Feb 4 Yahoo! Article on Karen Carpenter*

1969

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(Note: this article gives some hints about the content of the new "Karen Carpenter: Starving for Perfection" doc premiering at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival (SBIFF 2023), Feb 10.)


Direct article link here or read below for convenience.

Karen Carpenter had a 'quest for perfection' in her music that 'carried over in her life,' says biographer

Suzy Byrne·Editor, Yahoo Entertainment
Sat, February 4, 2023 at 8:57 AM PST·12 min read

Karen Carpenter, half of the Grammy-winning '70s duo the Carpenters and wholly one of the greatest vocalists of all time, died 40 years ago at age 32.

The lead vocalist and superstar drummer — alongside her brother, Richard, who played piano and sang backup vocals — had 12 Top 10 hits in a span of five years. The "We've Only Just Begun" and "(They Long to Be) Close to You" singers won three Grammys, including Best Contemporary Vocal Performance by a Duo and Best New Artist of the Year. They had their own TV variety show, Make Your Own Kind of Music, drawing A-list guest stars. Then-President Richard Nixon declared them "young America at its best." The pair's catchy, easy-listening tunes made them among the best-selling music artists of that time — and of all time. To date, more than 100 million Carpenters records have sold worldwide.

Perhaps Karen's greater legacy is that — following her Feb. 4, 1983 death after suffering heart failure due to anorexia — the songbird with the angelic voice and standout drumming skills put a public face on the eating disorder from which she quietly suffered for years. Her death prompted widespread media coverage of anorexia for the first time. It became the catalyst for education and research — as well as treatment facilities focusing just on eating disorders.

"A lot of people see her as being one of the greatest singers of the century," Randy L. Schmidt, author of Little Girl Blue: The Life of Karen Carpenter and screenwriter of the new documentary Karen Carpenter: Starving for Perfection, tells Yahoo Entertainment. "Her voice is instantly recognizable, like [Frank] Sinatra or Ella Fitzgerald. Sometimes she was relegated to just being [seen as] a '70s pop singer. But Karen's is a voice that could have been a hit at any decade. She could have sung anything and been the best of the '30s, '40s, '50s [or whatever era]. That voice would have found a place. That's what's so unique about her and separates her from a lot of people who were recording at the same time as her."

However, "she was a drummer first and considered herself a drummer who just happened to sing, which is crazy to think about because she was incredibly talented as a vocalist," he continues. "She got her start as a jazz drummer, and that's what she wanted to do. The voice was really an accident. She just accidentally had this voice that needed no training — just a refining. She was only 15, 16 when the voice started to emerge. But by the time she was 21, she recorded 'Close to You' — and and that was the first No. 1, of course. So she really grew up in in the spotlight in that way."

To give a modern comparison of her talent and star status, Schmidt says "maybe Billie Eilish." For one, there's "a similarity with the dark, moody and melancholy kind of voice." Plus, "the relationship with her brother is also really an interesting parallel," as Eilish collaborates with her brother Finneas O'Connell. "A different type of music completely, a different generation, but similar in a lot of ways, [including] the brother sort of in the background surrounding the voice with his arrangements."

Karen grew up "idolizing" her older brother, especially because he was "seen as this musical prodigy growing up," Schmidt says. While she was outgoing, he was the more quiet and reserved one of the pair. She had a complicated relationship with her mother, Agnes, who her friends later told the New York Times "unabashedly favored Richard."

While "Close to You" came out in 1970 and she quickly became the most famous singer of the era, she continued living at home. When she finally did move out in 1974, her first apartment was decorated with stuffed animals and Disney memorabilia. She began trying to carve out her own identity — and her own goals, including a solo career. In 1979, while Richard was in treatment for a Quaaludes addiction, she took the opportunity to recorded a solo album with producer Phil Ramone. The project ended up taking longer than expected and cost more — and it was not well-received by Richard or their record label. Her dream project was shelved and she felt back into her role as being one of the Carpenters.

