"When I Was Sixteen"
by Nancy Hardwick
Karen Carpenter, the feminine
fox in that love-song duo, The Carpenters, is a sexy, outspoken
example of a young girl who made up her mind to "make
it" in show business, and DID. Before she was barely
20 years old!
But in spite of all her
scrambling to get to the top, Karen is no Women's Libby.
In fact, she puts down the hard-nosed bra-burners in this
Dressed casually in cutoff
Levis and a "Carpenters" T-shirt and furry slippers
when I was called, I soon discovered that Karen is a very
genuine, down-to-earth foxy lady who makes you feel comfortable
to be with. She has a friendly sense of humor, and likes
to tell the story of how she and her brother Richard first
got their group going, and the obstacles they were up against.
Karen also raps about the guys she went steady with in
high school - and why she didn't think any of them were
worth sacrificing her musical ambitions!
we're especially interested in rapping with you about your
early high-school days - what were you like and what got
you interested in a show business career?
I looked quite a bit different when I was in high school
cause I was heavier, about twenty pounds heavier, to tell
you the truth. And I was just tired of being fat
so I went on a diet! In fact, just the other day I was
cleaning out my bedroom closet...and it was really hard
just getting in there...but when I got in, there I found
this sweater I used to wear in high school...Good Lord,
I think I could get into it three times today...I mean
I don't know how I ever got through a door...Oh, I really
wasn't that heavy, but compared to now...wow!
long were you on a diet?
good grief...I think it was five weeks...I had lost like
twenty-three pounds. It really worked. It was the water
diet...that one where you drink eight glasses of water
a day...and I despise water.
three pounds? That's incredible...Was it a diet that you
I went to a doctor. I decided to go on this diet just at
the point when we had our first big hit...and we were running
day in and day out...I can remember that we would go to
rehearsals and we'd rehearse till about 1am, and then all
the guys would want to go to eat at Coco's (and those are
the people that make those fantastic onion rings), and
I would sit there with my hamburger pattie and cottage
cheese...while the guys ordered 47-layer cheeseburgers
and giant sundaes! I don't know how I did it...cause I
couldn't do it now.
were the only girl in the group at that time?
were five guys, and Richard and I. That was our first group
called The Spectrum.
you have time for guys back then? Did you have a lot of
boyfriends? Or one special boyfriend?
I was in high school I had a couple of boyfriends. But
in my junior year, I started getting interested in music...and
that kind of came in front of everything...But I did have
one special guy in my sophomore year...and another one
in my junior year.
you going steady?
yeah, don't we all? IT was a real serious scene. At that
point I thought if we ever split up I'd die...you know
with the ring, an going steady and all that garbage!
you want to marry him?
sure, that day I did, of course. But when music started
to get into my head...kind of everything was you know,
put aside...I mean I still dated and everything, but it
was kind of hard for guys to understand why music was more
important than they were.
did you tell them?
for example, a guy would ask, "Do you want to go out
Friday night"...and I'd say well, no, we're rehearsing,
which didn't go over real big. But that's the way it was.
Playing in my brothers group was really all I was interested
in...cause that was when we had the Richard Carpenter Trio...it
was a jazz trio. We won the Hollywood Bowl Battle of the
bands in 1966 when I was 16. And that was when we first
started trying to get a record contract with our jazz trio...and
that was needless to say, important, more important than
going to the movies with some dumb guy. We were just
starting to record at A&M studios. So I would spend
most of my time up there recording, and at that point,
let's say if we were going to play a job that weekend or
whatever, that would always come first.
you know that you wanted to go into show business when
you were 15 or 16?
I was about 16, that's when it all happened...that's when
the turning point was.
made you choose show business...what made you decide to
follow your ambitions?
Richard has always been musical since the day he was born...and
all through his life his musical interests kind of rubbed
off on me, but it didn't hit home till I was 16 years old.
And then, all of a sudden, I started to play drums and
I started to sing.
it mostly your own personal initiative or did your parents
or your brother encourage you?
my parents always encouraged us, more so Richard because
he is the oldest, but when I decided I was going to get
into music, it just sort of happened, mainly because I
used to follow Richard when he played a job. I'd
go and listen because whatever he was involved with I somehow
ended up there too...cause Richard and I have always been
very close. And when I found out that I could sing and
I could play, it seemed a natural thing. And from then
on that's all I was interested in.
kind of conflicts came up because of your decision to go
into music? Were there any conflicts between you and your
parents or between you and boyfriends, or school?
never between my parents or Richard and myself, because
they were always there at all times for whatever was needed.
I mean like they bought all the amplifiers, and if Richard
decided we wanted a grand piano.
