but did not earn any money and constantly asked Karen to fund his lavish desires. He was not a loving husband by any means and even referred to her as a “bag a bones”, concerning her appearance which was a result of her battle with anorexia.


Help from her doctor

In an attempt to remain thin, Karen Carpenter would walk everyday to her doctor’s office (Dr. Levenkron), which was two miles. Concerned about Karen’s health, Dr. Levenkron decided to call Karen’s family members. When he phoned the Carpenter residence, he questioned each family member on whether or not they loved Karen. Her brother and father said they did and started crying over the phone. Her mother, however, yelled at Levenkron and scolded him for asking such a personal question.


Therapy was not helping

Karen was attending therapy daily in an attempt to overcome her disorder but to no avail. Karen still believed that she was overweight and continued to starve herself in order to maintain a low body weight. She would even take laxatives in order to lose weight. Her disease was taking over her life. She was walking many miles a day and even taking unnecessary medication for thyroid problems in an attempt to boost her metabolism.


Death and autopsy results

With the aim of trying to bring herself back to health, Karen went through a rehab program and moved into her parents house. After moving in, her mother Agnes discovered Karen in her room dead. An autopsy was conducted and it was found that starvation was the the cause of death. In order to lose weight, Karen was taking Ipecac, which induces vomiting. Unfortunately, the a side effect of the drug is that it weakens the tissue of the heart if consumed in big amounts. Karen’s heart had simply stopped.


Her solo album that no one ever heard

While Richard Carpenter was in rehab to overcome his substance abuse, Karen took it as an opportunity to record a solo album. Karen wanted to make a “mature” album that showcased her talents. She wanted to expand her career and try to go solo. She was very proud of her hard work and played it for her brother. She did not, however, receive the reaction she was hoping for. He was appalled by the album and it was never released.


Richard’s disapproval

Richard did not appreciate the maturity of the album and thought it was too scandalous for Karen. Richard Nixon claimed that the Carpenters, “represent all that is true and best in America” and this album did not portray that image. Richard said that Karen did not have a high enough vocal range for the songs on the album and that all of the songs were “weak.” Karen blamed herself for her ‘failure’ and questioned producers by asking, “what did I do wrong?’


We can now hear the album

Karen’s solo album was posthumously released fifteen years later in 1996. Ironically, Richard agreed to release the album after many composers and fans put pressure on the record company. No one knows the real reason that Richard did not want Karen to release her album but many speculate that he thought that group would break up as a result or that he was envious of her talent. Whatever the reason, we can all now enjoy her prized work and her amazing voice.


She did not have to die

During the time that Karen was struggling with Anorexia, the disease was only starting to be understood. The general public was unaware that it was even a psychological disease. Nowadays, the disease is much more understood and although many people still suffer from it, there are many more options for treatment. While Karen was still alive, a friend gave an article about anorexia from Reader’s Digest to Karen’s mother. There is no confirmation, however, that she even read the article or gave it to Karen.

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The Karen Carpenter story

CBS made a movie on Karen’s heartbreaking life in 1989. It was titled The Karen Carpenter Story and portrayed her mother and brother as controlling just as they were in real life. However, one part of the movie that was most likely unrealistic is when Karen’s mother tell her she loves her in one scene. There is no evidence of this ever occurring in Karen’s life but we can assume that CBS wanted to hope that there was some semblance of happiness in Karen’s life.


Physically weak

Karen could not keep up with her Anorexia Nervosa after a while. In 1982, Karen’s health was rapidly deteriorating in addition to her major family problems. Her marriage had failed and the album which she had put so much love and work into was dismissed by her brother who was her role model. As she became more and more emotionally and physically weak, she often passed out and her housemaid would often find her in her closet floor.


All-American music

As we previously mentioned, The Carpenters were known as an all-american, wholesome music group. Their music was not controversial and the whole family could enjoy listening to it. However, this decision to produce clean music could only last so long. As we know, musicians often feel the need to grow as their fans grow. When Karen proposed doing a solo album, her manager said that she should do a more provocative album since her fans were getting older.


