Sunday, August 2, 2009

Karen Carpenter - We've Only Just Begun

During the late 1960’s rock and roll ruled the airwaves perhaps like never before or since, and for those somewhat tired of the endless bump and grind, there was little respite on the horizon. Then, unexpectedly it came, from a totally unlikely source out of middle America.

Karen and Richard Carpenter were a brother and sister act that evolved gradually from a family interest in music. They had formed a trio with another artist in 1966, but launched out on their own in 1969, calling themselves simply “The Carpenters”.

Richard was an extremely clever musician, and his vocals formed an airy background to most of their work. However it was Karen’s magical voice that really launched the pair to stardom. She was a flawless light contralto, and her melodic interpretations of contemporary popular tunes remain as some of the musical yardsticks of the era.

Their first album was called “Offering”, followed by a song that would reach number 1 in several countries, called “Close to You”. This was the beginning of a sensational run of top twenty singles that would propel the Carpenters into international stardom.

Richard revealed his genius for music selection when he noticed an obscure Californian bank television commercial showing a newlywed couple about to embark on their life together, backed with a melody written by the song-writing team of Paul Williams and Roger Nichols.

The Carpenters remake of this song, called “We’ve Only Just Begun”, was not only a worldwide smash hit but also became the anthem of many newlyweds of the 1970’s.

You can hear it on this link:

Success followed success, with The Carpenters also becoming one of the most popular international touring acts of the time. Several of their songs became amongst the best sellers of the era, including “Top Of The World”, Rainy Days And Mondays”, “Yesterday Once More” and “A Kind Of Hush”. It seemed that The Carpenters had become the first choice for those weary of the endless "chain saw" fare served up by the music industry. With millions of records sold and legions of adoring fans, their life had become a fairytale success story.

Karen and Richard - The Carpenters - meeting President Richard Nixon in 1972
Image: Wikipedia Commons

But behind all the glitz and glamour, all was not well. Karen had slowly, inexplicably and inexorably, fallen into the grip of what was then a little publicised psychological condition called anorexia nervosa. Playfully called “chubby” in her earlier years, she became obsessed with keeping her weight down, even though she had a naturally slender physique, and illogically, she starved herself for extended periods.

Her face became noticeably gaunt during the mid to late 1970’s and although she was able to hide her emaciated body from the public to a certain extent by clever choice of clothes, her family were aware of the situation and became frantic with worry.

Finally she collapsed on stage in 1975, and after being rushed to hospital was found to be nearly 35 pounds (16 kg) underweight. Visits to doctors and therapists followed and for a time it appeared as though she was cured. However her body had been chronically weakened by the years of starvation, and she suddenly died of a heart attack in 1983 at the age of only 32.

Her death had the immediate effect of raising the public awareness of the then seldom - mentioned condition of anorexia nervosa, with thousands then seeking treatment for the elusive but deadly disease. Even in death Karen Carpenter had given hope to those who followed.

Reference: “Disasters, Events and Moments that Changed the World”, Richard Whitaker, New Holland Publishing, 2007

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