Gary James' Interview With
Randy L. Schmidt

author of the book
Little Girl Blue. The Life Of Karen Carpenter

Karen Carpenter, along with her brother Richard, created one of the most successful musical acts of the 1970s - The Carpenters. They enjoyed sixteen consecutive Top 20 hits from 1970 to 1976, including "Close To You", "We've Only Just Begun", "Rainy Days And Mondays", "Superstar" and "Hurting Each Other", selling over one hundred million records in the process. During their time, The Carpenters released ten studio albums, toured more than two hundred days a year, taped five television specials and won three Grammys and an American Music Award. Then, on February 4th, 1983, Karen Carpenter, who possessed one of the greatest voices of all time, was pronounced dead at 9:51 A.M. Pacific Time. She was 33 years old.

What happened to Karen Carpenter? Randy Schmidt has written what can only be called the definitive biography of Karen Carpenter. It's titled Little Girl Blue. The Life Of Karen Carpenter (Chicago Review Press, distributed by Independent Publishers group Randy Schmidt talked with us about his book and Karen Carpenter.

Q - Randy, we don't hear much anymore about Karen Carpenter. Of course there was a made-for-TV movie about her life and a couple of documentaries, one of which was on E!, which you had something to do with.

A - Yeah. Exactly.

Q - But lately, nothing on Karen Carpenter.

A - I'm hoping this might be a bit of a resurgence. It seems to be going beyond just the die-hard circle of fans and reaching some of those people who just have an affection for the music and remember it. It's attached to a lot of memories from the '70s I think.

Q - What a great voice Karen Carpenter had! I love Karen Carpenter.

A - There's never been another voice that has touched me in that way. That's what inspired me to do this years and years ago. I was inspired to research and got the idea of doing a book just for my own curiosity, but I've never had the connection with a voice before.

Q - How long did it take you to put this book together?

A - It was kind of a about a twenty year thing, but like I said, not with the intention of a book. I started research when I was kid in middle school, going to the local libraries. It was just something that I kept accumulating all this information, articles and interviews and concert reviews. It was probably about nine years ago (2001) that I got a chance to start interviewing some of Karen's childhood friends. That's where this began. I didn't know yet what I would do with those interviews, but I wanted to jump on the opportunity. It's kind of evolved over the last decade now since I started working on it with the idea for a book. It's taken several different turns along the way, then at one point I realized I considered doing a book about The Carpenters as a duo, but there had been an authorized biography from the early '90s that was endorsed by the family. I saw this as probably something that would get a little more attention. Karen's name and image seems to attract even just the general population. It seems like they're coming out of the woodwork for this book this time.

Q - You didn't get co-operation from Richard Carpenter for the book, did you?

A - No. I didn't get any trouble, if that's the right word.

Q - He didn't say he was going to sue you if you went ahead with the book.

A - No. He never tried to stop it actually, but he didn't want to contribute either.

Q - I've approached Richard Carpenter a couple of times for an interview and I've been turned down. I'm wondering if he feels it's just too painful to talk about or he did enough interviews in his time, or there was something going on in the family he doesn't want revealed to the public.

A - I haven't yet figured out what makes him agree to some interviews and decline others. He's done quite a few over the years, but they've been very selective. I can't quite see what the pattern is necessarily. But with me, I think I contacted him back in 2002. The book was just starting to take shape. At that point I wanted it to kind of be an oral history of The Carpenters as a group and was going to focus more on the music. The response at that time was something on the lines of "Richard has said that all that he wants to say. He wishes you the best with the project, but does not wish to participate."

Q - You received that from his secretary, correct?

A - Yeah. This was through their management from a guy named David Alley, who had been with them for many, many years. He was actually a one time boyfriend of Karen's in the '70s, but he was managing Richard's, I don't want to say comeback, in Japan for awhile and he'd done a tour over there. This guy was managing him. But the response was not "stop now", but it just was he wasn't going to participate.

Q - It seems that whenever Richard was asked about Karen's eating disorder, he always acted bewildered or astonished. I don't know if that was put on or genuine or there's just some family secret he doesn't want to go into.

A - I know the family at the time, even when Karen was still alive, no one wanted to admit that it might be something psychological going on with her. It seemed to be viewed by the family as just stubborn dieting. The solution in their minds was she just needed to eat. They didn't want to go beyond that and look at what might be the underlying cause of some of her problems. Even when she committed to therapy in 1982, the year before she died, they were still not real supportive. They didn't put much stock in the business of psychiatry, which is a shame because it was her making an effort to get better. But, I think they were afraid there might be some fingers pointed.

Q - When did this eating problem of Karen's start? I've always been led to believe it started when an insensitive TV producer said she was ten pounds overweight.

