Little Girl Blue is an intimate profile of Karen Carpenter, a girl from a modest Connecticut upbringing who became a Southern California superstar.
Karen was the instantly recognizable lead singer of the Carpenters. The top-selling American musical act of the 1970's, they delivered the love songs that defined a generation. Little Girl Blue reveals Karen's heartbreaking struggles with her mother, brother, and husband; the intimate disclosures she made to her closest friends; her love for playing drums and her frustrated quest for solo stardom; and the ups and downs of her treatment for anorexia nervosa. After her shocking death at 32 years of age in 1983, she became the proverbial poster child for that disorder; but the other causes of her decline are laid bare for the first time in this moving account. Little Girl Blue is Karen Carpenter's definitive biography, based on exclusive interviews with her innermost circle of girlfriends and nearly 100 others, including childhood friends, professional associates, and lovers.
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Prior to starting this book I had just finished the excellent “Rise and Fall of The Third Reich” and thought that a story about the Carpenters, all ‘Mom’s Apple Pie’ and Church On Sunday, would be an interesting change of pace after 3 months in the company of Hitler, Goering, et al.
Boy, was I ever wrong…
The book paints a picture of a very dysfunctional family, presided over by a controlling, manipulative mother, Agnes Carpenter, who lives vicariously through her son Richard, and who is endlessly suspicious of all outsiders to the detriment of everyone else around, including her husband and their daughter, Karen. Agnes moves the family west from Connecticut to California in order to give Richard all the opportunities for his talent to blossom, and she talks only of Richard and how he is a musical genius. She even tells Karen, ‘Without Richard, there would be no Karen. Your brother is a genius and you must do everything to support him’
But as awful as Agnes most definitely is, equal villain of this sad story is Richard Carpenter, who allowed and often supported his mother’s bullying just so he could remain the centre of attention. And woe betide anyone who upsets that particular apple cart, as Neil Sedaka finds after he consistently brings the house down as the opening act for the duo during an engagement in Las Vegas, for which he finds himself fired by Richard. Sedaka, always the consummate professional, just sighs and quips “That’s the first time I got fired for playing well!”
The bullying and the familial manipulation continues when the band are on the road, and the book details a number of occasions where people who got in the way of the Carpenters juggernaut were simply thrown away, with no thought for who got hurt in the process. Friendships, Relationships, even Family; everything and everybody is sacrificed for the sake of Richard’s career.
But most people will buy this book to try and understand just what happened with Karen, and her losing battle with Anorexia. The erosion of her self-confidence by years of constantly being told she was second-best are undoubtedly a driving factor. And as Karen feels she has no control over her personal and professional life (and she really doesn’t, to an astounding degree), she exercises the only control she feels she still has, that being what she eats. Consequently years of dangerous dieting, strenuous touring schedules (over 150 shows a year on average), and mental bullying by the people she trusted finally came to a head, and her body just gave up. Such a tragic loss…
There’s a lovely section near the end of the book where Karen embarks on a solo recording project whilst Richard is recovering from ill-health and exhaustion. She flies to New York and teams up with producer Phil Ramone, who then introduces her to Billy Joel’s touring band, known to be one of the hardest working bands of the day. Over the ensuing weeks of recording Karen finds a whole new way of working that is exciting and fresh, as the band members and fellow artists Billy Joel and Paul Simon welcome her into their circle, enabling her to relax and have fun. She discovers a totally different approach to recording and really blossoms in the studio away from Richard’s control.
Narration by Cheryl Bentyne is first class, and keeps the listener engaged throughout
A highly recommended book, but be warned; you will never listen to the Carpenters music in the same way ever again.