By then, the mega-success of the Carpenters slowed. In addition to softer record sales, the Times noted they had become a punchline for David Letterman in the early '80s and a trade paper mistakenly referred to them as "Richard and Linda." Karen, still trying to carve her own way, married real-estate developer Thomas James Burris in August 1980, after meeting him just months earlier. She almost didn't make it down the aisle after learning at the eleventh hour that he didn't want more kids (and had a vasectomy) when she very much wanted children. Schmidt says her mother told her she had to go through with the wedding — not only had they spent a small fortune on it, but People magazine was covering it, so it was too late to pull out. Karen walked down the aisle, but divorced just over a year later in 1981.

Karen was plagued by the eating disorder for most of her adult life. It was clear to many that she was struggling — like in 1975 when she was hospitalized and called off a tour of Europe — but the condition wasn’t well known like it is today, there were few treatment options and mental health therapy was not as embraced as it is today.

"After about 1975, it was so apparent physically that she really couldn't hide it anymore," says Schmidt. "It went from, ‘Oh, I've lost a few pounds’ to ‘My god, what's going on with you?’ Audiences would would gasp when she walked out on stage because it was such a shocking change in such a short amount of time.”

Schmidt interviewed the Carpenters drummer Cubby O'Brien for his new documentary and was told Karen's eating disorder wasn't talked about or was "pushed under the rug." The singer employed "tricks and things" to mask that she wasn’t eating. However, friends in Karen's inner circle, who Schmidt interviewed for his 2010 book, were well aware of what was going on because "there were so many hospital and doctor visits" — including many "her family didn't even know about." Her best friend, Frenda Leffler, helped her look for new doctors who could help or make her follow though with going to appointments.

Cherry Boone O'Neill, the daughter of singer Pat Boone, was recovering from anorexia and was working on a book, Starving for Attention, when she connected with Karen, she told People magazine in 1983. "She didn't sound panicked, but she felt that she really needed some help," O'Neill said. "'I'm going to do it. I'll get well — it's just so damn hard.'" O'Neill connected her with the Seattle physician who treated her, who told the magazine Karen "wanted a quick fix. She told me she had all these contracts and just had to get well. But I said, 'No, Karen, we don't know how to treat this rapidly. It would take a minimum of a year, probably three, to get you well.'" He said she agreed to a treatment at New York hospital, where she underwent daily two-hour sessions for nearly a year.

Even though there wasn't social media, Karen still faced body-shaming. Journalists would remark on her outfits, size and shape in reviews of the group’s music. "She struggled with expectations for femininity and being that 1960s ideal girl-girl with the pink frilly dress and a certain hairstyle,” Schmidt says. “She was a tomboy. She liked wearing jeans and a T-shirt and had a really interesting persona."

Karen's friends told Schmidt that as her fame skyrocketed, her management and those around her made an effort to "mold her into something that was more of the ideal, feminine singer." Leffler told the author "even she was part of the effort to feminize Karen" and "soften her edges," giving her tips for walking more gracefully. "That was tough for Karen. I don't think she ever really felt like she fit in sometimes. It's sad to think Karen couldn't just be who she was."

Schmidt says that was the case even within her family. She had "a very difficult relationship" with her mother, who also wanted to see Karen with "that same 1960s girl girl image that all of her friends daughters were portraying at the time." Her relationship within her own family was also tricky because she was "the golden goose" — and there was a lot of pressure to keep working and going because she was paying so many people’s bills.

Schmidt says for his documentary, he unearthed a lot of different interviews Karen did over the years, not heard by the general public, and "she talks quite a bit about that quest for perfection, especially in their music. "I think that carried over in her life as well."

He also interviewed Karen's close friend Olivia Newton-John, who died last year. She "talked about that" quest for perfection "and how when she first went to Karen's apartment, she realized: This person is OCD [or obsessive-compulsive disorder]. All of the hangers in the closet were exactly a quarter inch apart and everything color coded. She was a perfectionist to the nth degree. And I think that definitely played into the eating disorder as well, because it's such a paralyzing thing to try and attain.”

On Feb. 4, 1983, Karen collapsed at 9 a.m. in the wardrobe closet of the room her parents kept for her in their family home in suburban Downey, Calif., People magazine reported at the time. She was raced to the hospital but pronounced dead at 9:51 a.m. Some of the first news reports noted she suffered from what Schmidt says was referred to as "'the slimming disorder,' anorexia nervosa. They really put the name with it almost right away."

