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Lead Sister : The Story of Karen Carpenter - Lucy O'Brien

Lead Sister

The Story of Karen Carpenter

By: Lucy O'Brien

Paperback | 8 October 2024

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"This may well become the definitive biography of Carpenter....Pop music fans will appreciate this strong biography." —Library Journal, Starred Review

Named a Financial Times 2023 Best Book of the Year – Pop Music
Named one of The Times and The Sunday Times, UK 17 best rock and pop music books of 2023

A groundbreaking biography reevaluating the life and legacy of transcendent musician Karen Carpenter


As one of the biggest-selling acts of the 1970s, the Carpenters are celebrated for their melodic pop and unforgettable hits like “Close to You,” “Yesterday,” and “Top of the World.” Though Karen is rightly recognized as one of the greatest singers in popular music, the tragedy of her early death in 1983 at the young age of just thirty-two sometimes overshadows her incredible achievements. She has often been portrayed as a victim, controlled by her family and exploited by the music industry.

Forty years after her death, this biography reframes her life and legacy as a pioneering woman with her own vision and agency. With exclusive interviews with friends, musicians, and collaborators, bestselling author Lucy O’Brien explores Karen’s contributions as a singer, drummer, arranger, and producer, and traces the roots of the Carpenters’ iconic sound. Lead Sister also honors Karen’s triumphs in the face of her struggle with anorexia, providing contemporary perspectives on eating disorders and mental health. Despite the chronic nature of her illness, Karen Carpenter was, above all, a creative, dedicated, and assured artist whose music delivers an emotional resonance that has transcended generations—and that is how she should be remembered.

About the Author

Lucy O’Brien is the bestselling author of She Bop: The Definitive History of Women in Popular Music, It Takes Blood And Guts, Dusty: The Classic Biography, and Madonna: Like An Icon. She has contributed to Q, Mojo, NME, The Sunday Times, The Guardian, Cosmopolitan, and Marie Claire and is also a TV & radio broadcaster. She co-produced Righteous Babes, the Channel 4 film about women in rock and scripted the BBC Radio 2 series She Bop. She lives in London, and her website is www.lucyobrien.co.uk. @LucyOBrienTweet.
Industry Reviews
"Lead Sister sets a high bar for a portrait of Karen Carpenter as a complete person, not just as the iconic singer, songwriter and influential drummer of the 70s, but as a musician secretly dying from the industry's ideas of what a woman on stage should be." --Patty Schemel, author of Hit So Hard Lead Sister gives Karen Carpenter the story she deserves. Lucy O'Brien's careful research and insightful analysis show us a formidable musical artist and also shed light on the culture that could not save her in her time of need. Lead Sister illuminates more than the story of Karen Carpenter; this is a rich and engaging study of music, femininity, and the 1970s California dream as international export. --Jacqueline Warwick, professor of musicology, Dalhousie University A book that dares to challenge orthodoxy and rewrite the story of the Carpenters. Lucy O'Brien brings a sparkling feminism to a remarkable pop act. --Stuart Cosgrove, author of Detroit 67 and Hey America! The Epic Story of Black Music and the White House A fascinating but tragic story. 4/5 -- "MOJO" Bravo to one of the all-time best authors of our time. Just when you think we could not learn anything else about a pop icon, Lucy O'Brien removes the shackles of simplified myth to expose the innovator and trailblazer, while bravely examining the layered complications of family, fame, mental health and desire. I could not put it down. --Jennifer Otter Bickerdike, author of You Are Beautiful and You Are Alone: The Biography of Nico, and Being Britney In this detailed, definitive, and deeply empathetic portrait, O'Brien carefully repositions a once-in-a-lifetime star. --Jim Irvin, singer and songwriter, author of Jeff Buckley: From Hallelujah to the Last Goodbye Music journalist O'Brien reconstructs the life of 1970s and early '80s pop star Carpenter, from the 'intense musical creativity' and sonorous voice that propelled her to fame to the industry and cultural pressures she battled and the anorexia that eventually contributed to her death in 1983.... Mining Carpenter's music, as well as original interviews with those who knew her, O'Brien paints a nuanced portrait of both an inimitable, culture-defining artist and a highly visible casualty of the music industry's 'relentless promotion' of women as uniformly thin, 'saleable commodities.' Carpenter's fans will be rapt. -- "Publishers Weekly" O'Brien has succeeded in repositioning Karen Carpenter as something considerably more than just a haunted figure. -- "The Times (UK)" O'Brien tells the beautiful, hauntingly sad tale of Carpenter, the superstar with the singularly mellifluous, transcendent voice, part of the sibling band the Carpenters. Carpenter died on February 4, 1983, at age 32, from cardiotoxic complications as a result of anorexia. The book delves into familial Carpenter exegesis to isolate significant and recurring stressors that exacerbated her condition. These include her family's unyielding focus on her only and older sibling, Richard, as the star of their musical partnership; her overbearing and controlling mother; Karen's preoccupation with perfectionism; and her relentless touring and recording schedule. She also felt the burden of feeling financially responsible for maintaining the Carpenter machine and all those who depended on it. This book further examines her label and her brother's decision to stop Carpenter from playing the drums--her primary delight as a musician--and have her front the band as lead vocalist. O'Brien's choice to begin this book with an invocation and end it with a benediction reflects the spiritual regard with which she approaches her subject. This may well become the definitive biography of Carpenter and an excellent companion to Randy L. Schmidt's Little Girl Blue. Pop music fans will appreciate this strong biography. -- "Library Journal, Starred Review" O'Brien's background as a feminist rock critic and biographer informs this insightful reconsideration of Karen Carpenter's career. O'Brien avoids casting the gifted drummer and singer, who died at 32 from anorexia nervosa, as helpless victim or doomed saint. Instead, she draws upon extensive primary sources to construct a more robust portrait. The girl who absorbs the music of her father's eclectic record collection becomes a teenager who spends hours mastering her drum line parts. When her older brother's drummer misses band practice, she jumps in, becoming a gigging musician before graduating high school. Her rich, resonant singing voice catapults the Carpenters to the top of the charts, and the "Lead Sister" (a nickname Karen proudly embraces after a Japanese mistranslation of "lead singer") becomes a savvy artist and producer. O'Brien approaches Carpenter's eating disorder with sensitivity, presenting contemporary research on anorexia alongside an exploration of the societal and familial dynamics that contributed to her illness. An important book for readers interested in the history of women in rock and a necessary one for Carpenters fans. -- "Booklist" Remembered as much for the anorexia that led to her death as for her crystalline voice, Karen Carpenter gets her due as an artist to be reckoned with in this immersive biography. -- "People Magazine" So many books about music stars take one of two paths: they're predominantly about the songs or they're mostly about the singer's career. In Lead Sister, author Lucy O'Brien does a nice job melding the two together with a biography. For the person who must know the discography of an album (they were albums then!) in order to enjoy it, there's just enough to satisfy you here. The reader who wants to know about the singer herself will be happy with a big biography that includes the smallest tinge of tabloid to keep things interesting. And if you need still more, you won't be disappointed: there are secrets inside this book, and an overall feeling of bell-bottom jeans, leather headbands, warm summer nights, and a time before disco when a powerful voice and a soft song were on every car radio everywhere. Despite its heft, this book is a surprisingly fast read, but you'll want to take your time with it because of the nostalgia. Lead Sister is a book you'll want to keep close to you. -- "Bristol Herald Courier" 8/10 -- "Uncut"

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