Sheila E., Cindy Blackman Santana on the late Karen Carpenter's oft-forgotten legacy: 'Her drumming was not given more attention — the attention it deserved'

Karen Carpenter plays the drums in the early 1970s. (Photo: Doug Griffin/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
Karen Carpenter plays the drums in the early 1970s. (Photo: Doug Griffin/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

Forty years ago, on Feb. 4, 1983, Karen Carpenter, the dulcet-voiced singer of soft-rock sibling duo the Carpenters, died at the tragically young age of 32 from heart failure, a complication of the anorexia that she battled for most of her adult life and career. While the Carpenters were one of pop music's most successful recording artists, with more than 100 million records sold and 20 top 10 singles (including three No. 1’s), and Karen has long been hailed as one of the greatest vocalists of all time, only true music geeks have recognized her skills as drummer and percussionist — although that is changing, thanks to the internet.

“I don't know how that slipped by a lot of people. I mean, I always say it when people ask me about who was my first influence was, or about other women who played drums: The first person I always think of is Karen Carpenter,” legendary percussionist Sheila E. tells Yahoo Entertainment. Sheila enthusiastically recommends that the unaware, uninitiated, or unconvinced watch the many YouTube videos from the Carpenters’ NBC variety series and other TV appearances to witness Karen in action.

“She was the first woman that I saw playing drums. I was pretty young; I don't even think I was a teenager. I first saw her playing drums on television, and I told my dad, ‘Daddy, Daddy, look! There's a girl playing drums just like me, and she has a brother! How come we don't have a TV show?’” Sheila, who grew up in the famous Escovedo musical family, recalls with a chuckle. “She did this one scene in that show where she had the drums, percussion instruments, vibes, and she just kept going from instrument to instrument. This one piece that she put together, it was incredible. … She also played percussion-like vibes and Latin percussion. Every time I saw her perform on her show, she would do something a little bit special, so that people could see that she could play. She played as if she learned how to play in a drum corps. I mean, she did play drums on almost every episode of that show. Like, how could you not know that Karen Carpenter was an incredible drummer?”

Jazz-trained drumming phenomenon Cindy Blackman Santana — who has worked with Lenny Kravitz, Joss Stone, Pharoah Sanders, Cassandra Wilson, Buckethead, Bill Laswell, her husband Carlos, and many others — admits to Yahoo Entertainment that she was not aware of Karen’s skills until recently. “I'm just feeling remorseful for her that her drumming was not given more attention — the attention it deserved,” she says. “But I did happen to see a couple of years ago a video of her playing, and I was like, ‘Whoa, girl has some chops!’ She obviously put some time in on the drums, and I respect that. I found out that she liked [Dave Brubeck’s drummer] Joe Morello, and I checked out a video of her playing a sock cymbal, which she proudly got from Joe Morello, although it came from Papa Jo [Count Basie Orchestra pioneer Jo Jones]. But whether she realized that that came from Papa Jo or not, she was checking out the great history and lineage of the drums — which I completely respect. I could see that she obviously learned rudiments and put in the time in to be able to play them.”

The drums were in fact Karen Carpenter’s first passion, and not unlike Sheila and Cindy, she always considered herself a “drummer who sang.” She got her first drum kit, a present from her supportive parents, at age 14: a Ludwig, the same kit played her idols, Ringo Starr and Morello. She began studying the drums while attending Downey High School, joining the marching band and taking lessons from Benny Goodman/Art Tatum drummer Bill Douglass. Within a year, during which she practiced every day, she had learned traditional drumming techniques and complex jazz pieces like Brubeck’s “Take Five.”

Karen’s musical career began in her older brother’s jazz group the Richard Carpenter Trio, then alongside Richard in the pop sextet Spectrum, in which she also played drums. When the Carpenters duo formed, she was that band’s drummer as well, singing all of her vocals from behind her kit. But after playing almost all of the drums on the Carpenters’ 1969 debut album for A&M Records, there was a push to make her the group’s lead singer. (Both her brother and manager reasoned that it was difficult to see her petite frame behind her drums, and that she needed to be the focal point of the Carpenters’ live performances.) She took on that role hesitantly, and her drumming participation subsequently became greatly reduced. Then, as the Carpenters’ fame exploded, the constant scrutiny of Karen’s appearance contributed to the insecure, reluctant frontwoman developing the eating disorder that eventually resulted in her shocking death.

“When you get in the industry and you're singing and playing, you kind of get away from your drums. It becomes about pop, the popular music — what is a hit, what radio is playing. The focus is on the song, and it's not really on your instrument sometimes. I felt the same way. Like, at some point I felt like I was getting away from my drums, because I had to sing more in front — and sometimes even without my drums. I just thought it felt strange not always having my drums. And maybe Karen was put in that position as well,” muses Sheila. “It’s unfortunate that her low self-esteem, how she saw herself and the pressure of being out in the front and maybe not wanting to do that, took a toll on her. Some people aren't built to do that. I understand the pressure of it, for sure.”

