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Father: Harold Carpenter (d. 1988)
Mother: Agnes Carpenter (d. 1996)
Brother: Richard Carpenter
Husband: Thomas James Burris (m. 30-Aug-1980, div. 1982)
Carpenter was born in New Haven, Connecticut, to Agnes Reuwer Tatum and Harold Bertram Carpenter. When she was young, she enjoyed playing baseball with other children on the street. On the TV program This Is Your Life, Carpenter stated that she liked pitching. In the early 1970s, she went on to play as the pitcher on the Carpenters' official softball team. Karen's brother, Richard, had developed an interest in music at an early age, becoming a piano prodigy. Karen showed less interest in music as a young child. The family moved in June 1963 to the Los Angeles suburb of Downey.
From 1965 to 1968, Karen, her brother Richard, and his college friend Wes Jacobs, a bassist and tuba player, formed The Richard Carpenter Trio. The band played jazz at numerous nightclubs and also appeared on a TV talent show called Your All-American College Show. Karen, Richard, and other musicians, including Gary Sims and John Bettis, also performed as an ensemble known as Spectrum. Spectrum focused on a harmonious and vocal sound, and recorded many demo tapes in the garage studio of friend and bassist Joe Osborn. Many of those tapes were rejected. According to former Carpenters member John Bettis, those rejections "took their toll." The tapes of the original sessions were lost in a fire at Joe Osborn's house, and the surviving versions of those early songs exist as acetate pressings. Finally, in April 1969, A&M Records signed the Carpenters to a recording contract. Karen Carpenter sang most of the songs on the band's first album, Offering (later retitled Ticket to Ride). The issued single (later the title track), which was a cover of a Beatles song, became their first single; it reached #54 on the Billboard Hot 100 Charts. Their next album, 1970's Close to You, featured two massive hit singles: "(They Long to Be) Close to You" and "We've Only Just Begun." They peaked at #1 and #2, respectively, on the Hot 100.
Karen Carpenter started out as both the group's drummer and lead singer, and she originally sang all her vocals from behind the drum set. Eventually, she was persuaded to stand at the microphone to sing the band's hits while another musician played the drums, although she still did some drumming. (Former Disney Mouseketeer Cubby O'Brien served as the band's other drummer for many years.) After the release of Now & Then in 1973, the albums tended to have Karen singing more and drumming less. Karen rarely selected the songs she would sing and often felt she had very little control over her life. She dieted obsessively and developed anorexia nervosa. At the same time, her brother Richard developed an addiction to Quaaludes. The Carpenters frequently canceled tour dates, and they stopped touring altogether after their September 4, 1978, concert at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. In 1981, after the release of the Made in America album (which turned out to be their last), the Carpenters returned to the stage and did some tour dates, including their final live performance in Brazil.
Karen's drumming was praised by fellow drummers Hal Blaine, Cubby O'Brien, Buddy Rich and by Modern Drummer magazine. According to Richard Carpenter in an interview, Karen always considered herself a "drummer who sang." Carpenter started playing the drums in 1964. She was always enthusiastic about the drums and taught herself how to play complicated drum lines with "exotic time signatures," according to Richard Carpenter.
In 1979, Richard Carpenter took a year off to cure a dependency on Quaaludes, and Karen decided to make a solo album with producer Phil Ramone. Her solo work was markedly different from usual Carpenters fare, consisting of adult-oriented and disco/dance-tempo material with more sexual lyrics and the use of Karen's higher vocal register. The project met a tepid response from Richard and A&M executives in early 1980. The album was shelved by A&M CEO Herb Alpert, in spite of Quincy Jones' attempts to talk Alpert into releasing the record after some tracks had been remixed. A&M made the Carpenters pay $400,000 to cover the cost of recording Karen's unreleased solo album, which was to be charged against the duo's future royalties. Carpenters fans got a taste of the album in 1989 when some of its tracks (as remixed by Richard) were mixed onto the album Lovelines, the final album of Carpenters' new unreleased material. Seven years later, in 1996, the entire album, featuring mixes approved by Karen before her death and one unmixed bonus track, was finally released.
