What Do You Know About…Karen Carpenter?

by Dena Tauriello

Karen CarpenterOne of the most iconic vocalists in pop history was also a drummer—and a damned good one. So why do we still need reminding?In a 1975 Playboy magazine readers poll, Karen Carpenter was voted the best rock drummer of the year—beating out Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham. Clearly insulted, Bonzo quipped, “She couldn’t last ten minutes with a Zeppelin number.” Carpenter was more than capable on her instrument, though. So why did this strike such a chord? One must consider the gender factor. Let’s face it: In the ’70s women were not known for being drummers. It wasn’t common—it wasn’t even cool. Yet there was Karen Carpenter. At the time, no other female drummer had reached the same level of prominence or achieved as much worldwide acclaim. Yes, there was Maureen “Moe” Tucker of the groundbreaking Velvet Underground, but despite its long-lasting influence, the VU didn’t come close to the commercial success of the Carpenters.

Carpenters Karen and Richard were the most successful American music act of the ’70s. Karen is known first and foremost as the lead singer of the pop duo, delivering haunting and lush alto melodies on such smash hits as “(They Long to Be) Close to You”, “We’ve Only Just Begun,” “Top of the World,” “Rainy Days and Mondays,” and “Merry Christmas, Darling,” to name but a few. Single and album sales in total exceed 100 million units. The music, particularly Karen’s voice, is credited for having influenced many artists, including Madonna, Sheryl Crow, Kim Gordon, Shania Twain, and K.D. Lang. The focus on her lower register and the success it brought led Karen to jest by saying, “The money’s in the basement.” Notwithstanding her iconic sound and style, Carpenter always considered herself “a drummer who sang.”

Richard was the brains of the operation, responsible for song selections, arrangements, production, even working with Karen on her phrasing, but his kid sister was the face and the voice. Perhaps Richard’s most daunting task was telling Karen that she would no longer be the band’s live drummer, shifting her role to lead singer. By now she had agreed to take a backseat on some of the recording sessions, with Hal Blaine playing on most of the singles released between 1970 and 1975. Karen played the album tracks on those six records, in addition to several singles, like “Sing,” “Yesterday Once More,” and “Please Mr. Postman.” On the four albums released between 1976 and 1983, the drum tracks were played by Ron Tutt, Jim Gordon, Larrie Londin, Cubby O’Brien, John Robinson, or Ed Greene.

Karen began drumming at age fifteen, fairly late in the game compared to many players, but this was her first passion and first serious instrument. Having grown up listening to a mix of rock and jazz, she was primarily influenced by Ringo Starr and Joe Morello, and she played both styles well. Karen had her first taste of drumming in her high school marching band, after coaxing drummer Frankie Chavez to let her switch from glockenspiel to snare drum. She then took lessons for about a year before transitioning out of the practice room and onto the stage. Karen drummed in various projects that also featured her brother, including Spectrum and the Richard Carpenter Trio, both of which performed a mix of original compositions and covers.

The siblings had worked for years with legendary Wrecking Crew bassist Joe Osborn, who played on nearly every track of every album released during the Carpenters’ fourteen-year career. Early on, they cut a demo at Osborn’s Magic Lamp studios, and Karen was signed to Magic Lamp Records. Having had no success there, Richard continued to shop their sound and material and eventually caught the ear of Herb Alpert, who signed them to his A&M label.

When Osborn was initially brought in to cut “Close to You,” which would become the group’s first number-one hit, he insisted on using Hal Blaine on drums. The two had already teamed up on many Wrecking Crew tracks and amassed an impressive résumé. The Carpenters were fans of many of those records and offered no objections.

In his autobiography, Blaine says he considers Karen to be “a great drummer.” And as Randy L. Schmidt reports in Yesterday Once More: The Carpenters Reader, upon meeting Karen, Buddy Rich referred to her as “one of my favorite drummers.” So why didn’t she play on all the tracks? Osborn offers MD this explanation: “Karen was very good in the studio but lacked experience. Her feel was good, but she wasn’t [physically] strong. Also, when building tracks, they began with just piano, bass, drums, and a scratch vocal; they couldn’t track the vocal from behind the drums. She needed to be at the mic for the sake of the recording.

“But if there is such a thing as perfect time, she had it,” Osborn adds, using the recording of “Yesterday Once More” as an example. “Richard didn’t like the first half of the track and wanted to rerecord it. They were using 2″ tape and no click track. He insisted they could recut the first half and splice it to the second half. I was very skeptical, but Richard insisted, so we recut it. There is no change in tempo and no way to know. The tempo matched perfectly. It was incredible.”

