Remembering Karen Carpenter

36 comments on Remembering Karen Carpenter
4 minutes

Singer Karen Carpenter died 40 years ago today, at age 32, of a heart attack related to physical and psychological stress from anorexia.

My earliest memory is of waking to my father’s alarm, going into his room, and quietly lying on the corner of his bed while he dressed. It was 1970; I was three. The radio was always on, tuned to the Hit Parade station, and the huge Carpenters hit, “Close To You,” played every morning. I looked forward to it, because when I closed my eyes, Karen’s voice made me see colors.

Courtesy A&M Records

In 1974 the Carpenters scored another hit that I loved, “Only Yesterday.” I would go out back to the swing set and swing while singing this song out loud over and over.

I had become a Carpenters fan and I was in love with Karen’s voice. Their 1974 album, Horizon, was my first record. As I got a little older and got an allowance, I bought other Carpenters albums — first Close To You, then their debut album Ticket To Ride, and then later a just-released album from them, Made in America.

By this time I was in high school, and one of the ways I earned money was babysitting. One family in particular called me often to sit with their boys. One February evening after I put the boys to bed, I sat in their living room watching television. A news brief came on, and at its tail end, the briefest of announcements: Karen Carpenter had died.

Unbelievably, I came across that very news brief on YouTube.

I was distraught. I felt as though someone had hit me in the head with a shovel. I tried to explain to the boys’ parents when they came home, and while they were kind, they didn’t understand. By the time I got home I was in tears. My parents were still up, so I told them that Karen had died. They knew how much I loved the Carpenters’ music, but they didn’t understand why I was so upset over the death of a celebrity and told me I was taking it far too hard. I had to process this all alone.

Courtesy A&M Records

The next day was a Saturday, so I took the city bus to the mall and walked straight into the record store. I was going to buy one of each Carpenters album they had, up to the limit of my savings. One of the albums I brought home was A Song For You, released in 1972. The very first song, the title track, contained this lyric:

And when my life is over
Remember when we were together
We were alone
And I was singing this song for you

Leon Russell

I could not believe I heard these words! I knew that Karen was only singing a song chosen for the album. But the timing of hearing this song and these lyrics for the first time ever, the day after Karen died, seemed impossible. I took it as a sign that my sadness was okay, and that I could find solace in this loss simply by listening to those records and listening to Karen sing to me.

I’ve had enough experience with grief now to know that I grieved Karen Carpenter’s death. I was disappointed for a long time that none of the people in my life who loved me could understand why this affected me so. I would have benefited from some support. Fortunately, I found support in Karen’s music itself.

Over the years I’ve encountered more information about Karen’s life and death. It appears she came from a perfectionistic family with impossible expectations. Karen’s mother may have had narcissistic traits and is said to have not only been cold to Karen, but openly favored her brother Richard. The duo overworked themselves on their road to fame, and they suffered heavily from the strain. Karen found love elusive, but finally married in 1980; the marriage was troubled from the start and a divorce was underway when Karen died. It’s little wonder that Karen was troubled enough to develop anorexia.

Carpenters music remains in rotation as I listen to my music collection. I’m still in love with Karen’s voice! I often wonder what music she and Richard would have made if she had lived. While I feel a little cheated that we didn’t get to find out, I realize that Karen was the one truly cheated — out of a long life.


36 responses to “Remembering Karen Carpenter”

  1. Shirley B. Avatar
    Shirley B.

    I remember the day Karen Carpenter died. I was so shocked! At 32… and nobody even noticed she had become so skinny… I was so sad that day.

    So I understand how you feel. And I feel sorry that you found nobody who could relate, back then.

    I still love to hear her sing, and I truly hope that, while she sung, she at least had some moments when she felt as carefree as she sounds.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      What a nice wish for her. Thank you Shirley.

  2. J P Avatar

    I was not really a fan when they were putting out their music, but have become one as time has passed. Karen did indeed have a beautiful voice.

    Awhile back, Marianne and I watched an old PBS special on the Carpenters from the 90s. I had never known how musically talented Richard was.

    I can understand your reaction, given how much Karen’s music meant to you in your young life.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      The Carpenters were so un-hip in their time. But I was so young it didn’t matter to me.