The coroner confirmed soon after that "anorexia nervosa was the basic problem" that led to heart failure. "Everything is tied to that." Says Schmidt, "It was just a lot of self abuse, and never with the intent of of harming herself, or leaving, if that makes sense. As those who were close with her said, she never had a death wish."

In the wake of her death, which sparked the national conversation about the eating disorder, her family started a foundation in her name and did handful of interviews. They also made 1989 TV movie The Karen Carpenter Story, which was criticized for its whitewashing, including by actress Cynthia Gibb, who played Karen and worked with the family. It was clear they felt fingers were pointed at them, specifically the parents, over Karen's death.

For Schmidt's documentary, he spoke with Barry Morrow, who wrote the script for the TV movie, who said that when he arrived at Agnes's home to meet her for the first time while doing research for the movie, she came to the door and led with, "'I want you to know, I did not kill my daughter.' That's how she started the interview. There were some guilt issues there." However, Schmidt adds, "I don't think they thought what happened was even a possibility. Yes, she was ill, and yes, she needed to get better. But I don't think anybody thought, 'Oh, my goodness, she's gonna die.' Because nobody had ever really heard of anorexia.”

Reflecting on the 40th anniversary of her death, Schmidt adds, "I don't want it to all be down. That's the sad thing about Karen's story — it's such a sad story, so you have to turn it back around to the music. We did have her recording for those 11 or 12 years and we can still enjoy that after all this time.”

Karen Carpenter: Starving for Perfection will premiere Friday at the Santa Barbara Independent Film Festival. In addition to Newton-John giving one of her final interviews, the doc features conversations with Carol Burnett and Suzanne Somers, who both knew Karen. Carnie Wilson, Belinda Carlisle and Kristin Chenoweth also speak about how Karen's music and story impacted their lives.

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorders Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.

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Without A Song

Well-Known Member
Randy Schmidt rightly praises Karen for her incomparable voice and status as a trail-blazing drummer who inspired young girls and women to also play that instrument. And I'm glad that he notes that while Karen may no longer be with us, the wonderful legacy she left behind as a drummer and singer always will.

Also, I'm curious about his opinion on Richard's ability as a musician. I've never seen or heard him say anything about his skills as a pianist or arranger, just that that was what he did, along with background vocals, as the other half of the act.

And lastly count me among those who's thankful he was able to interview Olivia Newton-John for this film. I miss her like Karen.
 

Rick-An Ordinary Fool

Well-Known Member
This show sounds like it will be focusing primarily on her eating disorder and very little about the music. The guests alone kinda show that.
 

JohnFB

She was born to belong to the lines of a song...
Karen Carpenter had a 'quest for perfection' in her music that 'carried over in her life,' says biographer
Suzy Byrne·Editor, Yahoo Entertainment
Sat, February 4, 2023 at 8:57 AM PST·12 min read
To give a modern comparison of her talent and star status, Schmidt says "maybe Billie Eilish." For one, there's "a similarity with the dark, moody and melancholy kind of voice." Plus, "the relationship with her brother is also really an interesting parallel," as Eilish collaborates with her brother Finneas O'Connell. "A different type of music completely, a different generation, but similar in a lot of ways, [including] the brother sort of in the background surrounding the voice with his arrangements."

Randy's way off here I think - except for the part about having a brother to collaborate with musically.

First, Karen's voice was not "dark, moody and melancholy" - except when the lyrics called for it. She was a wonderfully gifted and natural vocal actress, able to convey the songwriter's intent with masterful perfection and able to engender the implied emotions in her listeners. She did the same equally well with upbeat songs.

Second, it's simply way off base to compare Karen to Eilish at all, who seems to struggle more often than not to kinda whisper her way through a song with no apparent distinction whatsoever in her vocal tone or her singing style. Hardly similar in any way...

