Whatever critical acclaim Karen Carpenter, singer of '70s easy-listening hitmakers the Carpenters, may have earned in her lifetime, it would pale compared to her posthumous legacy. Since her death in 1983, Carpenter's reputation as one of pop's best vocalists has galvanized dramatically. Her smooth, creamy voice was a ubiquitous presence on U.S. top-40 radio during her lifetime and remains to this day a staple of easy-listening radio stations across the country.
She was born March 2, 1950, in New Haven, Conn. Carpenter's parents moved the family including her brother, Carpenters keyboardist/arranger/backup vocalist Richard Carpenter, who was four years her senior to Downey, Calif., when she was a teen. It was there the brother-sister team began singing in local talent shows.
Karen Carpenter then took drum lessons and formed a jazz-pop trio with her brother and his friend Wes Jacobs (who played bass and tuba and later joined the Detroit Symphony). In 1966, Carpenter was signed to Magic Lamp Records, run by session bassist Joe Osborne. After a single (which also featured her unbilled musical partners) stiffed, she officially resumed singing with the trio. They were heard by RCA Records, which signed them as the Richard Carpenter Trio, but the label ended up not releasing an LP by the group.
After Jacobs quit the band, the Carpenters formed Spectrum, with John Bettis and three vocalists. Following Spectrum's split, the Carpenters tried their luck as a duo. A&M Records head and trumpeter Herb Alpert found a demo tape they'd made and signed them in 1969, issuing their debut, Offering (later reissued as Ticket to Ride, after their minor-hit cover of the Beatles tune).
The Carpenters then began a fruitful association with the proprietors of '70s-pop songwriting, Burt Bacharach and Hal David. The duo played a benefit concert, singing the songwriters' tunes and later recording their song "(They Want to Be) Close to You," which had gone largely unnoticed when recorded earlier by Dionne Warwick. The Carpenters' version topped the Billboard Hot 100 for four weeks and was certified as a gold single. It also performed similarly well overseas. The Carpenters LP Close to You (1970), featuring Osborne, made #2 on the Billboard 200 albums chart. The LP also included "We've Only Just Begun" (RealAudio excerpt) originally co-written by Paul Williams as a jingle for a bank commercial which made #2 and became a perennial favorite as a wedding song.
The Carpenters had a big year in 1971, seeing their #3 hit "For All We Know" win the Academy Award for Best Song while the duo won themselves Grammy Awards for Best New Artist and Best Contemporary Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group (for "Close to You"). Three #2 hits followed: "Rainy Days and Mondays," "Superstar" and "Hurting Each Other." "Sing," a song written for the children's TV show "Sesame Street," made #3 in 1973, the same year that "Yesterday Once More" went to #2.
The Carpenters topped the pop chart again with "Top of the World" as they released The Singles 19691973, one of the best-selling hit collections of the '70s. Another #1 came in 1975, with their cover of the Marvelettes' 1961 #1 "Please Mr. Postman." But after posting a top-20 performance, with their 1976 remake of Herman's Hermits' smash "There's a Kind of Hush (All Over the World)," the Carpenters found their emerging struggle to remain atop the charts coinciding with health complications that were plaguing both halves of the duo.
The following year, the Carpenters had an eccentric, minor hit with a cover of the mysterious Canadian band Klaatu's song "Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft (The Recognized Anthem of World Contact Day)."
In 1981 Made in America yielded the Carpenters' final hit as an active group, the top-20 single "Touch Me When We're Dancing." But on Feb. 4, 1983, Karen Carpenter lost her multiyear battle against anorexia nervosa and collapsed at her parents' home, dying of heartbeat irregularities brought on by chemical imbalances arising from her disorder. She was 32.
In 1996, A&M issued the Phil Ramoneproduced Karen Carpenter, which Alpert originally rejected in 1982 for being too much of a fad-courting departure from her Carpenters material.
Two years later, Richard Carpenter released Pianist-Arranger-Composer-Conductor, which uses some of his sister's vocals and drum work.
Though they were known mostly in their heyday as less-than-hip hitmakers, the Carpenters and Karen's angelic voice in particular have since been heralded by both industry pundits and harder rockers, including Sonic Youth, Matthew Sweet and Sheryl Crow, who contributed to the 1994 tribute album If I Were a Carpenter.
Long Beach's Cal State University opened the Karen and Richard Carpenter Performing Arts Center in 1994.
Other birthdays on Thursday: Tony Meehan (Shadows), 58; Lou Reed, 58; Larry Carlton (Crusaders), 52; Dale Bozzio (Missing Persons), 45; Jay Osmond (Osmonds), 45; John Cowsill (Cowsills), 44; Mark Evans (AC/DC), 44; Jon Bon Jovi, 38; and Rory Gallagher, 19491995.