Arguably one of the most successful female performers in music history, Carole King began as a songwriter, penning such 1960s pop hits as "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow," "One Fine Day" and "Up on the Roof" with her husband, Gerry Goffin, before establishing herself as one of the leading voices of the singer-songwriter movement with her record-breaking 1971 album Tapestry. In both cases, King was an exceptional wordsmith whose beautiful melodies buffeted the passionate, confessional tone of her best material. The success of Tapestry led to a string of Top 10 albums, but the decline of the singer-songwriter in the late 1970s spelled the end of her days as a pop hitmaker. King would dabble in acting and songs for movie scores until the early 1990s, when she began to resurface through songs for Celine Dion, among others. In the new millennium, she revisited her '70s work for a generation of listeners who had grown up with her music via their parents' albums, which culminated in a top-grossing concert tour with her longtime friend, James Taylor. As both a songwriter and a singer, Carole King was a definite gold standard for artistic achievement in popular music.
Born Carol Klein in New York City on Feb. 9, 1942, Carol King was raised in Brooklyn, where she learned the piano at an early age. She fell deeply in love with rock-n-roll, which was still in its infancy during her adolescence, and began performing with a vocal group called the Co-Sines while still a student at James Madison High School. A preternaturally confident teenager, King believed that she could write pop songs that were as good, if not better than the material she heard on the radio or at the popular dances sponsored by DJ Alan Freed. She began traveling regularly to Manhattan, where she became a ubiquitous figure at the famed Brill Building, which housed some of the country's greatest music publishing companies. Her persistence paid off when she sold a handful of minor pop tunes, which gained her entrance into the Brill Building's cadre of songwriters. King continued to work on new material when she attended Queens College, where she met and befriended fellow aspiring singer-songwriters Paul Simon and Neil Diamond. For a period, she also dated classmate Neil Sedaka, who wrote his 1958 hit "Oh! Carol" about her. But in 1960, she met chemistry student and future husband Gerry Goffin when she was just 18. That same year, they began writing pop songs for Aldon Music, a music publishing company founded by Don Kirshner and Al Nevins.
In Goffin, King would find an ideal songwriting partner, one whose talent for lyrics was the perfect complement for her danceable but deceptively complex melodies. By day, the couple toiled at their day jobs - King was a secretary, while Goffin worked in a chemistry lab - and in the evening, they wrote pop songs. Almost immediately, they scored a huge hit with 1960's "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow" for the girl group the Shirelles. The plaintive ballad was the perfect showcase for King and Goffin's talents - a remarkably mature song about sex and the desire for lasting romance in its wake. Though its suggestive subject matter resulted in bans from several radio stations, "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow" shot to No. 1 on the Billboard singles charts - a first for a girl vocal group, and an astonishing debut for a newly minted songwriting team. By the following year, they had quit their day jobs to become two of the industry's most prolific hitmakers, penning what seemed like an endless list of Top 10 and Top 40 songs between 1961 and 1968.
A representative sampling of their work read like a roll call of some of the decade's greatest hits: Little Eva's "The Loco-Motion," which featured King on backing vocals and reached No. 1 in 1962; "One Fine Day" by the Chiffons; "Up on the Roof" by the Drifters; the Animals' gritty "Don't Bring Me Down;" "Pleasant Valley Sunday," which was inspired by Goffin and King's move from New York to the suburbs of New Jersey; and the stately, passionate "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman," which became a signature song for Aretha Franklin. One of their most unusual songs during this fecund period was "He Hit Me (It Felt Like a Kiss)," which the infamous Phil Spector produced for the Crystals in 1962. The song was inspired by Little Eva, who babysat for Goffin and King's daughters, Louise and Sherry. The teenager confessed that her boyfriend regularly beat her, but she endured the abuse because it proved that he truly loved her. The message, however, was lost on listeners, who believed that the song advocated violence, and protested, forcing the song to be pulled from circulation.
