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Karen Carpenter: The Story of Success Gone Wrong

The first time Karen Carpenter stood on the stage as the focal point and vocals of the performance she died.

In the early 1960s Karen Carpenter started her music career in an all-girl band that didn’t last long.

She teamed up with her brother Richard and Wes Jacobs, a friend of Richard’s, to form the Dick Carpenter Trio in 1965. Karen Carpenter played the drums and did not provide vocals.

In April of 1966, she and Richard were invited to audition with Joe Osborn, of Wrecking Crew fame. Carpenter expected to play drums only, but was asked to sing. It was then that her distinctive voice was discovered. Karen was offered a recording contract. Richard was not of interest to the record label.

Until 1968, the Carpenters worked on their music style. Karen Carpenter had the voice they needed. But how to find the right songs, the right sound to realize the full magic of Karen’s voice.

The tolling of the iron bell was getting louder.

The Carpenters signed a recording contract with A&M Records in 1969. Soon they had songs at #1 and #2 on the charts. Karen Carpenter played her drums while singing vocals as she played.

But the audience couldn’t see who was singing. Karen Carpenter was only 5’4″ and the drum kit hid her from view of the audience.

It was decided Carpenter should come out from behind her kit and become the focal point of live shows.

Karen Carpenter felt uncomfortable as the focal point. She loved playing the drums and she didn’t mind singing. But there is a security hiding behind a set of drums. In a few years Carpenter was phased out of drumming and pushed more into singing, front and center, security gone.

The only thing that changed is where Karen Carpenter was during shows. Out in front people could see her and comment on her appearance. Her insecurity before the crowd was heightened when less than laudatory comments on her appearance surfaced.

Karen Carpenter started dieting in high school. The new attention from the public increased her insecurity as it applied to her appearance.

She changed her eating habits and lost over 20 pounds. By September 1975, Karen Carpenter weighted a mere 91 pounds.

She looked sick. She looked ill. And the public noticed.

From that point forward Karen Carpenter struggled with her eating disorder. There was some success and much failure. Disease is like that.

Some say the beginning of the end started with failure of her marriage. The divorce was filed on October 28, 1980. She was married just under two years and two months. Her weight in 1975 was a long time before she met her future husband.

No, Karen Carpenter’s divorce may have been the last straw, but the real devil lay somewhere else. Standing on that stage, the focal point of attention, was more than Karen Carpenter could handle.

On February 1, 1983, Karen Carpenter died of complications due to her eating disorder. She was 32 years old at the time of her death.

It was a mere decade since she first became the focal point of live performances. She had millions of adoring fans, family and friends who loved her. And she was dead decades too soon. One of the most precious voices of song extinguished before its time.

And she was not alone.

Karen Carpenter
Karen Carpenter

A Tale Often Told

The Karen Carpenter story could be an anomaly if it were not for the army of uber-successful people that have crashed and burned.

O.J. Simpson was loved and adored by millions of fans that admired his athletic abilities and acting skills. Then came the legal troubles. The love and adoration faded. So did his financial wealth. And freedom.

The news feeds are filled with rock stars and athletes who crashed and burned.

The NFL now brings in financial professionals to help players deal with the demands of stardom and massive new-found financial wealth. Even with a strong helping hand, many athletes are flat broke a few years after their career ends. This has a familiar ring to lottery winners and their odds of a better life after winning the jackpot. It often does not end well. To think, they made so many happy, save themselves.

Rock stars have even fewer on their support team. Drugs and uncontrolled spending often overwhelms a life already facing high demands from fans and the public, and eventually shatters.

But then we see it in the distance. A flicker of hope. And a reminder we are no different from any of these musicians or athletes.

Leading by Example

Temptation. It can grab any of us by the throat. Karen Carpenter never saw it coming, but a man named Oliver Anthony did. Or at least he realized fame was not his goal.

Oliver Anthony went viral with his song Rich Men North of Richmond. The lyrics fit nicely with the FIRE movement and has been touted loudly by conservatives, two very different cultures.