Too much love

Richard’s main reason for not liking the album was that he felt the lyrics were too controversial. He claimed that it was too emotional with too much talk of love, something that the Carpenters did not normally sing about. It was antithetical to the kid friendly and vanilla music that The Carpenters were known for producing. There was also disco music on the record which broke the rule that Richard gave to Karen which was, no disco.


Sibling rivalry

Karen’s producer Phil Ramone thought that there was something much bigger at play than the lyrics or the disco sound of the album. Ramone said that Richard was jealous and that he saw Karen’s attempt to go solo as her being disloyal to the group. Richard wanted to be in control of the group and did not want Karen to have any say. He would often take Karen to the recording studio without even telling her where he was taking her.


A glimmer of hope

During the time that Karen was recording her solo album, her health and outlook also improved. She even started eating and began to enjoy herself and go out with friends. She would eve describe that time as the time in her life where she was happiest. After the disapproval from brother and the executives at the record label, Karen called Ramone and told him that she loved the album and she was not concerned about the negative opinions of others


Artistic film

A more artistic version of the Karen Carpenter story was released in the 1990s. The filmed was renamed, Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story. This version used Barbie dolls instead of real actors and had the goal of portraying the pressures that women have to maintain their bodies. It showed Karen’s struggle and the pressure she had from her mother to be thin. The movie obviously cast the Carpenters, specifically Richard and his mother, in a bad light and Richard stopped it from being circulated.


Cover songs

In the mid 1990s, more facts about Karen Carpenter’s life were discovered and people were shocked at the details. Around this time, 70s music began to regain popularity causing many people to listen to Karen’s albums again. It was also during the mid 1990s that many popular musicians at that time decided to cover some of her songs with a new twist or make rock tributes to her. Some of these artists included Sheryl Crow and Sonic Youth.


Teaching her everyday tasks

Since Karen’s parents barred her from leaving the house by herself, Karen did not gain independence and was incapable of doing seemingly common and everyday tasks. Phil Ramone, her producer, let her stay with him and his wife Karen Ichiuji at their home in New York City when she went there to record her music. Karen Ichiuji said that she taught Carpenter how to order food at restaurants, hail a cab, and become street smart.


Not a child anymore

When Karen recorded her own album, she was finally being treated as the capable and talented woman that she was instead of a child. Her family had belittled her and treated her as if she were a little girl. Richard would direct Karen like she was a child when they sang together. Now she was recording her own music and felt like she was in control of her own career and future. She finally felt important.


Her happiness was short lived

Though this time in Karen’s life was full of happiness and self-fulfillment was very short lived. She was extremely proud of what she had accomplished while Richard was away in rehab so she decided to show her parents the fruits of her labor. However, Phil Ramone remembers that she flew to California happy and excited but came back depressed and weighed only 80 pounds. This was just another incident of Karen’s parents never approving or or acknowledging anything she accomplished.


Anorexia takes over

Karen could no longer fly back and forth between New York and California due to her worsening condition. She remained in California with her family so they could monitor and take care of her health problems. Ramone decided to go to California to finish recording with her. When Ramone got to the Carpenter home, he could not believe how Karen was treated by her own family. They bossed her around like she was a soldier in the army.


She put her own assets into recording her album

Karen had already invested $100,000 into recording her solo album when she played it for her parents. Despite the fact the her parents did not approve of her of her album, Karen decided that she wanted to continue to record. She went on to spend another $600,000 on the album. In today’s currency, Karen invested over $14 million of her own money into her album. This did not seem to phase Karen as she had put so much work into the album.


She felt beautiful

Anorexia Nervosa is a mental condition which makes the sufferer believe that they are incredibly overweight and that they will only be attractive when they lose weight. The disease causes people to control what they eat or not eat at all. While she was shooting pictures for her album, she looked at some of the picture and declared, “wow, I’m really pretty!” Everyone around her was excited when she said this since people who suffer from Anorexia never think they are skinny or beautiful enough.


Heart failure

Karen was never able to recover from her struggle with Anorexia and it ultimately took her life at the young age of 32. She was hospitalized in an attempt to overcome her disease but she left of her own choice. A few months after she left the hospital she decided to stay with her parents. Her mother called to her in their home on February 4th, but Karen did not respond. Agnes went into her room only to find Karen lying unconscious on the floor. She was immediately taken to the hospital but after 20 minutes, was pronounced dead.