King never stopped trying to launch her own career as a singer during this period, but save for a minor 1962 hit with "It Might As Well Rain Until September," she found greater success as a songwriter. The British Invasion, in particular, drew great inspiration from Goffin-King songs, with such acts as the Beatles, Herman's Hermits and Dusty Springfield all mining hits from their catalog. As the decade drew to a close, King co-founded her own label, Tomorrow Records, with writer Al Aronowitz. Her marriage to Goffin ended in 1968, due in part to the industry's move away from their brand of streetwise, confessional pop. The label was almost immediately a flop, but it did introduce King to her second husband, Charles Larkey, whose band the Myddle Class was among Tomorrow's small stable of artists.
In 1968, King and her daughters relocated to California, where they settled into Los Angeles' Laurel Canyon neighborhood. There, she drew inspiration from its growing folk-rock scene, which had produced such late '60s superstars as Joni Mitchell and Crosby, Stills & Nash. That same year, she formed a band, The City, with Larkey and a New York-based guitarist named Danny Kortchmar. Together, they recorded the 1969 Now That Everything's Been Said, but the album was a flop, due in part to King's extreme stage fright, which made it impossible for the band to tour behind their work. Several of its songs would later be covered by the likes of the Byrds, Dusty Springfield, and Blood, Sweat & Tears. The following year, King released her solo debut, Writer (1970), which featured songs penned by King and Goffin, including a cover of "Up on the Roof," a Top Five hit for the Drifters in 1962. It too failed to make an impact on the charts, despite excellent reviews from Rolling Stone magazine. But Writer was a landmark in King's career because it marked her first recorded collaboration with Danny Kortchmar's childhood friend, James Taylor, who at the time was an up-and-coming songwriter attempting to carve out a career after a dismal debut on the Beatles' Apple Records and stints with drug abuse and mental illness. Taylor was one of King's most passionate performers, but who also encouraged her to sing her own material. To aid her with her stage fright, he frequently invited her to perform her own songs with his band at L.A.'s famed Troubadour club.
King marshaled her creative forces for her next album, which proved to be her starmaking effort as a singer. Tapestry, released in 1971, was a gentle, reflective album, with a track list of new songs and older material from her songwriting past, wrapped in the warmth and strength of King's imperfect but impassioned voice. Two of its singles, the ruminative "It's Too Late" and the funkier "I Feel the Earth Move," rose to No. 1 on both the pop and adult contemporary charts, with the album itself following suit on the Billboard 200 for 15 weeks - the longest residency at that position for a female artist in music history. It also provided a No. 1 single for Taylor, who released his version of "You've Got a Friend" the same year as Tapestry. The album would go on to win four Grammys, including Album of the Year, while Taylor's cover of "Friend" captured the Song of the Year Grammy. It would go on to sell 25 million copies worldwide, and have a significant influence on the growing singer-songwriter movement.
King's follow-up, Music, would hit shelves at the end of her extraordinary year in 1971, and while not as overwhelming a success as Tapestry, the record hit No. 1 on New Year's Day in 1972 and would remain there for the next three weeks on the strength of its hit single, "Sweet Seasons." There was a brief dip with 1972's Rhymes and Reasons (1972) and 1973's Fantasy, which reached No. 2 and No. 6, respectively, but King rebounded with Wrap Around Joy (1974), which became her third No. 1 album via the Top Five single "Jazzman." King also mounted her first national tour behind the album, which ran until 1975. That year, she teamed with celebrated children's author Maurice Sendak to provide the songs and music for "Really Rosie" (1975), an animated primetime special for CBS that became a beloved childhood memory for many young viewers who grew up during the decade.