Even if we couldn't afford one, which we couldn't at that
time, they found a way of getting him one. And when
I decided I wanted a drum set, they went and they bought
me the best one. My parents have always been like that. If
they couldn't afford it at the time, they found a way.
you close to your parents today?
yes, they're right downstairs.
how about any conflicts that might have arose between you
and school? You said that you went to college, did you
finish college? Or did your career take precedent
yeah, ...college kind of got in the way! I went through
two years of college...and then we signed and that was
it. But in high school, the choir director influenced Richard
and I quite a bit. We met this choir conductor at school,
Frank Pooler, who's now our orchestra conductor. Frank
is an extremely talented choral man, and when Richard got
into the choir in his junior year at school, all of a sudden
he developed an interest in vocal...that's when he decided
on a vocal group. I was just getting started in high
school and I had to take gym, which everyone has to take...
did you like that?
didn't. I mean even though I'm very sports-minded, I didn't
like running around a football track at 8 o'clock in the
morning...freezing to death...that didn't thrill me at
all. So Richard said, "get into the marching band,
because if you get in the marching band, you get out of
gym! So I said great...what am I going to play?
That's before I did anything...you know. So Richard was real
good buddies with the band director.. cause he played gigs
with him on the weekends. So he said my sister wants to get
into the band, so the band director says fine, what does
she do? And Richard says "nothing"...so he says
well, OK, I'll give her a glockenspiel, the bells, or whatever
you call it...I said well, gee, that's great! So, I learned
how to play that...which isn't really exciting, is it? I
suppose a glockenspiel could be, but I mean, I wouldn't go
out of my way to buy one!
you play them today?
actually no... But anyway... the bells march in the drum
line...because they say it is a percussion instrument,
as it were. So I marched in the drum section, and one of
my good buddies, Frankie Chavez, who had been playing the
drums since he was three years old, was a Buddy Rich freak,
(you know, Buddy Rich the drummer), like he even ate the
same food as Buddy Rich! So I used to march down the street
playing these stupid bells, watching Frankie play his tail
off on the drums. I mean, he really loved it, and all of
a sudden I discovered I had an interest in drums...I loved
them! So what happened was I played bells for like
two months, and all the time I'm watching Frankie and these
other guys play drums, and it soon occurred to me that
Frankie was the only one who knew what he was doing. And
all of a sudden it hit me that I could play drums as good
as nine-tenths of those boys in the drum line...outside
of Frankie...So I told Gifford (he was the band director)
that I wanted to play tenor drum...and he kind of looked
at me funny. I finally had to talk him into it, because
at that time no girl anywhere was in the drum line of any
school in the marching band! So Frankie showed me both
drum sticks, what to play, how to play and I became very
interested in drums, and we completely reworked the entire
drum section. We did like a whole rock and toll number
in the drum section. The band couldn't march to it...but
it was fun!
But the, before long, I decided I wanted a set...you know
a full set of drums...so Frankie went up and showed me what
I should buy...and I bought a brand new set of Ludwigs. And
from then on, that was my main interest...so like all through
high school at the time my brother Richard was becoming interested
in the vocal thing and we put a vocal group together and
I started to sing at the same time I started to play.
you remember some of the first songs you sang?
wow...we did stuff like Ebb Tide, and all the stock things
at the time like Yesterday, Hey Jude...We were all extremely
into the Beatles...I guess that's our all time favorite
Is it still?
yeah. Them and the Beach Boys.
you break any boy's heart because you put your career before
to tell you the truth, none of the guys I went steady with
knocked me out that much that I would have given up or
changed what I wanted to do! And I'm so glad that I had
enough brains at that point. Because once I finally
got into the music thing...and Richard and I started working,
with the groups and all that stuff...nothing seemed to
sway what I wanted to do...And, like from the time that
we started working, music really became a 24 hour a day
thing for both of us.
back on your teenage years and your successes, what sort
of thoughts would you have for a girl that's about 15,
16 or 17 and wants to be a musician or wants to follow
a career in the arts, but she has pressure from her parents
depends what the girl wants and if she wants it bad enough. She
can figure it out for herself if she's going to stick to
it. And if a guy is really in love with her, he would stick
with her. I mean, if a guy was really hung up on a chick...
like if a chick wanted to do something really bad, the
guy would give of himself and let the chick do what she
wants. That's only natural.
about Karen Carpenter today, are you looking for a guy?
How about Karen Carpenter today, are you looking for a
guy? How long do you think you'll stay in show business?
Do you have any long range plans?
really the only thing that I have an interest for. It's
just the love of what we're doing that's really important.
And I don't know...there's nobody in particular. There's
certain people but not anything that's serious right now.
Whether or not I'm looking...when it can happen, I really
find the role for a woman changing> Do you see more
opportunities for a girl to do things that she really wants
yeah! But that's another thing...this bit about Women's
Lib. People always call me because they think that
being a chick drummer, I'm a woman's Lib fanatic, and I'm
not ! Besides, I don't know that much about what they're
fighting for. For myself, when I decided what I wanted
to do, I went ahead and did it. Nobody got in the way.
If they did, you had to figure out a way to get around
them. I think anybody who has enough self respect and enough
brains can do what they want to do and the bit about blaming
it on somebody else is just garbage!