 

Harry

Charter A&M Corner Member
Staff member
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I’m curious how accessible will this film be to most of the general public? It seems like it will only be shown in exclusive locations.
Typically, documentaries will show in a few theaters initially and then either make a few small theater engagements or go straight to home video streaming services and/or DVD/Blu-ray. Herb Alpert and Sergio Mendes' documentaries went that route.
 

byline

Well-Known Member
Randy's way off here I think - except for the part about having a brother to collaborate with musically.

First, Karen's voice was not "dark, moody and melancholy" - except when the lyrics called for it. She was a wonderfully gifted and natural vocal actress, able to convey the songwriter's intent with masterful perfection and able to engender the implied emotions in her listeners. She did the same equally well with upbeat songs.

Second, it's simply way off base to compare Karen to Eilish at all, who seems to struggle more often than not to kinda whisper her way through a song with no apparent distinction whatsoever in her vocal tone or her singing style. Hardly similar in any way...
I agree with you here. That's probably the first time I've found myself disagreeing with Randy. Eilish did a serviceable job with the latest Bond theme, but it didn't really blow me away the way I hoped it would ... especially given the theme of the film. Her voice lacked the conviction I felt the music deserved.

I think one of Karen's greatest strengths was in the "dark, moody and melancholy" range. She could capture those plaintive qualities with such warmth and intimacy. But you are right to point out how versatile a singer Karen was. I think about her singing "Help" and remember the power her voice could carry, before she decided she didn't want to "oversing" a song.
 

byline

Well-Known Member
That’s where Carpenters scored many of their greatest successes, “Superstar”, “Rainy Days And Mondays” and “For All We Know” all being cases in point.
Absolutely! And going back to Eilish's theme song for No Time to Die, I find myself imagining Karen singing that. Now, that would have been amazing!
 

JohnFB

She was born to belong to the lines of a song...
.

I think one of Karen's greatest strengths was in the "dark, moody and melancholy" range. She could capture those plaintive qualities with such warmth and intimacy. But you are right to point out how versatile a singer Karen was. I think about her singing "Help" and remember the power her voice could carry, before she decided she didn't want to "oversing" a song.
[Bolding mine] Did she decide that explicitly, and say so publicly at some point? I've never seen or heard that...I can only wish she had, and that the decision was done early in her career - like way back when she was recording in Joe Osborn's garage...
 

JohnFB

She was born to belong to the lines of a song...
That’s where Carpenters scored many of their greatest successes, “Superstar”, “Rainy Days And Mondays” and “For All We Know” all being cases in point.
Agree about SS and RD&M, but FAWK? Never heard anything remotely dark or melancholy in there...it's a lovely song expressing some slight trepidation about what their future married life together might bring, including love (for all they know) - but, it's overall feel is positive and warmly anticipating - my only complaint about it (and it's minor) is that it's too short, doesn't have a brief bridge, and the 2nd half should have been different lyrics looking back at what their life together actually had been like... but, other than that, a great song.
 
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byline

Well-Known Member
[Bolding mine] Did she decide that explicitly, and say so publicly at some point? I've never seen or heard that...I can only wish she had, and that the decision was done early in her career - like way back when she was recording in Joe Osborn's garage...
I'd have to investigate that, but I am sure I have read that at some point. It may have been in Randy's book. The idea was basically that she really wanted to control her voice, and didn't like her earlier sound, not only for the huskiness of her voice, but also because she felt she was singing too loudly. Ah, it was in a Billboard interview that, when I click on the link, looks to be no longer available:

‘‘I used to oversing’’ on the earlier albums. Karen Carpenter, interview in Billboard, September 1977.

And I see that article in Randy's book, Yesterday Once More. The quote is on page 208: "I used to oversing," says Karen. "I was too loud. I'm able to feel a song now."
 

JohnFB

She was born to belong to the lines of a song...
The vocal on that song is one the most doleful in their entire catalogue. Maybe not dark but definitely melancholy.
I hear a slightly nervous, but hopeful anticipation, looking forward to the love that may grow, but which isn't quite there yet (even though they're getting married) - if you hear doleful, or melancholy, or sadness and still love the song and her soaring rendition of it (as I think you do) then it's all good...
 

