Image: Karen and Richard Carpenter pose with their Grammys during the 14th annual 1971 Grammy Awards at New York's Felt Forum, in this March 14, 1972 file photo. (AP Photo)
Thirty years ago today, the music world lost icon Karen Carpenter. We remember her troubled life... and the joy she got from playing the drums. Written by Linnea Crowther. Originally published February 2012.
The death of Karen Carpenter is one of the great tragedies of the music world. Blessed with a warm, friendly singing voice and a natural flair for drums – but perhaps feeling a lack of control over her life, professionally and personally – she turned to diets to shape the one thing she felt she could control: her body. Anorexia nervosa and its vicious circle of dieting and pills eventually led to her death thirty years ago at the young age of 32.
While she lived, Karen Carpenter partnered with her brother Richard to form Carpenters (there's no "The" in the official name), one of the most popular musical groups of the 1970s. They did slow ballads and bouncy pop tunes with equal ease, showcasing Karen's lovely contralto voice and Richard's skill with arrangements.
In 1979, after ten years of singing sweetly with Carpenters, Karen Carpenter wanted to try something new. She recorded a solo album that took a distinctly different direction from her work with her brother. The disco beats were in touch with the hot sound of the day, but the album wasn't released – record-label execs were unimpressed, and so was brother Richard.
Would Carpenters fans have loved the new, solo Karen Carpenter? It's hard to say – we don't always respond well when our favorite artists deviate from what we're used to. Sometimes, all we really want is more of what we've come to love, and that seems to be what record company A&M was banking on when they nixed the project. But there was very little of what fans loved still in store by the time the solo album was shelved. Just one more Carpenters album would be released before Karen's death on February 4, 1983.
It's not easy to come to terms with the fact that what we love best from an artist isn't necessarily what she wanted to do. But perhaps there's some common ground for Karen Carpenter and her fans: the drums. Carpenter often looked happiest behind a drum kit, whether she was singing along with a favorite ballad or just providing intricate rhythms and impressive solos. She always seemed to drum with a smile on her face, and that smile was contagious.