With songs like ‘Top of the World’, ‘Yesterday Once More’, ‘Goodbye to Love’ and ‘Superstar’, which has been covered by everybody from Sonic Youth to Tennis, it’s no wonder why The Carpenters are remembered for their folky, soothing vocals in addition to their charming songwriting skills.
Specifically, Karen Carpenter’s contralto vocals and her distinctive three-octave range have marked her place in history as one of the best singers of her generation. However, even the most skilled vocalists often have other talents sitting just beneath the surface, and Karen Carpenter is no different.
An adept instrumentalist in her own right, Karen Carpenter had a wild protege past before even arriving as the brilliant singer many people know her as today. Starting out in 1965, Carpenter played in a trio with her older brother and his college friend Wes Jacobs, where they played in jazz nightclubs and even went on tv shows to moderate success and acclaim.
Even though she still sang as a part of the trio in question, many who know her primarily as a singer are surprised to discover that she did so from behind a drum kit. Being small in frame, people often complained about being unable to see her while she was performing. The trio saw some budding success – even getting signed to a record label – before Carpenter left to study at The Julliard School. She wanted to experiment with other music styles, all the while continuing to perform with her brother in various bands.
By the time The Carpenters were signed as a duo to A&M Records in 1969, Karen was still in her favourite place behind the drum kit. Beginning as the band’s drummer and co-lead singer, Carpenter has been open about her affinity for percussion. She has said that she always thought of herself as a “drummer who sang”.
Although it isn’t the most common thing to find video footage of the relatively unknown talents of legends, there are always a few choice clips that resurface, and it’s a treat when they do. This one in particular features an 18-year-old Karen Carpenter playing as a part of the Dick Carpenter Trio, excerpted from when they went on The All American College Show.
When asked about her affinity for drumming, Carpenter has said: “That is such an overused line, but I started anyway. I picked up a pair of sticks, and it was the most natural-feeling thing I’ve ever done”. And even when she wasn’t performing live as a drummer, she often drummed on The Carpenters’ albums and recording sessions.
After being told in the school band that “girls don’t play drums”, Carpenter simply couldn’t be stopped. This somehow makes the video all the more enticing, watching this spitfire in a chic white dress and blunt bangs casually roll through intricate, quick rhythms while effortlessly singing along. It’s fun, unique, and makes for a mesmerising watch.
In the video, you can also see bassist Wes Jacobs, who played both tuba and bass, as well as Karen’s older brother and other half The Carpenters’ duo on the organ. Not only was Karen Carpenter a pioneer of her time as a vocalist, but this quick performance goes to show that she was capable of just about every musical talent. Karen Carpenter’s life, unfortunately, ended in tragedy, passing away at the age of 32 from complications of anorexia nervosa.
Although she will always be a well-loved and well-missed artist, there is something special about celebrating all of the amazing talents she was able to develop and display during her lifetime. You can watch the full video of Karen Carpenter drumming at just 18 years old below.