JohnFB

She was born to belong to the lines of a song...
I'd have to investigate that, but I am sure I have read that at some point. It may have been in Randy's book. The idea was basically that she really wanted to control her voice, and didn't like her earlier sound, not only for the huskiness of her voice, but also because she felt she was singing too loudly. Ah, it was in a Billboard interview that, when I click on the link, looks to be no longer available:

‘‘I used to oversing’’ on the earlier albums. Karen Carpenter, interview in Billboard, September 1977.

And I see that article in Randy's book, Yesterday Once More. The quote is on page 208: "I used to oversing," says Karen. "I was too loud. I'm able to feel a song now."
OK, thanks for the clarification - it's in the definition of the word oversing - I misunderstood - you meant oversinging as in singing too strongly or loudly - I was thinking of oversinging as in singing over, or "double-tracking", the studio recording technique where she sang along with parts (or all) of her lead vocal on some songs...I might be the only one who sometimes calls double-tracking "oversinging"...I know I'm one of the few who, let's say, was never very fond of the practice.
 

Vinylalbumcovers

Ah am so steel een luv weeth yoo
OK, thanks for the clarification - it's in the definition of the word oversing - I misunderstood - you meant oversinging as in singing too strongly or loudly - I was thinking of oversinging as in singing over, or "double-tracking", the studio recording technique where she sang along with parts (or all) of her lead vocal on some songs...I might be the only one who sometimes calls double-tracking "oversinging"...I know I'm one of the few who, let's say, was never very fond of the practice.

Oversinging generally means being too ornate - adding licks and runs in order to show off the singer's voice rather than just singing to tell the story of the song. There are plenty of singers that do this today. For Karen, she may have meant what @byline references as she certainly didn't do gratuitous licks or runs.

Ed
 

JohnFB

She was born to belong to the lines of a song...
Oversinging generally means being too ornate - adding licks and runs in order to show off the singer's voice rather than just singing to tell the story of the song. There are plenty of singers that do this today. For Karen, she may have meant what @byline references as she certainly didn't do gratuitous licks or runs.

Ed
No she didn't - at all - and thank God for that!

She did add certain vocal "inflections" or "enhancements" at strategic points in certain songs, but these were rare and nuanced and highly appealing. For example, the little "waver" she spices up the word "down" with at the end of RAINY DAYS...

My guess is that she more than likely picked up these subtle effects from all of that listening she did to the Old School singers she heard all those years on her father's records in their basement at home, the great vocalists of the 30s and 40s...

The showoff vocal gymnastics that a lot of modern singers use would have served only to distract from her pure, natural, beautiful tone, that aspect of her singing we treasure the most.

Modern singers use these uninhibited vocal tricks I think because it's what everyone else does and is considered normal or standard or mandatory now, but also because the songs they are singing don't have attractive melodies, or highly literate lyrics, or as you say "a story to tell" - the songs of Karen and her "mentors" did.

Karen understood just as the Old School singers did, that the primary role of the singer is to be absolutely faithful to the song creator's intent and to convey the emotions he/she wanted to express.The fact that she did this so masterfully and beautifully and without "gymnastics" is why her singing is often described as effortless.
 

byline

Well-Known Member
Oversinging generally means being too ornate - adding licks and runs in order to show off the singer's voice rather than just singing to tell the story of the song. There are plenty of singers that do this today. For Karen, she may have meant what @byline references as she certainly didn't do gratuitous licks or runs.

Ed
Yes, there is far too much of that now. And, as you note, it's something Karen eschewed. I think she meant exactly what she said in the quoted material; she felt she sang too loudly. That's part of why her sound became so much more restrained on later recordings. I understand what she meant, but I also missed the youthful energy she brought to songs that called for it. When I listen to her live vocals on the 1971 BBC special, for example, I don't think she ever oversings. There's a wonderful range to her singing there. Yet I suspect she would have felt she was oversinging at points.
 

JohnFB

She was born to belong to the lines of a song...
...When I listen to her live vocals on the 1971 BBC special, for example, I don't think she ever oversings. There's a wonderful range to her singing there. Yet I suspect she would have felt she was oversinging at points.
I love watching her and listening to her on that BBC special - she looked so healthy and happy and sang so beautifully! In my not-so-humble opinion her version of SUPERSTAR there was her best ever, and as I've said several times before their rendition of the Bacharach/David medley was really "tight and right"...

