book reviews, celebrities, music

Repost: Two book reviews about Karen Carpenter’s life…

These two related book reviews, written for Epinions in 2007 and 2010, are both about books written about Karen and Richard Carpenter. They appear here as/is.

The almost complete Carpenters story…

The cover for the paperback version of this book. I have the hardcover edition.

For years I’ve enjoyed listening to music by Richard and the late Karen Carpenter, popularly known as The Carpenters. The Carpenters will forever be known for their ability to create and cover 70s era pop confections like “Top Of The World”, “Close To You”, and “Superstar”. Richard Carpenter provided his considerable arranging talents and piano playing. Karen Carpenter contributed her unforgettable voice. Together, the Carpenters were a musical force who reached fame and fortune while they were still in their 20s.

In April 1994, the late Ray Coleman published an authorized biography called The Carpenters: The Untold Story. I was quick to purchase a hardcover copy of this book and I’ve read it several times. Unfortunately, it seems that Coleman’s very comprehensive and informative biography is no longer in print. Nevertheless, I think it’s a must read for anyone who is interested in the Carpenters’ careers.

Coleman includes brief information about Karen and Richard Carpenters’ ancestry and childhood, as well as information about the time they spent in New Haven, Connecticut before they moved to Downey, California to pursue their music careers. The biography continues with the story of how the Carpenters were discovered, their meteoric rise to fame, and Karen’s and Richard’s legendary demons. Karen Carpenter was, of course, afflicted with anorexia nervosa, whereas Richard developed a drug addiction which led to a stay at the Meninger Clinic in Kansas. There are two photo sections with pictures of the Carpenters as kids and adults. There’s even a copy of an essay Karen Carpenter wrote for school.

The Carpenters’ story has been told and retold by different sources. The television movie The Karen Carpenter Story was shown for the first time in 1989. There is also an independent unauthorized film called Superstar available, which was made with Barbie dolls. Check out YouTube and you’ll find plenty of news and interview clips documenting the rise and fall of the Carpenters. In my mind, Coleman’s book is the only source that really provides a glimpse into who Karen and Richard Carpenter were as people. Although this book was written with the Carpenter family’s cooperation, it doesn’t cast the family in a perfect light. Though Karen had the voice of an angel, she didn’t always behave like one, especially when it came to Richard’s love life. And Richard Carpenter, talented as he is, also comes across as a bit stodgy and demanding.

This is not a short book, but I always enjoy reading it; Ray Coleman had a way with words. The only drawbacks I can think of are that this book is not as easy to find as it once was and the story ends in 1994. Richard Carpenter is still around, having married his cousin Mary Rudolph (she was the adopted daughter of his aunt) in 1984 and fathered five children. He still performs and he’s always tweaking the Carpenters’ sound and repackaging their music. I would definitely recommend this book for anyone who wants the lowdown on the Carpenters’ career.

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And now, my review of Randy Schmidt’s book, Little Girl Blue: The Life of Karen Carpenter…

Karen Carpenter’s life and death…

The cover of Randy Schmidt’s book.

It’s hard to believe that Karen Carpenter, who had one of the most recognizable voices of the 1970s and early 80s, has now been dead for 27 years. I remember quite clearly the day she died, February 4, 1983. I was ten years old and riding in a car with my dad to visit my sister, who was at that time a freshman at Virginia Commonwealth University. An announcer came on the air and said that Karen Carpenter had died that morning. I asked my dad what had killed her and he said “Starvation.” He didn’t elaborate, but it wasn’t much longer before I first heard about anorexia nervosa, the eating disorder that plagued Karen Carpenter’s final years and eventually led to her sudden death at age 32.

Karen Carpenter was, of course, part of the brother-sister pop duo the Carpenters. The other half of that duo was her older brother, Richard. While Karen had that magical voice that made their music so appealing to so many listeners, it was Richard who was known as the “brains” behind the outfit. He wrote and arranged songs, occasionally sang, and played piano like a genius. And in their very close-knit family, Richard was apparently the most important child, especially to their mother, Agnes Carpenter.

Author Randy Schmidt has just published Little Girl Blue: The Life of Karen Carpenter (2010). I happened to find it two days ago, while playing with the Kindle my husband Bill just gave me for my birthday. Karen Carpenter’s story has always fascinated me and I do enjoy the Carpenters’ music, saccharine as it often is. I downloaded it and managed to finish it within several hours of dedicated reading. Considering the fact that this book is well over 300 pages long, that was quite a feat and a testament to my interest in the book.