With fame comes offers. Anthony was offered an $8 million recording deal. He passed! His response: “I don’t want 6 tour buses, 15 tractor trailers and a jet. I don’t want to play stadium shows, I don’t want to be in the spotlight.”

But the spotlight is not so easy to avoid once the light focuses on you. Anthony has been singing his song to smaller crowds. And you can bet people want to have a piece of him, want to be near him. People are drawn to successful people.

Anthony may not be able to keep the crush of humanity begging for his attention completely at bay. However, he has found a way to sing his song without fueling the fire too much. There is more to life than fame, and Oliver Anthony knows it.

When temptation comes our way we can learn a thing or three from Oliver Anthony.

It always looks like fun. A rockstar is loved and admired, the center of attention. It is fun until you discover it is hard to turn off.
It always looks like fun. A rockstar is loved and admired, the center of attention. It is fun until you discover it is hard to turn off.

15 Minutes of Fame

It is said everyone gets their 15 minutes of fame. The level of fame varies, of course. In any case, the fame, local, national, or international, creates a press of people demanding something from the person getting the fame.

News outlets want a story. Friends, neighbors, and acquaintances want to congratulate you and maybe take a few moments of your precious time. And then the complete strangers show up. Before long all your time is consumed and it is out of your control. Most people give a sigh of relief when the moment of fame passes.

How you handle success often determines how much additional success you will have. There is no one answer either. Everyone is different. Where one person handles the many moving parts of success or fame, another spins out of control. The worst part is you are unlikely to know which category you fall into until you fall into your infamous 15 minutes of fame. And the ride might not end at the 15 minute mark!

Success comes in many colors. Sometimes it is as simple as a buyout from your employer, inducing you to retire. This one-time windfall will have long term demands from retirement. Best to swat the hands away from those looking on your new-found stash.

Sometimes the success payout can be huge. The sale of a company or a massive offer. Oliver Anthony wasn’t ready for the $8 million. It’s not the life he wants to live. He understands money is important, but after a certain amount for living a good life it can become a burden.

Success Lessons from Karen Carpenter

It may not feel like fame. It may not go viral. But to you, it will feel overwhelming unless you prepare.

Karen Carpenter is the poster child for nice people making it big. Carpenter had a kind, loving heart. Insecurity when before the crowd and when viewing the comments of fans pushed her to and then over the edge.

We reviewed how athletes, actors, and rocks stars all face massive exposure. The news is littered with those consumed by the notoriety. Some flame out, some crash and burn, some excel.

The smart ones retire before it gets out of hand. Jim Carrey is a good example here. When the comedy stopped being funny, he retired. Carrey still has a public life, but he regained most of his personal freedoms when he turned off the fame spigot.

We can learn a lot from those who have gone before, the successes and failures.

Can you imagine Karen Carpenter stepping back before it got out of control? She might still be with us if she did.

Is more always better? Doubtful. We want more even when more hurts us. We want people to know us, to love us, to be the center of attention. It is a human response.

There is no guarantee where your fame will come from or if it is brief or longer lasting. There is no guarantee in how you will handle the attention. There is no guarantee fame (and maybe a bit of fortune, too) will make you or the world better.

No single answer will serve all who read this page. My only hope in making the world a bit better before sundown is to encourage readers to examine the lives of those who have walked the road before.

Know this. The day will come when you are the center of attention. It might be a crowd of 50 or 50 million. The press of demands will be there. The bigger the crowd, the bigger the press.

How you deal with the stresses of success are often determined by your preparation.

Big ideas require big commitments and name recognition. They go hand in hand. Building a business that solves problems will require more people knowing who you are and digging into your personal life. They want a piece of you. Some to help; some to harm.

Nobody capable of helping Karen Carpenter was there when she needed it most. We have lost too many kind, talented, and generous souls to fame. If we prepare, we open ourselves to taking the chance of doing something big.

And surviving it.

David Castelli

Thursday 1st of February 2024

My God she had the voice of an angel......... We've only just Begun and Superstar......all time classics. The A of A&M records, Mr Herb Albert also played a big part in her career......Till this day he gets choked up talking about her. Nice change of pace article I needed as the tax season madness has begun. Thank you for sharing this article