Often we expect too much from our movie stars, favorite athletes, and music idols. The moving performance, the memorable song, the astounding athletic feat need a logical explanation. We have to know exactly how it was done, how the magic was made. We feel there must be a trick, a secret recipe for success. So we buy their books to discover just how they do that voodoo they do so well.
The impossibly talented songwriter Carole King, whose list of hit songs could reach to the moon and back, is an artist we’ve wanted to demystify for decades. How could a nice girl from Brooklyn not only infiltrate the male bastion of Tin Pan Alley while still in high school, but go on to write so many hits that she became the most successful female songwriter of all time? Where did the mega-platinum "Tapestry" album come from, the record-holder for longest charting album ever for a female artist? And what inspired those deeply personal, yet universal, songs of female empowerment? Details, details, please!
King's memoir Carole King: A Natural Woman provides plenty of details about what the sub-title promises, but if you’re hoping for a special backstage pass into her songwriting process, I’m afraid you’ll be left waiting at the stage door. While there is a lot of personal material in the book’s 450 pages, little is revealed about her art, the writing process that spawned so many memorable hits for herself and others: "Will You Love Me Tomorrow" for the Shirelles, "Up on the Roof" for the Drifters, "You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman" for Aretha Franklin, "Pleasant Valley Sunday" for the Monkees, "Go Away Little Girl" for Steve Lawrence and later Donny Osmond, "One Fine Day" for the Chiffons, "Take Good Care of My Baby" for Bobby Vee, and "You’ve Got a Friend" for James Taylor, among many others. And from her own classic "Tapestry" album: "I Feel the Earth Move," "It’s Too Late," and "So Far Away" still populate classic rock and coffee house radio playlists 40 years after they were conceived and recorded.
She was born Carol Joan Klein in 1942 in Manhattan, to a firefighter father and music teacher mother, who taught her precocious daughter (as well as most of the kids in the surrounding neighborhood) to play the piano soon after they relocated to Brooklyn. Carole (she took on the stage-name Carole King in her early teens, confident she’d soon need it) writes with great affection about growing up in a loving, supportive, and music-filled home. She claims to have already written a song (“Galloping”) at age 3, and was skipped two grades, from Kindergarten to second grade because “I had had developed such an exceptional facility with words and numbers” the teachers felt her intellectual curiosity needed stimulation.
A common practice in the 1940s, the grade skipping would force young Carol to cope with being viewed as a pipsqueak among her older peers. As her social life disappointed, music became her constant companion and increased her status at school. Soon she formed a pop singing group with ambitions of being the best at James Madison High School.
And after attending several of pioneering disc jockey Alan Freed’s live rock n’ roll shows at Manhattan’s Paramount Theatre, exposing Carole to stars like Jerry Lee Lewis, The Moonglows, Fats Domino, and Little Richard, she writes “ at that moment I knew I wanted to mean something to these people. I didn’t want to be one of them. I just wanted them to know who I was and consider me worthy of respect.” She noted that most of their songs were simply written and recorded. “The fact that a lot of the songs sounded as if they could have been written by a kid ... inspired me to think, if they can do it, maybe I can.” King determined that if only she could meet the famous disc jockey and play him her songs, she would be on her way.
Well she did, and she was. The determined little Brooklyn songstress, all of 15 years old, parlayed a brief meeting with the famous record spinner into appointments with some of New York’s top record labels where she showed up after school – textbooks still in hand – sat down at the piano, and belted out her best pop confections. She was signed at her second stop, ABC/Paramount Records, as a songwriter and performer. She would commute daily, after school, to Manhattan, to write and record her early efforts at pop stardom. They made nary a ripple on the charts, but she kept plugging away, strong on melody but admittedly weak on lyrics. Soon she’d meet her first true love who just happened to be a gifted lyricist, and as far as King was concerned, just dreamy.
King and Gerry Goffin would marry in 1959, have their first child, Louise, then a second, Sherry, while co-writing over 100 Top Forty hits together, before Goffin spiraled into mental illness after prodigious use of LSD in the mid-'60s. They divorced in 1968, after nine years of marriage, when King took her daughters and left the familiar NY environs for La-La-Land.
It was there that she’d be encouraged by the tight-knit singer/songwriter community flourishing in Laurel Canyon, to write and record her own, more personal songs, lyrics and all. “Tapestry” was the result, and the book really shines here, letting us feel a part of the intimate recording sessions at A&M studios, where a nervous and emotionally damaged artist was surrounded by the love and encouragement of a sensitive producer (Lou Adler of The Mamas & Papas fame) and musicians who were long-time friends of King’s. The album and its memorable songs stayed on the charts for six straight years, and you be hard pressed to find a home that doesn’t have it in its music collection.
After shaking off debilitating stage fright and touring the country with friend and superstar James Taylor in 1970 and '71, King married her long-time bass player, Charlie Larkey, and had two children with him, content to be a mother of four and yoga-practicing homebody, while writing, recording, and occasionally performing. Her 1972 song “Goodbye Don’t Mean I’m Gone” describes her life at that time.
But it’s all I can do to be a mother
My baby’s in one hand, I’ve a pen in the other
Married bliss was to be short-lived, however, as Charlie’s musical life and long absences took its toll on their relationship. They divorced, amicably, in 1975, but the failure of a second marriage threw King for a loop as she struggled to find her bearings.
She moved with the children to Malibu and started uncharacteristically “hanging out” with the pop star and celebrity crowd living at the upscale beach. At one such party, Don Henley of the Eagles introduced King to a dashing-looking “mountain man” from Idaho, Rick Evers. Though she was instantly smitten with the the tall, blonde stranger, she was even more intrigued with the idea of a rustic existence for herself and her children, far from the drug-hazed frivolity of the L.A. music crowd. For the next two years she built her life around him, bought him a truck, moved to Idaho, and purchased a ranch in the middle of nowhere. When he insinuated himself into every phase of her life and music, including demanding that she record his songs on her albums, she did it. When he started a fistfight backstage with members of her band during a concert, she forgave it. And when he began physically abusing King herself, she allowed it. But when it became obvious that Evers was abusing himself with drugs, she and the children slipped out of the house in the middle of the night and flew to Hawaii to escape his clutches. He died from a cocaine overdose just days later, at age 33.
A few years later she would marry another, much gentler mountain man, “Teepee Rick” Sorenson, and though happy together, her re-emergence into recording and touring and his desire to have no part of it led to their 1989 divorce. King has not remarried.
At the end of this fascinating, and, at times, rather shocking autobiography, the author recalls a recent performance of one of her favorite compositions. Perhaps it says, regretfully, all that King could not say to herself at the difficult moments of her life, when she needed it most. The song is “Beautiful.”
You’ve got to wake up every morning with a smile on your face
And show the world all the love in your heart
Then people gonna treat you better
You’re gonna find, yes, yes, you will
That you’re beautiful.... you’re beautiful
You’re beautiful as you feel.
John Kehe is the Monitor's design director.