Born in New Haven, Connecticut, Karen Carpenter moved with her family to Downey, California, in 1963. Karen’s older brother, Richard Carpenter, decided to put together an instrumental trio with him on the piano, Karen on the drums and their friend Wes Jacobs on the bass and tuba. In a battle of the bands at the Hollywood Bowl in 1966, the group won first place and landed a contract with RCA Records. However, RCA did not see a future in jazz tuba, and the contract was short-lived.
Karen and Richard formed another band, Spectrum, with four other fellow students from California State University at Long Beach that played several gigs before disbanding. In 1969, Karen and Richard made several demo music tapes and shopped them around to different record companies; they were eventually offered a contract with A&M Records. Their first hit was a reworking of The Beatles hit “Ticket to Ride”, followed by a re-recorded version of Burt Bacharach’s “Close to You”, which sold a million copies.
Soon Richard and Karen became one of the most successful groups of the early 1970s, with Karen on the drums and lead vocals and Richard on the piano with backup vocals. They won three Grammy Awards, embarked on a world tour, and landed their own TV variety series in 1971, titled Make Your Own Kind of Music! (1971).
In 1975 the story came out when The Carpenters were forced to cancel a European tour because the gaunt Karen was too weak to perform. Nobody knew that Karen was at the time suffering from anorexia nervosa, a mental illness characterized by obsessive dieting to a point of starvation. In 1976 she moved out of her parents’ house to a condo of her own.
While her brother Richard was recovering from his Quaalude addiction, Karen decided to record a solo album in New York City in 1979 with producer Phil Ramone. Encouraged by the positive reaction to it in New York, Karen was eager to show it to Richard and the record company in California, who were nonplussed. The album was shelved.
In 1980, she married real estate developer Thomas J. Burris. However, the unhappy marriage really only lasted a year before they separated. (Karen was to sign the divorce papers the day she died).
Shortly afterward, she and brother Richard were back in the recording studio, where they recorded their hit single “Touch Me When We’re Dancing”. However, Karen was unable to shake her depression as well as her eating disorder, and after realizing she needed help, she spent most of 1982 in New York City undergoing treatment. By 1983, Karen was starting to take control of her life and planning to return to the recording studio and to make public appearances again. In February of 1983, she went to her parents’ house to sort through some old clothes she kept there when she collapsed in a walk-in closet from cardiac arrest. She was only 32. Doctors revealed that her long battle with anorexia nervosa had stressed her heart to the breaking point.