They Were ‘On Top Of The World’: The Real Story Of The Carpenters

As Kids

The siblings were born to Agnes Reuwer and Harold Bertram Carpenter. When they were young, Richard spent his time indoors listening to classical music and playing the piano, while Karen enjoyed playing outdoor sports with her peers. Their parents, however, saw that both of their children had a great interest in music despite their differences.

Musically Inclined

Her parents weren’t sure which direction their daughter was to go in, so they tried different alleys. At the age of four she was already enrolled in a ballet and tap dancing class.

The Drums

The Carpenter family moved to California in 1963. There, Richard enrolled at California State College at Long Beach and further developed his interest in music. Karen enrolled at Downey High School and it was there that she learned how to play the drums. The first time the siblings played together was in a pit orchestra for a staging of “Guys and Dolls.”

A Little Secret

Even though she was a stellar drummer, there was a secret reason she had pursued becoming that. The truth is that Karen didn’t want to attend early morning gym classes, so her ticket out was… yep, drums.

Her First Set

Karen managed to convince her parents to buy her a “Ludwig drum set” for $300. Frankie Chavez played an important role in getting Karen introduced and interested in drumming. But Karen wasn’t just curious, she was a fast learner – she mastered the 5/4 in Dave Brubeck’s ‘Take Five’.


Richard, Karen, and Richard’s school friend Wesley Jacobs, formed a trio in 1965. They specialized in the Jazz genre. Karen played the drums, Richard was on the piano, and Wesley played the bass and tuba. Karen was an inexperienced singer at the time, but she began taking vocal lessons and gained the confidence necessary to perform.

Battle of the Bands

The trio signed a contract with RCA records after winning the Battle of The Bands at Hollywood Bowl in 1966. They were able to do several recordings but they were dropped by the label who did not believe the singles would be successful. Karen joined Richard at college in 1967 and the trio continued to record in Joel Osborn’s studio.

Small Time Job

Once Karen Carpenter finished studying in college, she looked for a job. She started out in the printing business, but it wouldn’t be long before she channeled her attention towards music.

Karen Goes Solo

It was a late night at a garage session when Joel Osborn fell in love with Karen’s voice after she sang in front of him. He quickly signed her to Magic Lamp Records. Afterward, he signed Richard to the publishing branch Lightup Music. Karen released a single with backup from the Richard Carpenter Trio. Sadly, this proved to be a flop and the label had to drop her.

New Band

Karen and Richard formed a larger band with other Long Beach State musicians in 1967. They named the band, “Spectrum”. They sent demos to many labels in Los Angeles but none responded positively. Psychedelic rock was the popular genre at that moment and labels thought the music the band made was too mellow. Similarly, clubs refused to play their music because it was not something one could dance to. Spectrum disbanded just a year after its formation.


Jacobs left to join the Detroit Symphony Orchestra in 1967. Months later, the siblings began playing as a duo under the name, the “Carpenters.” They recorded demos that they would send to A&M records. They also performed in the ‘’All American College Show” at around the same time. Luckily, A&M Records decided to sign them for their unique sound in 1969.


A&M opened many doors for the duo and allowed them a lot of creative freedom. They were able to compose their own music and lyrics. Richard was especially thrilled as he was the one who worked on composition. It did not take long before they began to work on an album.

Mild Success

In 1969, they released their first album. Sadly, “Offering” received negative reviews and only sold 18,000 copies. Regardless, A&M Records continued to support the duo after a successful rebranding for the international market. They called it “Ticket to Ride” and sold 250,000 copies!

Unique Sound

The Carpenters’ music was different from the songs in the charts. Their music was influenced by The Mammas and The Papas and The Beach Boys but the duo also combined it with their own sound. The duo continued to create music until people finally began to realize their talent.


After mild success, the siblings decided it would be best to create singles instead of a whole album. They remade the songs “Close to You” and “We’ve Only Just Begun”. Both singles were successful and the duo was finally on the path to stardom. They started touring and even appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show”.

Highs And Lows

Many fans have wondered what notes Karen managed to hit when she was pelting out her music. Well, for “A Song for You” she would touch a low D and below middle C, but for “Only Yesterday” she started on a low E flat and below middle C.

The Pres

The Carpenters were already international stars by 1972. The duo was invited to the White House and met James Cavanagh, Ken Cole, and Ronald Zeigler! Later in the same year, they were asked to come back to meet President Richard Nixon in the Oval Office. There are photographs that documented the memorable meeting.

That’s Not My Name

The duo originally signed as “Carpenters, not “The Carpenters.” Unbeknownst to many, they have actually been miscalled the entire time. But why did they even choose the name? The duo actually thought that dropping articles were hip at the time. Bands like Jefferson Airplane and Buffalo Springfield did the same, after all!

Playboy’s Vote

When Playboy conducted a poll of the best drummers, Karen came in first place. Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham was quite mad when he saw that and sneered, “I’d like to have it publicized that I came in after Karen Carpenter in the Playboy drummer poll! She couldn’t last ten minutes with a Zeppelin number.”

Lip Syncing

It’s not as uncommon as you might think for artists to lip-sync during a performance. Karen and Richard did so when they performed “Bless the Beasts and Children” at the Academy Award show in 1972.

A Big Performance

For the pair, their biggest performance came in the summer of 1971. The setting was the Ohio State Fair, and the concert brought in more than 50,000 people just for the single-night performance. They were hitting the big time.

Sibling Rivalry

Karen’s producer Phil Ramone thought that there was something much bigger at play than the lyrics or the disco sound of the album. Ramone said that Richard was jealous and that he saw Karen’s attempt to go solo as her being disloyal to the group. Richard wanted to be in control of the group and did not want Karen to have any say. He would often take Karen to the recording studio without even telling her where he was taking her.


