ArtsATL > Books > Randy Schmidt chronicles Karen Carpenter’s success, tragedy in “Little Girl Blue”

Randy Schmidt chronicles Karen Carpenter’s success, tragedy in “Little Girl Blue”

We’re pleased to introduce Teresa Weaver to ArtsCriticATL. Formerly the books editor of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Teresa writes a monthly books column for Atlanta magazine and is a senior writer and editor at Habitat for Humanity International, traveling around the world and writing about Habitat’s global efforts to eliminate poverty housing. She’s been a board member of the National Book Critics Circle and served on the programming committee of the Decatur Book Festival. — Pierre and Catherine

Nearly 30 years after her death, Karen Carpenter’s voice is among the most instantly recognizable in the pop music pantheon. Love it or loathe it, you can hear it right now, can’t you?

“Karen Carpenter made a lot of ordinary songs into extraordinary recordings,” says biographer Randy L. Schmidt, who will appear at the Ballroom Book Bash on July 11. (Details below.) “Songs like ‘We’ve Only Just Begun,’ ‘Rainy Days and Mondays’ and ‘Superstar’ are pleasant at best when performed by other vocalists. Karen took them to a new level of excellence.”

Schmidt, a 36-year-old music teacher in Texas, was born in the middle of the Carpenters’ heyday, so he missed it firsthand. “I think that fueled the fire for my research,” he said by email from his home in Dallas/Fort Worth. “I wanted to learn everything I’d missed. That’s how this book was born — from an innocent curiosity for knowledge about a favorite singer and her life story.”

Karen and Richard Carpenter seemed oddly out of time with their generation — too clean-cut Connecticut for the Southern California music scene. Talent trumped embarrassment, though, as new fans slinked into record stores and bought Carpenters albums by the millions.

In 1971, at the first Grammy Awards ceremony to be broadcast live, the Carpenters won for best new artist and for best contemporary performance by a duo, group or chorus, beating out the Jackson Five, Simon and Garfunkel, Chicago and the Beatles. By the end of 1976, the Carpenters had racked up 16 Top 20 hits.

Author Randy Schmidt (Photo by Zachary Stefaniak)

Schmidt’s “Little Girl Blue: The Life of Karen Carpenter” (Chicago Review Press) is a deeply affectionate but not fawning biography of the singer, who died in 1983 from complications of anorexia nervosa. She was 32.

In conducting hundreds of interviews over eight years, the author gained some interesting insights into her music. And he struggled to make sense of the deeply creepy family dysfunction that haunted her life. Since cooperating with an “authorized” biography in 1994, Richard Carpenter has said virtually nothing about his sister’s personal life. He declined to be interviewed for Schmidt’s book but didn’t actively fight the project.

Schmidt relied largely on the recollections of Karen’s closest confidantes, including Frenda Franklin and Karen “Itchie” Ramone (the wife of producer Phil Ramone). Franklin was especially blunt about the Carpenter matriarch’s role in Karen’s inability to love herself.

“If your own parent doesn’t love you,” Franklin says, “you’re going to walk around with a giant hole that’s not ever going to get filled.”

In the 1989 TV movie “A Song for You: The Karen Carpenter Story,” Agnes Carpenter first emerged as a darkly fascinating, fearsome mother dearest. In that version, Agnes finally tells her daughter that she loves her only a few hours before Karen’s starved heart stops beating. That bittersweet scene, Schmidt assures us, was pure fiction. There are no happy endings or easy answers here.

At the low point of her anorexia, Karen Carpenter weighed less than 80 pounds. Now that anorexia and other eating disorders have become such a part of the popular lexicon — either as unofficial diagnosis or as punch line — it’s difficult to remember what unknown territory it was in the 1980s. As hard as it is now to fathom how she could have wasted away to the point of death, it was far more mystifying then.

As a music teacher, Schmidt is well versed in a huge variety of genres and styles. On his own iPod, though, he says he is most drawn to strong melodic music with a great lead vocal. “I rarely tire of listening to Karen sing,” he says. “I love that there are so many diehard Carpenters fans who never get tired of that sweet, sweet sound. It’s therapeutic and restorative in so many ways. Her voice is a place of solace.”

After finding little solace in her own life, Karen Carpenter’s recorded legacy still strikes a chord. And in this life story, her strangely optimistic yet mournful voice joins a timeless chorus of cautionary tales about the tragic excesses and limitations of stardom.

Randy Schmidt will speak at 7 p.m. Monday, July 11, at the Highland Inn, 644 North Highland Avenue. A band of local musicians, led by Becky Shaw of Roxie Watson on drums and lead vocals, will perform music from the Carpenters songbook. Tickets are $5 at the door, which can be applied toward the $25 purchase of a signed copy of the book.

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