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Carole King: Frizzy roan-colored hair, freckles, guileless blue eyes — the early ’70s archetypal earth mother dressed in tattered jeans and gauzy shirt, perched atop a thoroughbred, riding through a field of wildflowers and prairie grass. Her visage was as common 25 years ago as macrami plant holders and shag carpeting.
Her 1971 album “Tapestry” (estimated to have sold as many as 20 million copies worldwide) made her an international star, but King was always more comfortable backstage, offering her songwriting genius to those more interested in the limelight and accolades. These days, the 57-year-old mother of four seems to have come full circle in her varied, 40-year career. She began as a songwriter, moved on to solo albums, took up environmentalism, starred in several New York musicals, then came back to songwriting. Recently, Celine Dion, Natalie Merchant, Rod Stewart, Trisha Yearwood and Courtney Love have all covered her songs, and she co-wrote the themes to the movies “One Fine Day” and “You’ve Got Mail.” Though she’s released albums only sporadically in the past 15 years, King never fell into obscurity like so many of her contemporaries.
Born in 1942 in Brooklyn, King grew up listening to the first wave of rock ‘n’ roll to hit mass audiences in America. Her earliest songs reflected a pop-rock sensibility geared to a white teen market. At Queens College in Brooklyn, where she trained to be a teacher, she met Gerry Goffin, with whom she would form one of the most successful songwriting teams of the ’60s (classmates included Paul Simon and Neil Diamond). A trained chemist, Goffin wrote lyrics to accompany King’s deceptively complex arrangements. They married when King was 18 and had their first child, Louise, just after they’d had their first No. 1 hit. “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” recorded by the Shirelles in 1960, stayed at the top of the charts for three weeks. The song’s subject matter was considered racy by some in the music industry. Its chorus was a post-coitus interrogative, bringing to the surface a sensibility far more modern than many in the post-World War II era cared to acknowledge.
Before “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” Goffin and King wrote more than four dozen songs that were never recorded. They lived in a basement apartment in New York City, and when King finished her secretarial day job and Goffin finished his chemist job, they’d sit in a tiny office belonging to Don Kirshner at Aldon Music and toil over songs. After they gave “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” to Kirshner (whom they’d met through King’s childhood friend Neil Sedaka), Goffin recalled King, then seven months pregnant, driving up to his lab in a limousine and telling him to hang up his white coat, they wouldn’t have to work again. Kirshner had given them each a $10,000 advance.
Goffin and King came from an era when performers rarely wrote their own material but relied heavily on songwriters to provide them with hit singles. The most famous factory for this songwriting talent in the ’50s and ’60s was New York’s Brill Building. It housed more than 20 music companies off and on throughout the decades, and songwriters knew they’d made it when they found themselves working inside its cubicles. Goffin and King worked around the corner, at Aldon Music, where they were considered part of the same happening scene. In Rolling Stone, Jon Landau wrote: “The songs of Goffin and King are superb examples of the songwriting craft of the ’60s. Finely honed to meet the demands of the clients who commissioned them, and written with the requirements of AM radio always firmly in mind, they still managed to express themselves in a rich way. Like Hollywood directors who learned how to make the limitations of the system work for them and in the process created something of their own pop vision.”
Most of the more than 100 hits penned by Goffin and King in the
’60s had a thin, bubble-gum sentimentality to them, like “Pleasant
Valley Sunday,” “The Loco-motion,” “One Fine Day,” “Take Good Care of My Baby,” “Crying in the Rain” and “Up on the Roof.” Recorded by artists such as the Beatles (John Lennon and Paul McCartney cited the pair as one of the group’s major influences), the Monkees, the Drifters, Bobby Vee, the Everly Brothers and the Chiffons, the songs contrast sharply with the more mature, complex work King began producing after her split with Goffin in the late ’60s, when she relocated with their two daughters from New York City to Laurel Canyon in Los Angeles — breeding ground of another burgeoning music scene.
In Laurel Canyon, where folk musicians proliferated, King began the
evolution from songwriter to solo artist. Contemporaries
including James Taylor (a longtime friend who appears on numerous King albums), Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, the Eagles and others were all part of the Laurel Canyon music scene; shortly after moving there, King hooked up with then-undiscovered guitarist Danny “Kootch” Kortchmar and bassist Charles Larkey, who would become her second husband and with whom she would have her only son. “Those were remarkable days in Laurel Canyon,” Taylor wrote on King’s rerelease of “Tapestry.” “Exceptional was commonplace. The record industry was a labor of love in the service of music. It was a hoot.”
Together with Larkey and Kortchmar, King formed a trio called the City and cut an album, “Now That Everything’s Been Said.” Because of King’s stage fright, the City never toured, but the album’s failure to succeed became the springboard for her leap into a solo career. With encouragement from Taylor, King released her first solo album in 1970. “Writer,” slightly more successful than the City’s album, was an example of King’s growing musical maturity. With dense, layered piano chords, the songs were far removed from her teen pop ditties of the ’60s. Both Goffin and legendary producer Lou Adler realized, after these two albums, that King’s best work was not with a group of musicians, but when she was simply accompanying herself on piano. “I knew that her demos were more popular than her first two records,” Adler told Rolling Stone. “People in the business collected Carole King demos. You couldn’t get them back once you’d sent them to a producer.” “Writer” sold 6,000 copies initially, enough to encourage King to make a second solo album, the one that would become her pihce de risistance.
