"When I Was Sixteen"
by Nancy Hardwick
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 interview.
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!.
NANCY: Karen, 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?.
KAREN: Well, 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!.
NANCY: How long were you on a diet?.
KAREN: Uh, 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.
NANCY: Twenty three pounds? That's incredible...Was it a diet that you your-self designed?.
KAREN: No, 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.
NANCY: You were the only girl in the group at that time?.
KAREN: Right...There were five guys, and Richard and I. That was our first group called The Spectrum.
NANCY: did you have time for guys back then? Did you have a lot of boyfriends? Or one special boyfriend?.
KAREN: When 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.
NANCY: Were you going steady?.
KAREN: Oh 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!.
NANCY: Did you want to marry him?.
KAREN: Oh 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.
NANCY: What did you tell them?.
KAREN: Well, 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.
NANCY: Did you know that you wanted to go into show business when you were 15 or 16?.
KAREN: When I was about 16, that's when it all happened...that's when the turning point was.
NANCY: What made you choose show business...what made you decide to follow your ambitions?.
KAREN: Well, 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.
NANCY: Was it mostly your own personal initiative or did your parents or your brother encourage you?.
KAREN: Well, 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.
NANCY: What 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?.
KAREN: Well, 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.
NANCY: Are you close to your parents today?
KAREN: Oh, yes, they're right downstairs.
NANCY: Well, 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 over that?.
KAREN: Oh, 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...
NANCY: How did you like that?.
KAREN: I 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!.
NANCY: Do you play them today?.
NANCY: Do you play them today?.
KAREN: No, 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.
NANCY: Can you remember some of the first songs you sang?.
KAREN: Oh, 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 group.
NANCY: Is it still?.
KAREN: Oh, yeah. Them and the Beach Boys.
NANCY: Did you break any boy's heart because you put your career before dating?.
KAREN: Well, 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.
NANCY: Looking 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 or boyfriends?.
KAREN: It 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.
NANCY: How 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?.
KAREN: It's 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 don't know.
NANCY: You find the role for a woman changing> Do you see more opportunities for a girl to do things that she really wants to do?.
KAREN: Oh 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!.
NANCY: Good, I'm with you.
KAREN: Its stupid you know, just because you're a girl...so what?.
NANCY: RIGHT ON!.
KAREN: We've 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 a ball!.
NANCY: Do you like being a star?.
KAREN: Oh 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...
NANCY: And what about your brother, how does he feel about your success?.
KAREN: Oh 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.
NANCY: What kind of clothes do you like? Do you like clothes?.
KAREN: OH YEAH! Whenever I have a chance I go straight to the clothes stores.
NANCY: What do you like to wear if you're getting all dressed up - going to a big party or something?.
KAREN: It depends on where I'm going. If it's really formal, it would be a long gown. I like velvets and chiffons and crepes.
NANCY: Very feminine things?.
KAREN: Yeah, 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 person.
NANCY: Your outfits on stage- do you design any of those?.
KAREN: I 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 ape.
NANCY: What style of outfits do you like to wear on stage? I've seen you in long gowns.
KAREN: Well, 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.
NANCY: Sounds like you like very feminine fabrics.
KAREN: I 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.
NANCY: How do you like traveling around with seven guys? What's it like?.
KAREN: Well, 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!.
NANCY: Are you the only girl?.
KAREN: No, my hairdresser is a girl. Sometimes the guys are able to bring their wives or it depends on whoever's around at the time!.
NANCY: It's like the old chivalrous thing.
KAREN: Oh, it's really funny! To watch the guys on the road - to watch them find the chick they want!.
NANCY: Carpenter groupies?.
KAREN: Oh, 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 time.
NANCY: Do you enjoy traveling around so much or does it get so hectic you really can't relax?.
KAREN: The 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.
NANCY: You have to have a sense of humor.
KAREN: Oh, 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 comedy.
NANCY: It sounds like it's a regular burlesque routine. Who dreams up all this stuff?.
KAREN: We 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.
NANCY: Oh yeah? How do you handle that?.
KAREN: You 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!.
NANCY: Karen, we've really had fun talking with you.
KAREN: I've had fun too. Thanks for calling!.
Con mucho cariño: Ignacio.