A - The whole thing was the idea of some producer. I believe the TV movie about Karen alluded to the idea that Billboard magazine had a review that called her the chubby sister. I've never found any proof of that and nobody else has either. I know that Billboard printed an editorial shortly thereafter saying this was not something that was not printed in their magazine. They wanted to have it retracted basically. It was very careless of the movie's producers and it was something that the producers of the movie I think did to show the pressures of fame and those external things that might have been pushing Karen to lose a few pounds. In my research, what the manager's wife was saying is definitely correct. I don't think it's the only factor that played into Karen's eating disorder, but very early on in her life, from the time Karen was little, she was kind of seen as Richard's back-up, especially by her mom. He was the golden boy. He was the one with all the talent. They made big plans for him to be sort of like the next Liberace, a showy pianist kind of act. They went as far as moving from Connecticut to California to get him closer to the music industry. Karen began to show talent finally in high school, as a drummer first and then shortly thereafter the singing voice started to emerge. But even though talents as great as they were within the family were seen more to be what they could add to Richard's career. She could drum along with his Jazz trio or she could sing the songs he was writing at the time. It wasn't really celebrated for the fantastic talent or talents that they were. I think from that point on, even throughout The Carpenters hey-day, Karen's star began to outshine Richard's. I don't really know that that was accepted well by the mother, because Richard was the star in her eyes. Karen kind of struggled for attention from her mother and validation and she never really got that. One of her good friends told me, when we were talking about the root of her eating disorder, she said that there was a hole in Karen's heart where a mother's love and affection should have been. It couldn't be filled by the love of friends or a good marriage or even the love of millions of fans around the world. She said that hole seemed to manifest itself in this eating disorder. People also look at the lack of control Karen had over so many aspects of her life. She wasn't really in control of anything. She was living at home 'til her mid-20s. Everybody else was making decisions for her. Like a lot of people who suffer from eating disorders say, this is one way for them to gain control of something in their life. It seems like that's what kind of happened with Karen. You asked when it kind of surfaced. Externally you could start to see the changes in Karen in 1975. Well, at first she looked incredible. She lost a little bit of weight and she just looked stunning. Very quickly after that, the pictures show she began to go downhill rather quickly and looked more weak and frail by the end of 1975. People were saying this diet, you look great, but you need to stop. You've lost too much now. They ended up having to cancel a European and Japanese tour for the Fall of '75 and this was the first time they ever cancelled anything like that. She was hospitalized for a short period of time, but nobody really knew a name to attach to it. It was seen as like stubborn dieting. I think Karen knew shortly thereafter that it was more than that. She was reading books about anorexia. She was contacting people she knew in the entertainment industry. One being Cherry Boone, who is Pat Boone's daughter. She was contacting her because she knew she was writing a book about her own struggle with anorexia and bulimia. So, she was kind of secretly researching and finding out what was going on with her and I guess finding kindred spirits in a way, but wasn't really ready to admit she had a problem. It really began to surface in an extreme way after a solo album she had cut in 1979 / 1980 with Phil Ramone. It was rejected by the record label and Richard horribly. They basically told her it was unreleasable. That, paired with a horrible, horrible marriage, for about a year, it only served to intensify the condition she was already in. She lost weight at a rapid pace in 1981 and was just a skeletal figure by the end of the year.

Q - I always thought that when you're as rich and famous as Karen Carpenter was and you have that beautiful of a voice, if someone says "you're overweight", you can tell them to go to Hell. But obviously it was a much deeper problem than that.

A - She was such a sensitive person. I think it was hard for her to ignore those things that she was hearing or that she was feeling about her weight. She was extremely sensitive. I think anything that was said really hurt her deeply. She took everything personally, very much so. She wasn't the type to say "Go to Hell" to somebody. (laughs)

Q - I recall reading in the Random Notes section of Rolling Stone one time that Karen and Richard Carpenter were in a supermarket shopping and a fan came up to them and asked for an autograph and Karen reportedly told the person to "fuck off!" Did that really happen?

A - That's very close. There's actually a mention in my book. I don't know if they were in a restaurant or supermarket or what exactly. I'd have to reference it. She said "Oh, fuck!" Just like, when is this going to stop? I don't think she told the people to fuck off, but from what I remember, it was still that exclamation of "Oh, fuck!"

Q - I'm pretty sure I read a different version of what you're telling me in the Random Notes section of Rolling Stone.

A - I am surprised because they did, on almost ever date and city they would do, they would do a complete autograph session afterward, until every last person went home. I don't know that all that many groups would do that. They seemed to be pretty appreciative of their fans. I would think that was probably a very remote happening.

Q - Don't you feel that Karen needed to create some space between her and Richard?