  3. fishyfisharcade Avatar

    We all have people in out life who are important despite never having met them. Whether musicians, authors, actors, or even the person who tells you the weather on the TV each day – people who have no idea who we are (beyond an abstact idea of fans, readers, viewers etc.). Over time they become a part of your life to greater or lesser degrees, and when they have truly had an impact on you, their loss can be as keenly felt as the loss of a family member, friend, colleague or pet. Grief for the loss of an inanimate object or a place can hit hard too – things that have memories attached to them such as a childhood toy, an ornament that was in a grandparent’s house, or somewhere you used to hang out with friends.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Yes, exactly. I’m bracing for impact for the day Paul McCartney dies. His music has been the soundtrack of my life and I am a deeply devoted fan.

  4. Andy Umbo Avatar
    Andy Umbo

    Ditto with J.P., not a fan during the time they were putting out their music, in fact, if you did like them, you would have been crazy to tell anyone; they were considered the absolute most unhip. You would have been ridiculed mercilessly! I have much more respect for her voice and their music today than I did then, but still not “my music”.

    J.P. Mentions the doc on them, always easy to catch during your local PBS stations fund raising drive. A somewhat “flawed” doc in terms of information,I still recommend. Highly suspect for accuracy, and many things most likely “glossed over” by Richard Carpenter. I actually worked in underwriting at PBS national when I lived in D. C., and I’d have to go back and check, but highly doubt that PBS had anything to do with this production, and that it would have passed our standards and practices for regular broadcasting. The only time I’ve ever seen this on PBS is as a “pick-up” program during fundraising weeks, where the standards are much looser. I admit to generally watching it when it’s on, but always amazed at their widespread popularity during the period she was alive, and the volume of records they sold, since they were getting virtually zero airplay on any of the stations I would have listened to at the time. Watching the doc reminded me that altho we considered ourselves so hip, I remember, that “We’ve only just begun…” ended up as a wedding song at most of my buddies ceremonies!

    Just goes to show you how “hindsight” allows for reflection and reassessment.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Un-hip for sure. Fortunately, I was so young it didn’t matter.

      In college, I carried cards for both the Carpenters and Iron Maiden fan clubs. I’ve always been …eclectic.

      1. Andy Umbo Avatar
        Andy Umbo

        Now that’s A to Z musical coverage!

  5. Christopher May Avatar
    Christopher May

    Grieving celebrity deaths is one of those things that I think it’s easy to overlook as genuine grief. We’re bombarded with news of the passing of famous individuals daily. Admittedly, as one who doesn’t get wrapped up in pop culture terribly deeply, I often have no idea who some of the names are.

    The latest instance are the deaths of two young YouTubers from the Schaffrillas channel. I’ve never even heard of the channel but news of the passing of Christopher Schaffer and Patrick Phyrillas seems to be everywhere on news feeds in my life. Because it was so omnipresent, I decided to read up a bit on them and look at some of the comments posted on social media.

    I’m always a bit shocked at just how tone deaf online commentary can be. In one response to an article on my FB feed about their passing, one commenter wrote, “In other national news, I just went to Walmart and I’m headed home now.” Ouch.

    The thing about celebrity is that people make connections with other people, even if it’s a one way street. We all have people like this in our lives. For me, I can point to the late Michael Reichmann as such a figure. When I was in my early twenties and really starting to try and improve my photography, there were a handful of sites that I visited daily to read up on the science and art of them medium. Phillip Greenspun’s, Phil Askey’s DPReview, Jim Gilley’s Grumpy’s World and Michael Reichmann’s Luminous Landscape were all key websites of the early 2000’s helping me learn to be a better photographer. As time went on Greenspan departed from, Askey would leave DPReview and it would be sold to Amazon and Gilley would dismantle Grumpy’s World. Still, LuLa was a site I kept visiting often. While it changed with time, Michael Reichmann’s thoughts on gear and on the art of photography continued to garner my attention.

    When he passed in 2016, it was surprisingly real and somber for me. How the death of a photographer/writer who spent summers north of me in Canada and winters south of me in Mexico could hit so hard was something that I struggled with for awhile. I think that was the moment when I learned that grief could be very real for someone we’ve never met.

    So I completely understand why you feel the way you do about Karen and why the memory is still strong enough to write about 40 years later. And I do my very best to be understanding and supportive when someone is affected by the passing of a YouTuber who they’ve never met and I’ve never heard of. We all have those people in our lives and our connections to them can be strong enough to elicit profound and deep grief.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      What I took away from my experience with Karen’s death is to always take someone else’s grief seriously, no matter what it’s about.