If she had thought she was oversinging well we would beg to differ - she thought she was too heavy also...if only she had had us around to advise her and set her straight...:)
 

Nemily

"I'm goin' way down south to Baton Rouge, tonight"
To give a modern comparison of her talent and star status, Schmidt says "maybe Billie Eilish." For one, there's "a similarity with the dark, moody and melancholy kind of voice." Plus, "the relationship with her brother is also really an interesting parallel," as Eilish collaborates with her brother Finneas O'Connell. "A different type of music completely, a different generation, but similar in a lot of ways, [including] the brother sort of in the background surrounding the voice with his arrangements."

Randy's way off here I think - except for the part about having a brother to collaborate with musically.

First, Karen's voice was not "dark, moody and melancholy" - except when the lyrics called for it. She was a wonderfully gifted and natural vocal actress, able to convey the songwriter's intent with masterful perfection and able to engender the implied emotions in her listeners. She did the same equally well with upbeat songs.

Second, it's simply way off base to compare Karen to Eilish at all, who seems to struggle more often than not to kinda whisper her way through a song with no apparent distinction whatsoever in her vocal tone or her singing style. Hardly similar in any way...
Your "brother" parallel made me laugh here, JohnFB. I just watched an interview between Randy S and Muse TV. Just to shed some more depth on Randys' Billie Eilish comparison, what they elaborated on that the article doesn't mention is a possible resurgence of Karen Carpenter and new fans that may come about from the 2023 documentary and RS goes on to say that Billie Eilish fans may see Karen as the precursor to Billie Eilish. This give me pause as does the dark, moody and melancholy comment, however I trust that Randy S comes from a place of respect. He is a big fan and he is a Subject Matter Expert so I’m hanging on to hope that the film is "balanced". I am still wary of how the film delivers/presents i.e. will it be like others before it (which will be disappointing). IMO Karen’s story always will (and always should) have a Segway to dialogue about the study and analysis of EDs, however should Karen’s music, legacy and life be continuously defined by it? Karen Carpenter was doing the best she could. It went south. They don’t hand you a manual when you are born that blueprints what to do if you become a Phenom. The real truth about Karen Carpenter may have died with Karen Carpenter. For the rest of us, she was here and she was the GOAT. We miss her and her impact goes on. I’m hoping that’s all in there in the new documentary, also. Can’t wait to see it. Hopefully it won't be too long a wait.
 

Sing

Member
I think one reason why there is disproportionate attention paid to Karen Carpenter's (KC's) eating disorder over her musical career is that most of the details of KC's eating disorder are not known to average fans or perhaps anyone at all. If one wants to know what KC sang like in 1975, one can just listen to the 1975 studio album by the Carpenters. But if one wants to know what KC thought about the impact that a crash diet would have on her long term health in 1975, you come up empty.

So, anyone who claims to have insight into what KC was thinking about when she made decisions about nutrition, weight management and health is going to get the attention of fans. Anyone who claims to have insight into KC's musical career is going to be met with a yawn because it's clearly available to everyone.

I have only been a Carpenters fan since November of last year, only 4 months. But when I am listening to KC sing, it is often hard for me to simply enjoy the music without thinking about the story behind the music. "Did she know she was endangering herself?" I think. When I listen to most other music, I simply enjoy the music and don't give the personal life of the musicians involved a second thought. I wonder if this will ever change as I become a fan of 5 years or 10 years rather than only 4 months.
 

Rita

Active Member
My Mom raised us to always prevent wrinkles in your clothes.She taught us to simply keep your hangers a quarter inch away from the next hanger.Not OCD to me just common sense.I think Karen had a brilliant idea to color code her clothes.She probably got the idea from being on the road so much and easy access to your stuff.I would much rather be around someone who is organized than a slob!Lol!
Let's remember Karen went to get help for close to a year.
How many entertainers devote that kind of time when they have so much else going on.
I wish somebody anybody would start praising her efforts to get well that last year of her life.Fan since 1970.
 
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