A - I've kind of thought of this over the years. I see it almost as though when a baby is crawling and the mom picks it up and says "No. Go over here." They think there might be danger or they're going to get into something. They pick 'em up and move 'em away from that and turn 'em in another direction. It seems like Karen didn't really ever leave that phase with mom. It seems like they were picking her up and pointing her in the direction they wanted her to go.

Q - And she was a willing partner.

A - Yeah, she was and every once in awhile she would have the urge to do something on her own, that urge to spread her wings and find herself. But then it seemed like she always came back. I had somebody tell me she would come back to Downey and not just Downey the city but Downey the state of mind, this feeling of home, she would always come back to, just as soon as she almost broke free and almost did something on her own that would have been a way for her to grow. The solo album was one of those instances. Had she just said "I poured my heart and soul and pocketbook into this project and I want to see it released." Herb Alpert wasn't crazy about their "Kind Of A Hush" album. He didn't think it was a very strong album, but he still let them release it. I think this solo album was a big threat.

Q - I thought I heard in the early 1980s that Richard Carpenter owned a lot of real estate in Downey. Is that still true?

A - At one time they owned some apartment complexes and even back in the '70s they had some shopping centers. They did invest a lot in real estate, but at this point I don't know that Richard even has anything left in Downey. He and his family all moved back in 2000 to Thousand Oaks (California) and it seems like they are kind of pouring everything into that community at this point. They were named Ventura County's Philanthropists Of The Year a couple years ago. The Richard And Mary Carpenter Plaza is what they call one of the Thousand Oaks Fine Arts Center Plaza now. He's kind of leaving his name and mark in different places. As far as Downey is concerned, I think they've pretty much cut off most ties and probably real estate. I know they sold the apartments and things there.

Q - So, what does Richard do these days? Actually, he probably doesn't have to do anything when you get right down to it.

A - It seems like every year or so there's a new compilation that comes out here in the United States and especially in Japan, re-packaging of The Carpenters' hits. But you can only do that so many times. He has five children from college age all the way down to I think middle school age. So, I think he's busy being a dad and involved in the music industry in small ways. Every now and then he'll be part of a benefit or he might record a couple of tracks. He's been doing a Christmas album for like ten years, recording bits and pieces of it. It's never come out. Petula Clark and some other singers were set to do some vocals on that. But it's never developed.

Q - How about the parents? Are they still alive?

A - Actually, no. Both parents have passed away. The father, Harold, passed away back in 1988, just about five years after Karen. Agnes, the mother, passed away in '96. I've had several people tell me my book would never have been written if Agnes were still alive. It was one of those things that with this book I felt like at first I felt disappointed that I didn't get Richard's blessing or input. I didn't get the interview with him. Then I realized over time it was a much better book for that reason. A lot of people who never really had a chance to tell their story came forward because they knew Richard wasn't going to control, wasn't going to edit and have that control over the whole piece.

Q - Is it possible that he's working on his own autobiography? Have you heard anything along those lines?

A - I haven't heard anything along those lines, but I would hope so. As a Carpenters fan, I would love to read it. From what I understand from people who are close with him, he really considered that 1994 Carpenters: The Untold Story by Ray Coleman to be the official, authorized account. In many ways it was his autobiography, not that it was from his pen, but in many ways he was controlling that whole thing. They sought out Ray Coleman to do the project. Kind of like the TV movie, the family ended up initiating it through their management because they were afraid someone else was going to do it. They wanted their version of events to be told.

Q - Has anyone expressed interest in making a made for TV movie from your book?

A - We've actually had some interest from both TV movie producers and theatrical and that's just something that's kind of up in the air right now. The rights have not been purchased by anybody at this point. The New York Times review that came out a few weeks ago sparked some interest and got the word out there to some of the people that would be interested.

Q - I used to hear more of The Carpenters being played on the radio than I do today. And that is a shame. Again, I wish Richard would do more.

A - Well, it seems like his focus has been overseas because there is such a huge response. Even as recently as 2009, they had a number one album with a collection called "40/40", which was 40 of The Carpenters' classic hits. It was their 40th anniversary of signing with A&M Records. That collection came out and was number one in Japan. He seems to have focused the energies for the overseas market. As far as new recordings, I don't think there's much, maybe a box set or something like that would be in the works in the next few years, but I don't think he's planning much for the United States.

Q - Karen Carpenter's story only reinforces the idea that this fame game is no good.

A - The good thing is, there seems to be a turn around to be interested in Karen for the music and re-evaluating what a fine singer she was. Whether or not they liked The Carpenters' music or are into their sound. The fact that she sang '70s love songs is eclipsed by the fact that she was one of the greatest female vocalists of all time. I think people are starting to see she had one of those voices that was right up there with Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland, those instantly identifiable voices that people hear two seconds of on the radio and you can identify who it is. It's attached to a memory or an event in someone's life. It's just one of those voices that comes along once in a life time.

© Gary James. All rights reserved.