What’s Goin’ On

Karen Carpenter's Legacy

Put the focus where it belongs—on her music


Karen Carpenter has been dead longer than she was alive. She died 33 years ago today, a month shy of her 33rd birthday, the first celebrity casualty of anorexia nervosa and bulimia, eating disorders that were just beginning to register on the public radar in 1983.

For many, that seems to have become her legacy. Not her strong yet nuanced contralto voice and the cozy music she made with her brother, Richard, in the 1970s. Not the 20 Top 40 singles racked up by the Carpenters, including three No. 1 hits and five songs that peaked at No. 2.

It's as if the music has been relegated to an afterthought. Granted, the Carpenters were never cool. They came along in the wake of Woodstock and the advent of a musical explosion that ranged from disco to punk. But if you were driving alone back in the day and a Carpenters song popped up on the car radio, you'd soon find yourself quietly singing along.

Too few remember that Chrissie Hynde and Madonna have praised Carpenter as a pioneer. Or that she was voted best drummer of 1975 in a Playboy readers' poll. Or that Sheryl Crow, the Cranberries and Sonic Youth contributed songs to "If I Were a Carpenter," a 1994 tribute album.

Scott Shannon, the morning deejay on WCBS-FM in New York, honored Carpenter's memory today by praising her "pure" voice and playing the Carpenters' first No. 1 hit, 1970's "(They Long to Be) Close to You."

Hearing her warm, clear vocals again for the first time in ages was like a flashback to a long-lost sound in a long-gone era. Suddenly, Carpenter's sad fate was secondary to her sweet music.

It was yesterday once more.

Photo by Ron Howard/Redferns/Getty Images