Overlapping biographies

Back in 1994, the late author Ray Coleman wrote The Carpenters: The Untold Story. Coleman was a well known biographer of rock worthies as well as the editor-in-chief of Melody Maker magazine. Coleman’s book about the Carpenters was very comprehensive, so I was somewhat surprised to find Schmidt’s new book. Having read Little Girl Blue, however, I did notice that Schmidt had consulted many of Coleman’s works in Melody Maker and Coleman’s biography of the Carpenters in order to write this book. In fact, I even recognized a couple of paragraphs that appeared to come verbatim from Coleman’s book, which I have read several times since 1994. Coleman’s biography of the Carpenters, which Schmidt does list in a very comprehensive bibliography, obviously served as a major source for Schmidt’s Little Girl Blue. Why, then, if Ray Coleman had already written the Carpenters’ story, did Randy Schmidt need to write another book specifically about Karen Carpenter?

What I think Little Girl Blue offers…

What sets Little Girl Blue apart from The Carpenters: The Untold Story is that Schmidt managed to get information from sources other than those approved by Richard Carpenter. In particular, Randy Schmidt interviewed Karen Carpenter’s close friends, Frenda Franklin, Olivia Newton-John, and Karen Ramone. Karen Ramone was also interviewed for Coleman’s book, but from what I gathered in Little Girl Blue, Schmidt got more details, particularly about the time period when Karen Carpenter was in New York City in 1979-80, recording her one and only solo album, Karen Carpenter, with Karen Ramone’s husband, Phil Ramone.

Schmidt also updates Carpenters fans on things that have happened since Coleman’s book was published. For one thing, Karen Carpenter’s solo album, which had been shelved back when it was created, was finally released in 1996. For another thing, Richard Carpenter has become the father of five children– only three of them had been born when Coleman’s book was published. Schmidt also writes about why the Carpenters’ remains have been relocated from their original resting place at Forest Lawn in Cypress to Pierce Brothers Valley Oaks Memorial Park in Westlake Village, California.

What’s good about Little Girl Blue

Besides the fact that Schmidt updates fans on all things Carpenters, this book includes some photos– a few of which I had not seen before in Coleman’s book. Schmidt writes well and I appreciated the fact that he spoke to a lot of different people in order to give readers a less whitewashed version of events. Schmidt provides more details about Karen Carpenter’s ultimately doomed marriage to Tom Burris, making him out to be an enormous gold-digger.  If what Schmidt writes about Burris is completely true, it’s tragically ironic that she married him.  One of Karen Carpenter’s biggest fears was, allegedly, marrying a man who was a gold-digger.

Schmidt also makes Karen Carpenter’s mother out to be an extreme control freak, who refused to let either of her children grow up and be normal adults. Schmidt even interviewed actors Mitchell Anderson and Cynthia Gibb, who famously played Richard and Karen Carpenter in a 1989 movie of the week called The Karen Carpenter Story, which played on CBS on January 1, 1989.

What’s not so good about Little Girl Blue

Like I mentioned before, Ray Coleman had already written a superior biography about the Carpenters. I am very familiar with Coleman’s book, which is unfortunately now out of print. I do think there’s room for two biographies about the Carpenters– but– it was pretty clear to me that Randy Schmidt leaned on Ray Coleman’s work quite heavily. In fact, there were a couple of instances in which it appeared to me that he’d actually copied some paragraphs or at least paraphrased them to the point at which I knew I had read them several times before. I didn’t have Ray Coleman’s book next to me as I read Schmidt’s efforts on my Kindle, but I feel pretty confident that I’d be able to find the text in question. Reading Schmidt’s work pretty much felt, to me, like the literary equivalent of a re-run.

Should you read Little Girl Blue?

If you are a diehard fan of the Carpenters’ music, you may already know a lot of the information Randy Schmidt reveals in his biography, especially if you’ve already read Coleman’s work. However, if you missed Coleman’s book and can’t get a copy of it, Little Girl Blue is definitely worth reading. Personally, I think I liked Coleman’s book better, though Schmidt does offers some new information, particularly on things that have happened since 1994. And I do think his interviews with Frenda Franklin give this book a perspective that is lacking in Coleman’s book. I do wish, however, that I didn’t feel like I had already read parts of Little Girl Blue.

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