On February 3rd, Karen Carpenter died of a massive cardiac arrest. Reports have linked her weak heart to a disease from which she suffered, but recently had overcome: anorexia nervosa; the compulsion to be thin.
Like many, I only knew Karen through her music and her smooth, stirring vocals on such songs as “Close To You,” “For All We Know,” “Rainy Days and Mondays,” and “Goodbye to Love.” I can’t recall the number of brides and grooms I saw walk down the aisle to “We’ve Only Just Begun,” and I can recall how the depth of her emotion on “Superstar” touched my adolescent heart.
I want to express my gratitude to those I contacted who knew Karen and worked with her and were willing to answer ques tions and share memories in a time of personal loss. Bassist Joe Osborn recorded Richard and Karen Carpenter in his garage studio while they were still in high school. “Karen always had a terrific style,” he recalls. Osborn wanted to help them and constantly told Hal Blaine about these two special kids—Richard on organ and Karen on drums and vocals.
“I met Karen during the Jimmy Webb session of ‘MacArthur Park,’ I believe,” Hal remembers. “Joe invited them over to the studio because he had always told me about them and said we should do something with them. He wanted me to produce them. We talked and they were very nice, but I said to Joe, ‘How in the heck are we going to go into the studio and produce them when we’re doing four, five and six sessions a day?”
But both Osborn and Blaine ended up on Carpenter’s records when A&M signed them, with producer Jack Daugherty at the helm. Their first album, Offering (later reissued with the name of their semi-hit of the Beatles’ song “Ticket to Ride”), made some noise and paved the way for their second album, Close to You. Enter Hal Blaine.
“When they decided to go with professional musicians, they had talked to Karen about my playing drums, and as far as she was concerned, it was fine because they wanted a hit. Her mother was upset at first and said, ‘I’ve watched drummers on T.V. for years and Karen is as good as any of them.’ She didn’t understand that there were different techniques involved, but eventually she understood.
“I’ve always said Karen was a good drummer to begin with. Often times, guys think that a girl drummer isn’t right, no matter what. But I knew she could play right away when she’d sit down at my drums on sessions. She played a lot of the album cuts as well, and we had Howie Oliver make her up a set of my monster drums. But about the third or fourth hit, I remember I said to her, ‘When are you going to get off the drums? You sing too good and you should be fronting the band.”
Enter Cubby O’Brien. Cubby was asked to join the road band in 1973 and also recorded some of the album tracks, remaining with them until they stopped touring around 1979.
“Karen was very knowledgeable about the drums and was a very good drummer, there’s no doubt about that. Some of the things we did together were not easy. Richard wanted it exactly the way it was on record. When I first joined the group, Karen was still playing in the show. We worked out all the drum breaks from the records and I played exactly what she did. The idea of getting me was to actually get her off the drums, and in order to do that, they needed a strong drummer. Richard had grown up with her playing and thought a lot of it, so it was hard for somebody else to take over that chair.
“But at one time, playing was a very big issue in her life. I remember one time Karen and I went to see Buddy Rich and Louie Bellson’s band. I know Buddy fairly well, so before the show, I took Karen to meet him backstage. He was getting ready when I introduced her, ‘Buddy, this is Karen Carpenter.’ And he said, ‘Karen Carpenter! You’re one of my favorite drummers, you know that?” When we got back to our seats, Karen turned to me and said, ‘Was he putting me on?’
“Karen was a very special person. She was always a very happy, very up, person, even when things were bad. Her death shocked me and really saddened me. I spoke to her just four or five days before she died and she was feeling good and much stronger than she had felt. She wasn’t getting as tired as she had in the past, and all the way around, things were straightening out. She and Richard were making plans to perform and thinking of going over to Japan and playing out of the country first.” (According to Joe Osborn, there are still about forty tracks recorded last year that are yet to be released.)
In 1969, a woman drummer was unheard of. Today, in 1983, it is still unusual. It does, in fact, take a lot of courage for a woman to pursue that instrument when the stereotypes are so difficult to penetrate. “Karen hated somebody to say, ‘You’re really good—for a woman,'” Cubby said. “Nobody better have said that!