When you talk about Carole King, you quickly run out of superlatives. She was the first woman to win the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song. She’s in both the Songwriters and Rock and Roll Halls of Fame. She’s won four Grammys and was a 2015 Kennedy Center Honoree. And that’s all before tabulating 118 Billboard Hot 100 hits that she’s written or co-written since the 1950s, making her one of the most successful songwriters in American history (not to mention that she wrote 61 tunes that were U.K. hits, too). All great artists have to start somewhere, and King broke in on the writing side 12 years before she released her first solo album, Writer. That album, released 50 years this week, paved the way for further, massive success, including the following year’s indisputable classic, Tapestry.
Carole King performing “One Fine Day” in 1981 (Uploaded to YouTube by ElectronicCinema)
Born Carole Klein, King would adopt her last name when she got into playing and recording music professionally in the 1950s. As a child, she demonstrated facility for music and scholarship very early on, beginning piano lessons at four and skipping elementary grades. As a student at Queens College, she met her future first husband and songwriting partner, Gerry Goffin; they married when King was 17. Goffin and King began turning out songs for others while working on King’s own music. Their first hit came in 1960, with “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?”; recorded by The Shirelles, it was the first #1 song for any black girl group. Throughout the 1960s, Goffin and King became incredibly successful songwriters, creating hits like “One Fine Day,” “Take Good Care of My Baby,” and, for Aretha Franklin, “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.”
King and Goffin divorced in 1968. That same year, she co-founded a band called The City, which lasted for one album. Living in Laurel Canyon, California, King became friends with other artists like James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, and Toni Stern, all of whom she would collaborate with in the years to follow. As King worked on her solo debut album, Writer, Taylor played acoustic guitar and sang back-up across the whole of the record.
Writer set a template that King would occasionally use on her subsequent albums. The record included wholly original songs, but also King’s version of a few songs that she had written with Goffin that had been previously recorded by other artists. These included “Child of Mine” and “Up on the Roof,” a Goffin/King tune that The Drifters had taken to the Top 5 in 1962. Though the album got positive notices, it was not a huge hit. It did, however, establish King as a performer in an industry where she’d been known as a behind-the-scenes talent. Her artistic breakthrough came the following year on Tapestry; its success put Writer onto the charts as well.
Tapestry sold over 10 million copies in the States and over 25 million around the world, and remained at #1 for 15 weeks in a row on its way to 302 consecutive weeks on the chart. It would eventually earn King four Grammys, sweeping the big categories (Album of the Year, Record of the Year for “It’s Too Late,” Song of the Year for “You’ve Got a Friend,”) as well as taking Best Female Pop Vocal Performance. The song “Where You Lead,” which was written by King and Stern, got an entirely new life in 2000 when King recorded an updated version with her oldest daughter, Louise Goffin, to be used as the theme for the TV show Gilmore Girls. “It’s Too Late” has been covered by more than a dozen artist and made Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. Both that tune and “I Feel the Earth Move” were recognized among the Recording Industry Association of America’s 365 Songs of the Century.
Over the years, King has continued to write, record, perform live, and even act. Her memoir, the title of which was A Natural Woman: A Memoir was a bestseller in 2012. Her life story was adapted into the Broadway musical Beautiful: The Carole King Musical in 2013. She’s been married four times; she and Goffin had two children, and she also had two children with her second husband, The City bassist Charles Larkey. Her daughter, Louise Goffin, produced King’s 2011 holiday album.
Today, King is regarded as one of the great American songwriters, having contributed an indelible legacy to popular music. She’s inspired countless women to follow her example by creating their own material and adapting it to suit the times. While Writer may not have the fame of Tapestry, it remains a crucial step in terms of King defining herself as a solo artist. It’s something of a hidden classic, waiting to be discovered by new generations or rediscovered by established fans. Her original musical question may have been “Will you still love me tomorrow?” but she supplied her own answer with a song in 1992; that was, appropriately enough, “Now and Forever.”
Featured image: lev radin / Shutterstock.com.
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