The Carpenters continued to release new songs such as “A Song for You”, “Horizon”, and “Now & Then”. They garnered so much attention that a rumor even began to spread that Karen was spending time with Elvis Presley! However, all of this fame came at a price.

A Break

It’s no secret that being famous is hard work. Richard needed to take a break in order to enter a rehab facility in Kansas. Karen, meanwhile, wanted to keep making music even without her brother. She had enough material to create a solo album, but labels did not like it and kept it under wraps.

She put her own assets into recording her album

Karen had already invested $100,000 into recording her solo album when she played it for her parents. Despite the fact the her parents did not approve of her of her album, Karen decided that she wanted to continue to record. She went on to spend another $600,000 on the album. In today’s currency, Karen invested over $14 million of her own money into her album. This did not seem to phase Karen as she had put so much work into the album.

Not A Fan

Karen was proud of her solo album and put a lot of heart into it. Sadly, a lot of people disagreed with her. Even Richard called it “too mature” for her age and said that the vocal range did not suit Karen. He went as far as to call the songs weak. Karen ended up blaming herself for the album’s failure.

Her Struggles

The duo finally started recording again in 1980 and released an LP called “Made in America” in the following year. It sold 200,000 copies and “Touch Me When We’re Dancing” was able to reach the 16th spot on the Top 100 charts.

Shows Cancelled

The duo’s fame held burdens, that much was obvious. At the height of their career, the duo was under a lot of stress. Karen was dieting excessively to catch up with the shows. In 1975, her illness became so severe and the pair had to cancel shows in Japan, the Philippines, and the UK.

Seeking Help

Karen called her brother one day and reported that she was feeling unwell and that her heart was “beating funny”.

Her Friends Said

Like so many celebrities, there was so much going on under the surface for Karen. Her friends remarked that she was fun-loving, caring and even goofy. But there was something else going on within her family that didn’t show from the singer who had an innocent obsession with stuffed animals.

Mommy Issues

Sadly the love that Karen shared with those around her was not always reciprocated by those who she expected love from. The greatest example was her mother, who was known to be a difficult and strict woman. Karen constantly felt the need to be accepted and loved by her mother.

Brother Issues

Although she and Richard were close and performed together, there were personal issues that were eating at her. Richard was supposedly a workaholic who couldn’t let Karen do anything without his supervision. She craved independence, especially since he decided when shows would occur or be cancelled.

Walking To Her Death

Karen had a terrible habit of walking for miles and miles. Her doctor warned her against this and tried to encourage her family to get involved. But a phone call to the family would turn out to be worse than the doctor could have anticipated.

Off The Radar

After her release from the hospital, she jumped right back into Hollywood and under the spotlight. She attended the celebration of the 25th year of the Grammy Awards on January 1, 1983. That was her last public appearance. She would also return to the studio immediately.

The Mask He Wore

Karen was determined to become a mother. She spoke with her new husband about making her dream come true, but she didn’t expect his reaction. He belittled her by saying that he would never even consider having children with a “bag of bones”.

Careless Spending

At first everyone thought that Burris was as wealthy as Karen was. But soon she revealed the truth. Although he bought himself expensive cars and clothing, he was overspending his financial means. Evelyn Wallace tells of Burris, “It wasn’t long after they got married that he started asking her for money. He’d give her some excuse, and she’d give him the money. He’d ask for $35,000 and $50,000 at a time. Finally it got down to the point where all she had left was stocks and bonds.”

Not A Happy Ending

After a public quarrel in a restaurant, the couple separated. Karen filed for divorce in 1982.

Helping Others

Unfortunately, Karen Carpenter died from heart failure on February 1, 1983. The general public was shocked at her passing, and today she is still missed.

Ending In Divorce

What most people don’t realize about Karen Carpenter, is that the day she was supposed to sign the divorce papers, happened to be the same day that she died. She didn’t end up signing them.

Nation Mourns

Karen was laid to rest on February 8, 1983. Over a thousand fans attended the funeral of this legendary musician. Close friends like Olivia Newton-John and Dorothy Hamill were also in attendance. Even Burris was present and placed his wedding band in the casket. And though they were not physically present at the interment, millions of fans across the globe mourned her death.

Celebrating her life

In 1983, The Carpenters were honored by getting a star with their name put on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. An honor given to musicians and actors with notable careers. After mourning her death, this was a chance for people to celebrate the life and career of Karen Carpenter. Even Richard Carpenter and his parents attended the unveiling of the star in order to pay tribute to Karen. Fans were also in attendance in order to celebrate the memories of Karen.

Richard Carpenter

Although the band, the Carpenters can no longer exist, Richard is busy keeping the Carpenter name relevant. He spends his time making appearances and supporting the arts through charity. In addition he performs for the benefit of his sister. He and his wife have donated millions of dollars to an organization called the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza Foundation in order to keep supporting the arts and to honor Karen’s memory.

Carpenter legacy

Although Richard did not always treat his sister well throughout her life, he has honored her legacy after her death. Since her passing over 30 years ago, he has released many unheard songs, compilation albums, material that was never released, and initial recordings. He has also released Christmas recordings and albums in Karen’s memory. These releases have been successful and sold well. Even after her death, Karen’s name and voice will continue to live on.

An Iconic Band

As is often the case when someone famous dies, their legacy becomes more well-known and iconic. Karen’s vocals are world famous and Rolling Stone Magazine even called her one of the most talented vocalists ever. An even greater compliment was given to her by Paul McCartney who said that she had the best vocals of all time. Many of the Carpenter songs have been put in the Grammy Hall of Fame including ‘We’ve Only Just Begun.”