One of the most well-known and tragic stories of a family business gone awry is that of the Carpenters, one of the hottest musical acts of the 1960s and 1970s.
The Carpenters were a brother and sister act from California consisting of Karen and Richard Carpenter. They started out as a jazz band called the Richard Carpenter Trio in 1965, with Karen playing drums, Richard on the piano and Wesley Jacobs playing bass and tuba. As Karen added singing to her repertoire and Richard refined his musical skills, Richard and Karen went through a number of different iterations before finding success, including joining forces with some college musicians as Spectrum.
When Spectrum disbanded in 1968, Richard and Karen decided to go it alone as a duo, calling themselves simply “The Carpenters.” This proved to be the right move, as it resulted in a formal offer from popular record label A&M in 1969, largely on the strength of Karen’s voice. Since Karen was only 19, her parents co-signed the contract.
Their breakout came in December 1969 when Herb Alpert invited Richard to do their own version of Burt Bacharach’s “Close to You.” With Karen handing over the drums to session drummer Hal Blaine and focusing on singing, “Close to You” proved the first of a string of hits for the brother-sister team, including “We’ve Only Just Begun,” “For All We Know,” and “Rainy Days and Mondays.”
The Carpenters were one of the hottest acts throughout the 1970s, but sadly, the price of fame took its toll. Richard became addicted to the prescription narcotic Quaaludes, while Karen, who was subject to constant scrutiny by the media for her physical appearance, was diagnosed with the eating disorder anorexia nervosa.
While Richard was able to recover from his disease, sadly Karen was not. Despite receiving intense professional psychotherapy for her condition and continuing to perform successfully, Karen Carpenter died of anorexia-related heart failure on February 4, 1983.
Richard Carpenter continues to perform, but never recaptured the success he had with his sister. The two were the perfect combination; Richard, the creative force, and Karen, the gifted, captivating singer. There’s no doubt that they were able to support each other through difficult times, but in the end, the stress of the bright lights of fame proved too much for Karen, bringing a tragic end to what once seemed to be the perfect family business.