“I think that for her to come out front and sing must have felt awkward,” Santana adds. “I know from me singing, I like to be behind the drums; it's my safe space. So, I can only imagine that it was probably like that for her too, because she obviously really dug the drums. I do think that stepping away from the drums and coming up front was a product of the commercialism of presenting a band and presenting songs, and just kind of the nature of the business in a way. And in terms of her being a drummer, that's unfortunate, because I think a lot of people have sorely missed the fact that she was proficient at her instrument. And I think that's important for people to know that.”

Over the years, many naysayers actually doubted Karen’s skills on the occasions when they saw her behind the kit. “A lot of people thought that she wasn't really playing. Sometimes they had two drummers, because [renowned session musician] Hal Blaine was in their band. So, some people might have been saying, ‘Well, that's really Hal — it's not her!’” says Santana. But while Karen did not drum on every Carpenters recording and Blaine played on most of the duo’s studio sessions when Karen did not play drums herself, Santana stresses, “She was playing, and there are clips with just her that are amazing. … I really hope the clips out there continue to bring more light to her as a drummer.”

But Santana continues: “However, some of the videos that I saw with her, they looked to me to be — and how can I word this, because I'm not putting her down — but in terms of the business, they looked as though they were done in the fashion that would make her as a woman playing drums ‘acceptable.’ Like, kind of commercial, or almost cheesy. If you look past that, if you look at her hands, you see that the woman could play, but definitely historically, there's been this thing about women playing drums, and it's not always been very positive. … There is that element of gimmick or cheese or novelty when it comes to women. I feel has been waning, which is a good thing. And I'm hoping that an article like this will inspire young women to play because they love it too.”

Unlike Santana, Sheila was obviously aware of Karen’s drumming talents when she herself was a young woman — but unfortunately, Sheila never got the chance to cross paths with her childhood role model, because Karen passed away one year before Sheila’s own star started to rise with the release of her 1984 debut album, The Glamorous Life.

“Oh, that was heartbreaking,” Sheila says of Karen’s death. “Especially because as a woman, being a percussionist/drummer/singer, the pressure of playing a so-called man's instrument can be very challenging as a woman. I don't know if she ever got that type of energy, because I would've loved to ask her that question. My question to her would be, did she have to feel that she needed to prove herself as a drummer, a ‘woman who could play drums,’ or just as a great musician? You know: ‘Were you in a position where men would say certain things to you? Did you get scrutinized being a woman, because people usually didn't see a lot of women playing drums?’ That would be something that I would've asked her.

“She just happened to be a woman, but she was an incredible musician. She was an incredible drummer. And her chops, the things that she played on drums and percussion… to be able to play vibes as well, musically, and playing jumps — I mean, she was not faking what she was doing. That was real,” Sheila continues emphatically. “Those rudiments and different rhythms and things that she had played, I can't play, not to this day. I cannot play the things that she played. Absolutely not.”

There was a time, especially after the ‘70s ended, when the Carpenters didn’t get respect in general and were dismissed as lite-AM-radio shlock — which probably partially stemmed from the above-mentioned misogynistic attitude towards Karen in general. But the critical tide started to turn in the ‘90s — especially when alternative rock artists like Sheryl Crow, Sonic Youth, the Cranberries, Shonen Knife, 4 Non Blondes, Cracker, Matthew Sweet, and Redd Kross contributed covers to 1994's acclaimed Carpenters tribute album If I Were a Carpenter — and continued with the soft-rock revival of the 2000s.

“When you hear the production and what they were able to do with these harmonies and vocals and just musically, it was incredible. I think it's amazing now that people are listening to their music more and bringing that forth,” says Sheila. “A good song is a good song, and you can definitely resurface these songs in a way that you'll be going, ‘Oh my God, I totally forgot about that song! It's an incredible song!’” Santana adds: “Their songs were very simplistic, but I don't mean that in a dumbing-down kind of way. I mean in a very wholesome way. … You listen to those songs and they're telling stories, life stories, heartfelt stories. So, if there's revival, I think that's cool.”

And that revival has led many a new fan down a YouTube rabbit hole, bringing new attention to Karen’s sometimes-forgotten legacy as a skilled drummer — which is possibly the way Karen herself would most want to be remembered.

“Just go on YouTube and do the research, and you're going to be shocked,” says Sheila. “If anyone wants to know more about Karen as a drummer, there are so many clips of her from the variety show, especially that one clip of her playing all the instruments. She went from one jump to another in a circle, and she just played everything so well. And that's a lot of work, the arrangements, for her to play all that. It was beautiful to see. She was an incredible drummer — and I'm not saying a ‘woman drummer.’ She was an incredible drummer, musician, artist, singer, producer, arranger. She just happened to be a beautiful woman doing what she loved to do.”

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