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She kept her disease a secret

Although Karen was visibly thin, no one in the public knew that she had Anorexia. She had kept her inner turmoil out of the public eye. When she passed away at such a young age, fans and friends were totally shocked and could not believe that she was gone. Over 1,000 people attended her funeral, which was held a few weeks after she passed away. Many celebrities were in attendance such as Dorothy Hamill, Dionne Warwick, and Olivia Newton-John.

Raising awareness

With her untimely passing, Karen brought a number of serious issues to light. While Anorexia and other eating disorders were not often discussed in public, after her cause of death was released, reporters began covering the reason why Karen Carpenter died. Magazines and other media began writing about eating disorders including symptoms, how to get help, and what steps to take if the reader thought someone close to them was suffering from the Anorexia or Bulimia.


Celebrating her life

In 1983, The Carpenters were honored by getting a star with their name put on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. An honor given to musicians and actors with notable careers. After mourning her death, this was a chance for people to celebrate the life and career of Karen Carpenter. Even Richard Carpenter and his parents attended the unveiling of the star in order to pay tribute to Karen. Fans were also in attendance in order to celebrate the memories of Karen.


Karen’s death

Sadly, Karen would go on to die shortly after getting discharged from the hospital at her parents’ home in California. She was found dead on February 4th by her mother who was calling her down to breakfast. Upon seeing Karen’s lifeless form her mother called an ambulance which pronounced Karen dead almost immediately. After being deprived of nutrients for so long, Karen’s heart simply gave out. She was 32 years old.

Mourning the death

Despite being super thin, Karen Carpenter was able to keep the fact that she was suffering from Anorexia Nervosa a secret from the world. Therefore, when she finally did die, people simply could not believe it. They thought that this thin figure looked great and was the picture of health. People quickly realized that Anorexia is a disease and that it must be treated. When Karen’s funeral was held it was attended by over 1,000 people, including friends such as Olivia Newton-John, Dionne Warwick, and Herb Albert.

Richard moved on

In 1984, Richard asked his first cousin, who was adopted, to marry him. She agreed and the couple got married later that year. Together they have five kids, one who is named Mindi Karen after her aunt she was never able to meet. They also honored Karen’s name by naming their firstborn daughter Kristi Lynn, which is the name Karen loved and wanted to call her own daughter by if she were to ever have children.


Richard Carpenter

Although the band, the Carpenters can no longer exist, Richard is busy keeping the Carpenter name relevant. He spends his time making appearances and supporting the arts through charity. In addition he performs for the benefit of his sister. He and his wife have donated millions of dollars to an organization called the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza Foundation in order to keep supporting the arts and to honor Karen’s memory. Even though she sadly passed away, Karen is still able to make an impact on music through her brother.


An iconic band

As is often the case when someone famous dies, their legacy becomes more well-known and iconic. Karen’s vocals are world famous and Rolling Stone Magazine even called her one of the most talented vocalists ever. An even greater compliment was given to her by Paul McCartney who said that she had the best vocals of all time. Many of the Carpenter songs have been put in the Grammy Hall of Fame including ‘We’ve Only Just Begun.”



The Carpenters went through an fascinating and tumultuous life, especially Karen. It is no wonder that many biographers wanted to tell their story and learn more about their lives. People were interested in their childhood, their family life, and their musical abilities. It was extremely hard for biographers to obtain this information, however, since the Carpenter family did not want negative facts about themselves to be released, they stopped the real story of Karen’s life from getting out.


Elvis’ proposal

At one point in the 1960s, Elvis Presley approached Karen Carpenter and her friend Petula Clark, who was a British singer. He allegedly propositioned the two young women to go back to his hotel room with him and have a threesome. They obviously declined and came up with an excuse as a reason to get out of it. Clark was asked about Elvis’ response to which she stated that, “He was very amused by that. It was probably the first time anyone had ever turned him down.”


Carpenter legacy

Although Richard did not always treat his sister well throughout her life, he has honored her legacy after her death. Since her passing over 30 years ago, he has released many unheard songs, compilation albums, material that was never released, and initial recordings. He has also released Christmas recordings and albums in Karen’s memory. These releases have been successful and sold well. Even after her death, Karen’s name and voice will continue to live on.