There's nobody that's going to stand in the way of somebody
if they really want it - male or female!
I'm with you.
stupid you know, just because you're a girl...so what?
got as much brains as anybody else. You see a lot of dumb
guys around too! This bit about me being a successful girl
drummer. I'm not a successful GIRL drummer, I'm just
a drummer that happens to be a girl that's happy! I have
you like being a star?
yeah. It's a kick. At times, it's just a little...well,
you have to walk very fast! sometimes you just want to
go out, go down the corner and buy a hamburger. But you
really can't do that. That gets me sometimes not being
able to walk around on my own! Sometimes you get tired
of being protected 24 hours a day but...
what about your brother, how does he feel about your success?
he loves it. What I'm trying to say is that both of us
are extremely happy and it's a great way to live, but it's
a 24-hour-a day job. You're in competition with yourself.
But it's really something else to live a life that is not
only your own, it's really quite an experience.
kind of clothes do you like? Do you like clothes?
YEAH! Whenever I have a chance I go straight to the clothes
do you like to wear if you're getting all dressed up -
going to a big party or something?
depends on where I'm going. If it's really formal, it would
be a long gown. I like velvets and chiffons and crepes.
but on the other hand, I love suedes. I have a huge collection
of suede. You know, gaucho pants and all that sort of stuff. Suede
pant suits and jackets and purses. I'm definitely a suede
outfits on stage- do you design any of those?
have a designer whose name is Rick Turner and he works
on NBC. He does all the shows like Carol Burnett
and Sonny and Cher and stuff like that. He's very versatile,
he can go in many directions. I like my outfits each different
from the other. They really have to be or I'd go completely
style of outfits do you like to wear on stage? I've seen
you in long gowns.
I do wear long gowns on stage because of playing drums...but
what I actually do wear is a gown that's really pants,
and when I stand up it looks like a dress. It really works
very good on stage. I can go from a cotton jumper, little
puffy tops with a turtle neck (very casual), or to a long
chiffon gown, or a low-cut front with a velvet dress with
the rest of the dress done in lace.
like you like very feminine fabrics.
think it's necessary because when there's seven guys on
the stage all in their suits, I like to wear something
different from the guys. They all wear the same tuxs which
is usually co-ordinated with what I have on. The whole
group is co-ordinated. Let's say I'm wearing red and blue.
Richard'll be in red, and the guys will be in blue.
sometimes it takes us weeks to decide what the heck we're
going to wear! It's quite involved.
do you like traveling around with seven guys? What's it
in the road group there's 22 people. There's eight of us,
a hairdresser, lighting director, a road manager, five
roadies, a manager-manager, a promoter- oh it's wild! It's
like a party!
you the only girl?
my hairdresser is a girl. Sometimes the guys are able to
bring their wives or it depends on whoever's around at
like the old chivalrous thing.
it's really funny! To watch the guys on the road - to watch
them find the chick they want!
yeah! They're very clean cut, but they're there! I can
be by myself if I want to, but if I need protection there
is always someone around. There always has to be. But everybody
has such a great time on the road because everybody's really
close. And that helps when you're gone five weeks at a
you enjoy traveling around so much or does it get so hectic
you really can't relax?
last seven-eight months have been relatively easy compared
to the way we used to travel. Like a year ago, we used
to fly commercial, but there's no way you can carry 22
people and equipment and travel commercially.
So about a year and a half ago, we started flying in two
Lear jets. And we decided that all of a sudden there
were 22 of us (there used to be 14) and we couldn't do it
all in two Lears. So now we charter a great big plane, a
Cessna 580, and it seats 40. We put everybody in the one
big plane, and we have our own flight crew and stewardess.
And we just have a ball, I mean we really do. We bowl in
the aisles, we have quite a good time.
have to have a sense of humor.
we have to, because if we lose control of the show, who
will "take it"? In the oldies medley we have,
we have an opening act called Skyles and Henderson (who
are famous for their noises). And like when we do: Why
do the stars go on shining or why do the birds go on singing? Pete
comes out with this gun, and he shoots a bird out of the
sky and this huge thing falls onto the piano. It's a classic
sounds like it's a regular burlesque routine. Who dreams
up all this stuff?
do the medleys, but as for the comedy part, it's up to
Bill and Pete. And every night, Bill does something different...he
comes out as a robot or whatever. I can never tell what
he's going to do next. One night he chases me off
the stage, or into the audience, whatever!
If I thought about it, I could come up with a story for every
night, like kids crawling in the backstage windows when they're
not locked and come right into the dressing room.
yeah? How do you handle that?
call your manager! But some of the things the kids dream
up to get to you are hysterical. They really have some
damn good ideas, stuff that I'd never think of. I mean,
some kids rent a limousine and follow us into a car or
they climb all over the car, or you get into an elevator,
they watch to see what floor you get off, and then they
just knock on every door on that floor. It's wild!
we've really had fun talking with you.
had fun too. Thanks for calling!
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