Lead Sister: The Story of Karen Carpenter

Release Date: 
October 17, 2023
Rowman & Littlefield Publishers
Reviewed by: 

“Paul McCartney, put it well. He said she had ‘the best female voice in the world, melodic, tuneful, distinctive.’”

The enigmatic title of Lucy O’Brien’s book refers to a typo in the Japanese publicity for a Carpenters concert tour. Karen Carpenter was referred to as the band’s “lead sister,” when it was “lead singer” they were going after. Possessed of an excellent sense of humor, the young singer embraced the idea and is wearing a “Lead Sister” shirt on the book’s cover (it’s only photograph, unfortunately).

Maybe Carpenter, who died when she was only 32, was used to being misjudged. Building a super-clean image and an easy-listening body of work with her musically brilliant pianist/arranger brother, Richard, it was assumed that Karen was a goody-two-shoes. In reality, she was down to earth, smart and unfortunately—despite her huge talent and many number one hits—burdened with very low self-esteem.

This is a straightforward biography of Karen Carpenter, with some astute musical insight and the latest on the anorexia that ultimately killed her. In recording an ill-fated solo record in 1979, her aim was “to help reposition the Carpenters and bring them into the 1980s. Karen wanted to disprove the naysayers, those who’d written off the group as too sugary and white-bread. She was no longer the tag-along sister; she would prove that she wasn’t Richard’s puppet, just the voice for his production. Her time was now.”

But it wasn’t to be. The album wasn’t released in her lifetime. The record company hated this Phil Ramone-produced updating of Karen’s image into a modern, adult soul-jazz singer—hip to the disco currents. Richard didn’t like it, either.

Karen Carpenter dealt with disapproval all her life. As Lead Sister emphasizes over and over again, her domineering mother, Agnes, favored piano wunderkind Richard growing up in New Haven, Connecticut. The result was that—even after the family moved to California and the band broke big—she remained highly self-critical and, to some degree, in her brother’s shadow. Even having John Lennon walk up to her and say, “I want to tell you, love, that you’ve got a fabulous voice” didn’t help much.

And Karen Carpenter did have a fabulous, warm voice that cuts through the static still, rising above its era and its candy-sweet form. Even at 16, it was there, fully formed, as she essayed “Dancing in the Street” with the Richard Carpenter Trio. The many musicians usefully interviewed here invariably say she was always on pitch, always well-rehearsed, a perfectionist (like Richard). Born a bit earlier, she would have been a jazz singer with the Great American Songbook as her repertoire.

Playing the drums enabled Karen not only to indulge the rhythms she heard in her head but gave her a place to hide. But the audiences wanted to see the singer upfront, so the drums went into the background, adding to Karen’s insecurities and body issues. It’s an old story: Nat Cole—one of our greatest pianists—was taken off the keyboard to put his velvet voice up front for all those ballads he recorded for Capitol.

The timing couldn’t have been worse for Karen. The stick-figure Twiggy was the fashion norm, and eating disorders weren’t widely known. The solution, put forward by many of Karen’s well-meaning friends, was “just eat something.” But it wasn’t that simple. Even after much therapy, she’d look in the mirror and see a person who just couldn’t afford the calories.

Elvis (who once put the make on Karen and her friend Petula Clark) also died young, and in both cases left us wondering what kind of music they’d have made in later years. Maybe Elvis, free of the Colonel, would have embraced Americana, and Karen jazz—or the supper club circuit. But both, with those one-of-a-kind voices, would have transcended their genres.

Forty years after Carpenter’s death, O’Neill points out we “can still hear in her voice a deep understanding of the power and pain of love.” Another Beatle, Paul McCartney, put it well. He said she had “the best female voice in the world, melodic, tuneful, distinctive.”