“Tapestry,” released in February 1971, spent 15 weeks in the No. 1 spot on Billboard’s chart and stayed in the top 100 for six years. By the end of 1971, “Tapestry” was still selling 150,000 copies per week and had scored four top 10 hits; while a complete accounting of its sales has never been made, it remains one of the biggest-selling albums of all time. Upon the record’s release, Rolling Stone critic Landau wrote: “It is an album of surpassing personal intimacy and musical accomplishment. Every note reminds you that ‘Tapestry’ is not the work of pop star hacks diddling around in the studio to relieve their own boredom. Conviction and commitment are the life blood of ‘Tapestry’ and are precisely what make it so fine. Carole King is thoroughly involved with her music; she reaches out towards us and gives everything she has. And this generosity is so extraordinary that perhaps we can give it another name: passion.”
King’s music was personal, sentimental and individual. She sang of enduring friendship or love, the connection not to the philosophical Other, but to an ardent partner. “That remains both her outlook and her subject matter: friendship,” Landau wrote. “No one has
expressed its full range of feelings as well as Carole King. The
simplicity of the singing, composition and ultimate feeling achieve the kind of eloquence and beauty that I had forgotten rock is capable of.”
“Tapestry,” which won King four Grammy awards (though King was a no-show for the event), is the perfect antidote wedged between the angry ’60s and the consumerist ’80s. It fit with what David Collins, in “Contemporary Musicians,” claimed was “a post-psychedelic generation that yearned for songs with a more personal, acoustic sound and lyrics that reflected simpler values.” One of the best tracks on the album is King’s rendition of “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” nearly unrecognizable as the Shirelles’ thin early-’60s hit. King’s version is sad and sincere, with haunting echoes of the chorus slowly building to a viscerally charged crescendo, as if, in asking her lover, King is also asking her audience: Is this a lasting treasure or just a moment’s pleasure? Can I believe the magic of your sighs? Will you still love me tomorrow?
Likewise, her rendition of “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” is vastly different from the version made famous by Aretha Franklin. This is one of King’s strengths as both a songwriter and a solo artist, the ability to allow for various interpretations of her work while concurrently reinventing it herself. “I’m a songwriter first,” King said in an interview with Chuck Taylor, “have always been, and probably always will be. Making the demo is a natural product of writing a song; after that, I’m happy to hear other people do it in other ways.
To date, King has released more than 20 solo albums, though none
even came close to “Tapestry’s” pinnacle. In 1977 Rolling Stone even named “Simple Things” the worst album of the year. “Carole King Music,” which followed up “Tapestry,” was met with mediocre reviews, though it remained in Billboard’s No. 1 position for three weeks. “Anyone who failed to follow up an album that had sold 4 million copies with a very similar album would have to be either a fool or Bob Dylan,” Tim Crouse wrote in Rolling Stone. “Carole King is neither. There is no question about the validity of the content, only the validity of the style. Carole now has to choose between simplicity and complexity. The middle ground where she is now standing isn’t good enough for her and the sooner she moves on the better.”
With the emergence of groups who wrote their own material, there became less of a need for songwriters. In some ways, the movement was already losing steam when King moved to Laurel Canyon. A 1995 article in New Statesman and Society, written by Toby Manning, said, “The term ‘singer-songwriter’ tends to deliver street-cred death these days. For the post-punk music press of the 1980s the millions-grossing likes of James Taylor and Carole King were emblematic of everything that was wrong with the 1970s: blandness, hippy-drippy sentiments and self-indulgence.”
Still, Carole King is one of rock’s most valuable icons, a successful woman performer who both rejected the idea of feminism and embodied it. She and Gerry Goffin were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990; they were also given a Lifetime Achievement Award by the National Academy of Songwriters in 1987. Though “Tapestry” is still her biggest-selling album, King has managed to release albums occasionally since the late ’70s when she retreated from the spotlight for several years after her third husband, Rick Evers, died of a heroine overdose.
Living in Idaho with her fourth husband, rancher Richard Sorensen, King emerges from her shell in fits and starts. In 1988 she starred in the off-Broadway production “A Minor Incident,” and in 1994 she had a six-month stint as the lead in Broadway’s “Blood Brothers.” Her song “Now and Forever,” written for the 1992 film “A League of Their Own,” received an Oscar nomination. Last year she was featured on VH1′s “Rock Divas Live” concert, and for several years now, King has committed herself to the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act.
Throughout her career, King has eluded the press, offering only rare
tours or concerts and even rarer interviews and appearances. “She’s a songwriter and a recording artist,” Lou Adler told Rolling Stone after the release of “Carole King Music.” “That doesn’t necessarily have to make her a personality. It’s useless to have to explain your lifestyle in order to explain your music.” This may illustrate why King, neither wholly present nor wholly absent, will never fall into obscurity. Even today, mention Carole King to a teenager — someone born long after “Tapestry” — and the name may not be familiar. But sing a line or two, like “I feel the earth move under my feet, I feel the sky tumbling down,” or “You make me feel like a natural woman,” or “It’s too late, baby, now it’s too late, though we really did try to make it,” and she’ll sashay down the street, humming the familiar tune like it’s as true and timeless as the earth itself.
Rachel Louise Snyder is a Chicago writer whose work has appeared in Ms., Mademoiselle and the Chicago Tribune and will appear in the forthcoming anthology "Traveler's Tales: A Woman's World."More Rachel Louise Snyder.
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