Karen Carpenter – sadly thought of as a punchline by some, known to be an incredible singer and one half of the mega-successful sibling duo, the Carpenters – was a drummer. Brother Richard was in charge of song selection (covers) arranging, producing and composition. But if he was the boss Karen was the star. Ask her if she was a singer though, she’d tell you she was a drummer. Maybe concede to being a drummer who also could sing. But it was drums she loved. And she was good too.
She also played at a time when there weren’t really any female drummers – not in mega-selling pop acts; not lead singers too!
The sad story of Karen Carpenter (death at the age of 32 owing to complications from Anorexia, ahead of that worn out and depressed) overshadows the success she had in her lifetime. It will always come down to a life cut short, to the misery and crippling mental and physical health issues that took her away from the music she loved.
I’ve been listening, again, to the Carpenters. Album by album. No shame in loving this band now. Where once I might hide behind loving the tribute album or felt it was a big thing to “come out” as a fan of the Carpenters – now it’s just something I love. The way I love Harry Nilsson or the Beach Boys or whiskey or my family (and that’s not in order of preference).
There are plenty of YouTube clips celebrating Karen as drummer even when she was removed from the chair as the main touring drummer it was still – always – a feature of any performance by the band. Karen was a drummer. There was always a Karen Carpenter drum showcase.
And that’s one of the reasons she deserves to be memorialised as a drummer; celebrated in that role. She understood showmanship – she knew how to play the game as well as the instrument.
Also – in the very early days there were plenty of great musical showcases of her ability. Her talent with the sticks.
The band’s debut album is the only record in the band’s catalogue that features Karen as the drummer on every song. When they hit the charts the singles were recorded with the legend Hal Blaine behind the kit. In later years if he was unavailable it was Larrie London or Jim Gordon or Run Tutt – all amazing players. Karen held onto the live spot for as long as she could but she kept getting urged to step out from behind the kit. First for a song or two. Eventually that ratio would reverse and she’d only get to sit down behind the drums for a song or two – and her solo spots which included concert toms, timbale, solo snare drum and various percussion instruments as well as a stint at the full kit.
She also knew how to sit in with touring drummer Cubby O’Brien. This is a skill. (So too is biting your tongue and letter the hired hand do their job – when you technically know how to do that job; could be doing that job…)
Look, there was the odd hit record that featured Karen on the kit as well as the lead vocal. Sing, Please Mr. Postman. Yesterday Once More. All examples of Karen playing tastefully and always for the song.
She is on many of the album tracks across the first half-decade of the band’s meteoric rise.
But as her condition worsened, as her health weakened, there were obvious reasons that she needed to be replaced.
Karen started playing as a teenager – it wasn’t a long wait before Richard was out playing covers and jazz standards in a trio. Karen was his drummer. She was eager to play. She learned on the job. And quickly.
She had a perfect sense of time.
I love listening to and watching Karen Carpenter on drums. Thinking about what could have been – she’d have returned to the drums if a solo career had been allowed to develop. I’m sure of that. But even what she gave us – and the mega-success of the band – proves her to be an important influence. That she (always) saw herself as a drummer, first if not literally foremost, means she a pioneer of the instrument for her gender.
I’m a huge fan of Karen Carpenter: Singer and DRUMMER