King had continued to work sporadically with Goffin in the years following their divorce, but her 1976 album Thoroughbred would mark their first full-length collaboration since the late 1960s. The album, which rose to No. 6, featured an array of her celebrity admirers and friends, including Taylor, David Crosby, Graham Nash and J.D. Souther. However, it would be her last Top 10 album for the next three decades. Audience interest in the singer-songwriter sound had begun to wane at the end of the 1970s when disco was king, and her subsequent efforts of the decade, including 1977's Simple Things, failed to break the Top 40. There was a brief tour behind the record, and a 1977 marriage to songwriter Rick Evers, who died of a heroin overdose a year later. The downward spiral of King's career continued with both Welcome Home (1978) and Touch the Sky (1979), neither of which were unable to even break the Top 100. There was also an unflattering portrait of King in the 1978 film "American Hot Wax," which featured a gawky, overachieving character named "Teenage Louse," played by "Saturday Night Live" (NBC, 1975- ) veteran Laraine Newman. Her final chart hit for nearly three decades came with a new version of her 1963 single "One Fine Day," which appeared on Pearls (1980), a compilation of her work with Goffin.
King would record only sporadically throughout the 1980s, releasing just three albums between 1982 and 1989. Neither 1982's One on One or Speeding Time (1983) found many willing listeners, so King focused her energies on songs for motion picture soundtracks. Her best work in this area was 1985's Murphy's Romance, which featured a collaboration with saxophonist David Sanborn, though an official soundtrack was never released. The film, which starred James Garner and Sally Field, also marked King's debut as an actress, and she went on to tackle stage work in "Blood Brothers" and Neil Simon's "Brighton Beach Memoirs." After King and Goffin's rich history was paid proper tribute by their induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1987 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990, the end of the 20th century saw King return to songwriting with a renewed vigor, penning the Grammy-nominated song "Now and Forever" for "A League of Their Own" (1992) and teaming with Mariah Carey for the single "If It's Over" that same year.
In 1996, King's life and career served as the inspiration for Allison Anders' music industry drama "Grace of My Heart." Ileana Douglas played the ersatz King, an aspiring songwriter who endured professional triumphs and personal tragedies before finally recording her own album, a Tapestry soundalike. Several figures from King's history, including Goffin and Phil Spector, were also presented in thinly veiled depictions by Eric Stoltz and John Turturro, respectively. The real King, however, found herself in the early stages of a career revival, which began with "The Reason," a song she wrote for Celine Dion. A worldwide smash hit, she performed it with Dion on the first "VH1 Divas" (1998-2004, 2009- ) special, which also featured her duet with Dion, Gloria Estefan and Shania Twain on "You've Got a Friend." In 2000, King was introduced to a new generation of listeners via the WB drama "Gilmore Girls" (2000-07), which featured a new version of the Tapestry track "Where You Lead" performed by King and her daughter, Louise Goffin, as its theme song. King also made several appearances on the show as a music storeowner.
In 2001, she recorded Love Makes the World, her first album since 1989's City Streets. Released on her own label, Rockingale, it reached No. 20 on Billboard's Internet albums chart. Three years later, after she and Goffin received the Grammy Trustees Award, she launched The Living Room Tour, a national tour that saw King revisiting her greatest hits with only piano and guitar accompaniment. A live album, also titled The Living Room Tour rose to No. 17 on the Billboard albums chart, her highest placement there since 1977. With interest in her best work now at an all-time high, King played to increasingly large audiences across North American through 2006. A 2007 tour through Japan saw her on equal billing with two bonafide 21st century superstars, Mary J. Blige and Fergie from The Black Eyed Peas.
But the heights achieved by her solo tour did not begin to match the overwhelming response to her 2010 reunion with James Taylor to celebrate their first performance together at the Troubadour in 1970. A 2008 date at the club to mark its 50th anniversary was a surprise pleasure for both singers, and they soon launched the Troubadour Reunion Tour, which also featured Danny Kortchmar, bassist Leland Sklar and drummer Russ Kunkel, who served as Taylor's backing band in the Troubadour days. The tour was an unqualified success, amassing over $59 million in ticket sales, which made it one of the most successful live shows of the year, while a live album documenting their first reunion in 2008 called Live at the Troubadour rose to No. 4 on the Billboard charts. In 2011, King released A Holiday Carole, which featured seasonal standards and new songs co-written with her daughter, Louise, who also produced the record.
By Paul Gaita