Karen’s natural ability was particularly evident in her effortless mastery of odd time signatures; she took to them after only a year of drumming. The band’s first release, 1969’s Ticket to Ride (originally titled Offering) is the only album showcasing Karen on drums throughout. The tenth track, “All I Can Do,” is a presto 5/4 piece, where the Morello influence is most apparent. Karen moves through the tune seamlessly, dancing and floating around the vocal track with a mix of grace notes, accents, hand/foot combinations, and double- and single-stroke fills.

“Your Wonderful Parade,” Ticket to Ride’s second track, offers a more rudimental approach, with Karen executing a march-time feel, once again bobbing and weaving her way around the vocal. Her mix of syncopated accents, buzz rolls, and open doubles is not only tasty but precisely executed.

Karen and Richard Carpenter
Karen and Richard Carpenter. Beneath their sunny disposition were complex emotions and a wellspring of instrumental talent.

Perhaps Karen’s best displays, however, were during the Carpenters’ live show. In a YouTube video titled “The Karen Carpenter Drum Workshop,” she and touring drummer Cubby O’Brien deliver a percussion extravaganza to Gershwin’s “Strike Up the Band.” Karen moves around the stage, playing solo snare/kick, timbales/cowbell/temple blocks, full kit (swing hi-hat over a samba bass drum ostinato), and a spread of concert toms, and she trades fours with O’Brien.

Another area in which Karen excelled had more to do with what she didn’t play than what she did. “This Masquerade” (from 1973’s Now and Then) is a wonderful example of the use of space within a tasty part—brush on the snare with the right hand, rimclick with the left. Perhaps this was a direct result of her being a singer, or maybe it was Ringo’s influence. Either way, Karen had a keen ability to deliver the perfect part, and fills, for the song.

“I always felt that she knew how to integrate the drums with the vocals,” says Debbi Peterson of the Bangles, who cites Carpenter as one of her main influences. “She knew just where to place her fills so they worked with the lead and harmony vocals. That was a big influence on me, as I tend to do the same. I’ve recently seen footage of her doing drum solos, and man, she nailed them! She really was quite an exquisite drummer.”

Best known as the lead singer and bassist for Concrete Blonde, Johnette Napolitano contributed a cover of “Hurting Each Other” (along with Wall of Voodoo’s Marc Moreland) to the 1994 alternative-rock tribute album If I Were a Carpenter. “The key to Karen was that she was the drummer and the singer,” Napolitano tells MD. “Whereas you’d have to take a whole lot of time establishing the right balance between the drums, bass, guitar—whatever—and then the singing, Karen already had the voice/drum ratio organically, and everything else had to fit in between. As a drummer she was laid back, and, since she was also the singer, her accents and dynamics are perfect for the song and the singer, on every level.”

Dishwalla also contributed to the tribute album (“It’s Going to Take Some Time”), and we asked the group’s drummer, George Pendergast, for his take on Karen’s skill at the kit. “I grew up listening to the Carpenters,” he says, “and I was always fascinated to see her on Merv Griffin or whatever special playing drums, because, at the time, it was unusual. Singing drummers at all were kind of uncommon. It was after really listening to the drum parts that I noticed that she had a way of using the hi-hat on backbeats instead of the snare—you realize she was leaving all kinds of space for vocals and the song. This is something I really appreciate in drummers. When drummers come at songs from other perspectives, it’s interesting how their parts become more musical.”

Sadly, this amazing talent left us too soon. On February 4, 1983, at the age of thirty-two, Karen Carpenter suffered a heart attack as a result of her battle with anorexia nervosa. And so, as we close out the year that marks the thirtieth anniversary of her death, it’s important to remember Carpenter the drummer. When talking with people about her, including other musicians, too often you hear, “I didn’t know Karen was a drummer!” How is this not common knowledge? Perhaps it’s because we are so many years removed from the string of continuous gold and platinum records that kept the group in people’s consciousness. Younger generations know little or nothing about the Carpenters’ music or their history.

And maybe it’s easy to dismiss the drumming on the duo’s records because of their “middle of the road” musical style, which may seem dated, irrelevant, or even boring today. Regardless of the reasons, the fact remains that there is now a slew of talented, successful female drummers for whom Karen Carpenter paved the way. The notion of a female drummer is fairly commonplace today, but successive generations need to be reacquainted with music history and one of its pioneers. So break open your laptops, get on YouTube, and watch some live clips. You won’t be disappointed.

Dena Tauriello is the drummer in the alt-country rock band Antigone Rising, a private instructor, adjunct professor of music at Passaic County Community College, and a regular contributor to Modern Drummer magazine.