Karen lived with her parents until she was 26 years old. After the Carpenters became successful in the early 1970s, she and her brother bought two apartment buildings in Downey as a financial investment. Formerly named the "Geneva," the two complexes were renamed "Close To You" and "Only Just Begun" in honor of the duo's first smash hits. Both apartment buildings can still be found at 8356 and 8353 (respectively) 5th Street, Downey, California. In 1976, Karen bought two Century City apartments, gutted them, and turned them into one condominium. Located at 2222 Avenue of the Stars, the doorbell chimed the first six notes of "We've Only Just Begun." As a housewarming gift, her mother gave her a collection of leather-bound classic works of literature. Karen collected Disney memorabilia, loved to play softball and baseball, and listed Petula Clark, Olivia Newton-John and Dionne Warwick among her closest friends.
Karen dated a number of well-known men, including Mike Curb, Tony Danza, Mark Harmon, Steve Martin and Alan Osmond. After a whirlwind romance, Karen married real estate developer Thomas James Burris on August 31, 1980, in the Crystal Room of the Beverly Hills Hotel. Burris, divorced with an 18-year-old son, was nine years her senior. A new song performed by Karen at the ceremony, "Because We Are In Love," was released in 1981.
The song "Now," recorded in April 1982, was the last song Karen Carpenter recorded. She recorded it after a two-week intermission in her therapy with psychotherapist Steven Levenkron in New York City for her anorexia, during which she had lost a considerable amount of weight. In September 1982, her treatment took a negative, downward slope of events when Carpenter called her psychotherapist to tell him she felt dizzy and that her heart was beating irregularly. She was admitted to Lenox Hill Hospital in New York and hooked up to an intravenous drip, which was the cause of her much debated 30-pound weight gain in eight weeks.
Carpenter returned to California in November 1982, determined to reinvigorate her career, finalize her divorce, and begin a new album with Richard. She had gained 30 pounds over a two-month stay in New York, and the sudden weight gain (much of which was the result of intravenous feeding) further strained her heart, which was already weak from years of crash dieting. During her illness , she also took thyroid replacement medication (in order to speed up her metabolism. Ms. Carpenter had a normal thyroid and did not need the medication. She only took it to try and lose weight.) and laxatives. On December 17, 1982, she made her final public appearance in the "multi-purpose" room of the Buckley School in Sherman Oaks, California, singing for her godchildren and their classmates who attended the school. She sang Christmas carols for friends.
On February 4, 1983, less than a month before her 33rd birthday, Karen suffered heart failure at her parents' home in Downey, California. She was taken to Downey Community Hospital, where she was pronounced dead twenty minutes later. The Los Angeles coroner gave the cause of death as "heartbeat irregularities brought on by chemical imbalances associated with anorexia nervosa." Under the anatomical summary, the first item was heart failure, with anorexia as second. The third finding was cachexia, which is extremely low weight and weakness and general body decline associated with chronic disease. Her divorce was scheduled to have been finalized that day. The autopsy stated that Carpenter's death was the result of emetine cardiotoxicity due to anorexia nervosa, revealing that Carpenter had poisoned herself with ipecac syrup, an emetic often used to induce vomiting in cases of overdosing or poisoning. Carpenter's use of ipecac syrup was later disputed by Agnes and Richard, who both stated that they never found empty vials of ipecac in her apartment and have denied that there was any concrete evidence that Karen had been vomiting. Richard also expressed that he believes Karen was not willing to ingest ipecac syrup because of the potential damage it presented to her vocal cords and that she relied on laxatives alone to maintain her low body weight.
Her funeral service took place on February 8, 1983, at the Downey United Methodist Church. Dressed in a rose colored suit, Carpenter lay in an open white casket. Over 1,000 mourners passed through to say goodbye, among them her friends Dorothy Hamill, Olivia Newton-John, Petula Clark, and Dionne Warwick. Carpenter's estranged husband Tom attended her funeral, where he took off his wedding ring and threw it into the casket. She was buried at the Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Cypress, California. In 2003, Richard Carpenter had Karen re-interred, along with their parents, in a Carpenter family mausoleum at the Pierce Brothers Valley Oaks Memorial Park in Westlake Village, California, which is closer to his Southern California home.
Carpenter's death brought lasting media attention to anorexia nervosa and also to bulimia. In the years after Carpenter's death,a number of celebrities decided to go public about their eating disorders, among them actress Tracey Gold and Diana, Princess of Wales. Medical centres and hospitals began receiving increased contacts from people with these disorders. The general public had little knowledge of anorexia nervosa and bulimia prior to Carpenter's death, making the condition difficult to identify and treat. Her family started the "Karen A. Carpenter Memorial Foundation," which raised money for research on anorexia nervosa and eating disorders. Today the name of the organization has been changed to the "Carpenter Family Foundation." In addition to eating disorders, the foundation now funds the arts, entertainment and education.