  6. Lone Primate Avatar
    Lone Primate

    I guess I’m just about the same age as yo, Jim, and I remember The Carpenters from the early 70s too. While I can’t claim to be as dedicated a fan as you were, I felt their music as one of the underpinnings of my childhood too. There is something truly unique about Karen’s voice and delivery. Not only is there an absolute confidence to it from the first note, but the quality of it assures you it is perfectly what it was meant to be. Hearing her sing is like opening the tap and getting clear, cool water… It’s so good it makes you thirsty for it. I do remember feeling something akin to being robbed when she died so young. Her. All of us.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      What a great way to describe her voice, LP. Thanks!

  7. Scott Bennett Avatar
    Scott Bennett

    My sister had A Song For You and Greatest Hits so I had a good exposure to them. I was the same way for Jim Croce. I remember where I was when I heard the news. September 20, 1973, a date I didn’t have to look up. I was ten.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      People like Karen and Jim give us a feeling of connection through their work, and so it’s natural to have difficult feelings when they pass, especially when it’s sudden.

  8. piratejenn Avatar

    It was not cool to like Karen, but I was awed by her beautiful voice. She led me to the wonderful songwriter Leon Russell. Ann Wilder

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Same here! Without A Song For You I would never have heard the fantastic Stranger in a Strange Land.

  9. bodegabayf2 Avatar

    She had the voice of an angel.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Indeed she did.

  10. Russ Ray Avatar

    I don’t recall being aware when Karen Carpenter died (I probably would have been 9 or 10), but she was definitely a big part of my childhood. There was an FM radio station in Crawfordsville that would play Christmas music 24/7 in December, and she was in heavy rotation with Johnny Mathis, Nat King Cole, and others. She was the soundtrack of most of my childhood holidays.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Yes, the Carpenters Christmas albums are part of the Christmas music canon now. I’ve always puzzled over why they combined their two albums, recorded a few years apart, into one several years ago.

  11. Greg Anderson Avatar
    Greg Anderson

    I was fortunate to see the Carpenters perform on stage. I remember the beginning of the concert and then I was transported by Karen’s ethereal voice. Her movements on stage, in that white dress she often wore carried me away. and when the performance was over, I came back to reality. A gifted lady. At the time I was teaching in a small Montana school. One of the students I worked closely with died that summer from anorexia. I wish we had known then what we know now about the disease.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I so wish I had gotten the chance to see Karen sing.

  12. Julie Vause Avatar

    Nicely said 👍

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Thanks Julie!

  13. Keith Milsark Avatar
    Keith Milsark

    I’m almost exactly ten years older than you, Jim, so the Carpenters were releasing albums while I was in junior high and high school. Like you, I loved their music. A Song For You was the first album I ever bought, and to this day is one of my favorites. It was a sad day for me when she died.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Nice. It was a sad day indeed.

  14. brandib1977 Avatar

    What a tragic loss. I was only five when she died but their music was always part of the fabric of my childhood. There’s something reassuring about her voice.

    You have inspired me to break out their records today – I have two on LP and I haven’t listened in a while.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Carpenters music remains in constant rotation here. I listen to music mostly in my car these days, and I just keep my music library on shuffle on my iPhone.

      1. brandib1977 Avatar

        I hear it sometimes on pandora. In my house, I listen to LPs most evenings and try to feature something different every night. I usually choose on the fly but this gives me something to look forward to.

  15. Ric Bell Avatar
    Ric Bell

    I am also a great fan of their music. I find comfort in the fact that she will be resurrected to a beautiful new world filled with only happiness. Psalm 37:29 The signs of the time of the end are almost completely fulfilled.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Here’s hoping she accepted Christ.

  16. Amir S Avatar
    Amir S

    Coincidentally I just (Feb 2023) found a two-episode podcast series centered on Karen. It’s a podcast called “You’re Wrong About” that decodes and unpacks people/phenomena we have a social/cultural narrative about. Because often the stories about famous people take on a life of their own and the person behind the story is lost or doesn’t much resemble how the narrative goes in popular consciousness. The podcast is very much conversation-style between two cohosts, who both adored Karen, so if tightly scripted podcasts are your preference, it might not satisfy. But the analysis and different viewpoints of what was going on in and around Karen might be interesting. Jim, you wrote “a heart attack related to physical and psychological stress from anorexia” but another way to look at it is the reverse — anorexia was caused by stress — and it was not merely the stress of performance and fame, but family and societal dynamics she had to contend with.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Yes, for sure, family dynamics and fame were the ultimate root causes. :-(

  17. Dani Avatar

    I had stopped by the Union City Ben Franklin after school let out to buy something I probably didn’t need as high schoolers do. The store played a local radio station over the speakers; that’s where I was when I heard the sad news.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      There was a Ben Franklin in my neighborhood. So I know exactly whereof you speak.

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