Written by Caitlin Vaughn Carlos
By the end of the sixties, Carole King had already proven herself as one of the most talented and important songwriters of the decade, but in 1971 her landmark second solo album, Tapestry, revealed her to be one of the greatest and most influential artists of all time.
Carole King was born Carol Joan Klein in Manhattan in 1942. She fell in love with the radio as a young child, and began writing and arranging music early on. At age 15 she told her father that she dreamed of playing her songs for the famed rock and roll DJ Alan Freed. As a New York firefighter, he was able to use his badge to get her into the radio station to meet Freed. In her autobiography, King writes:
“I don’t know if Alan really thought I had talent or if he was being nice to the fireman’s kid, but he listened attentively to my songs, and he even took time to explain how the process worked. He told me to look in the phone book under ‘Record Companies,’ make and appointment, and play my songs live for the A&R man in charge of finding artists and repertoire.”
That moment sealed her fate. Certainly, many popular songwriters begin writing and performing their own songs as teenagers, but few have the talent, insight and gumption to walk into Atlantic Records at age 15 and simply ask “Is anyone available to listen to my songs?” But with Alan Freed’s encouragement, that’s exactly what King did. As luck would have it, Jerry Wexler and Ahmet Ertegun (partners at Atlantic records) heard her talking to the receptionist and invited her in to play her songs. Although they didn’t offer her a record deal, they did encourage her to continue writing, and to come back when she had more songs to offer.
It was Don Costa at ABC-Paramount who would soon-after offer the young, teenage King her first recording contract. Although these first singles did not get her much attention as a performer, the experience got her into the recording studio and her songs into the ears of New York’s music publishers.
King was still only 17 when she wrote her first #1 hit, “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” (for the Shirelles) alongside her then-husband, lyricist Gerry Goffin. Together they wrote hit after hit including, “Take Good Care Of My Baby” (Bobby Vee, 1961), “The Loco-Motion” (Little Eva, 1962), “Up On The Roof” (The Drifters, 1962), “Chains” (The Cookies, 1962; The Beatles, 1963), “One Fine Day” (The Chiffons, 1963), “Hey Girl” (Freddie Scott, 1963), “I’m Into Something Good” (Herman’s Hermits, 1964), “Just Once In My Life” (The Righteous Brothers, 1965), and “Don’t Bring Me Down” (The Animals, 1966).
Their last song together was the incomparable “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” – brought to life by the Queen of Soul herself, Aretha Franklin. In her autobiography, King described the experience saying:
“Hearing Aretha’s performance of ‘Natural Woman’ for the first time, I experienced a rare speechless moment. To this day, I can’t convey how I felt in mere words. Anyone who had written a song in 1967 hoping it would be performed by a singer who could take it to the highest levels of excellence, emotional connection, and public exposure would surely have wanted that singer to be Aretha Franklin”.
The changing landscape of the music industry and the breakup of her marriage with Goffin in 1968, brought King and her two young daughters to California, where she found herself in the midst of Laurel Canyon’s now-legendary music scene.
It was in California, where King discovered her voice as both an individual songwriter and as a recording artist. Her first release was the album Now that Everything’s Been Said, with The City – a band she formed with Danny Kortchmar and future husband Charles Larkey. Her next album was her first solo album, entitled Writer (1970). During this time she also befriended James Taylor and went on tour with him. This tour proved to be a defining moment of her career, when before one of their concerts one night, Taylor turned to King and told her that he’d like her to perform (without a rehearsal) one of the songs from their set that she had written – “Up on the Roof.” That experience was a transformative moment in her life, as she later reflected:
“…James had given me a priceless gift. He set me up for a favorable reception from the audience. Jame’s introduction and choice of song had virtually guaranteed that I would be pre-loved. My inaugural experience as a lead performer was successful because of a thoughtful send-off from a generous, caring friend.”
Tapestry was written and recorded as King was discovering her voice as an independent songwriter and as a lead performer. It also is remarkable for the way it weaves together her past and present. The album is a mix of songs that she wrote early in her career and that were made famous by other people, songs that she co-wrote with a new, California writing partner (lyricist Toni Stern) and songs that she solo-wrote for the first time.
King self-covers two of her biggest sixties hits on Tapestry – “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” and “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”. In both instances, she reimagines the songs with her own personal authenticity and perspective. “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow”, a song about young teenage love, and co-written with her now ex-husband, takes on a completely different level of poignancy and meaning in her voice in 1971. Similarly, on “Natural Woman”, King takes a more intimate approach than we hear on Aretha’s version. King sits back into the groove and makes it completely her own.
Soon after moving to California, King reconnected with poet Toni Stern. She found the experience of working with a new lyricist freeing, as she discovered her own voice as a songwriter. King explained:
“Toni’s lyrics had an unmistakable meter. She expressed thoughts and emotions in a rhythm that pulsated under accented words. The lyrics she gave me always made the corresponding music flow into my brain and out of my voice and fingers.
After years of interpreting Gerry’s shouting suggestions and channeling his unique style of vocal expression to create the melody toward which he was leading me, I found Toni’s more subtle form of guidance somewhat liberating. Her quiet way of suggesting a melody direction encouraged me to try her ideas and explore more of my own.”
Together, Stern and King wrote the alluring “It’s Too Late” which won a Grammy for record of the year in 1971.
Stern also wrote the lyrics for the multi-generational, fan-favorite, “Where You Lead”. Stern’s original lyrics are clearly about a woman following the lead of her man, a concept that quickly became out-of-date as the seventies progressed. In 2004, King explained: “After I recorded it for the Tapestry album, we women decided that we didn’t actually need to follow our men anymore…But then it got a new lease on life.” That new chance came in 2000, when Amy Sherman Palladino asked to use it for a new TV show – The Gilmore Girls. For this new setting, King asked Stern to create revised lyrics to fit around the mother-daughter theme of the show. The changed meaning revitalized the song not only for King, but provided her with the opportunity to record with her daughter Louise Goffin.
While several of the songs on the album came from amazing collaborations, Tapestry is the first album to really showcase King’s voice as a solo songwriter. Songs penned by King alone include: “I Feel the Earth Move”, “So Far Away”, “Home Again”, “Beautiful”, “Way Over Yonder”, “You’ve Got a Friend” and “Tapestry”
Two of these songs are directly tied to King’s friendship with James Taylor. “So Far Away” was penned while she was on a college tour with Taylor promoting his album Sweet Baby James. Missing her daughters and new husband, Charles Larkey, she wrote the song, musically inspired by Taylor’s songwriting: “I was so inspired by James’ writing style that I began to incorporate it into my own songs. I had developed the skill of writing for other artists in the Aldon years. Though I wasn’t writing for James, it was his voice I heard in my head while I was writing ‘So Far Away.’”
According to Taylor, “You’ve Got a Friend” was written as a response to his song, “Fire and Rain”: “Carole King and I were playing the Troubadour in Los Angeles together. She had just written “You’ve Got a Friend,” which she later said was a response to “Fire and Rain.” The chorus to “Fire and Rain” is “I’ve seen lonely times when I could not find a friend.” Carole’s response was, “Here’s your friend.” As soon as I heard it, I wanted to play it.”
“You’ve Got A Friend” appeared on both Taylor’s Mudslide Slim and the Blue Horizon (1970) album and Tapestry. While Tapestry was dominating the album charts, Taylor’s version of the song was holding the number one spot on the singles charts. The song won two Grammys – “Best Pop Male Vocal Performance” for Taylor and “Song of the Year” for King. It is remarkable that the same song, recorded by two separate artists in the same year, resulted in such enormous success for the both of them, and is a testament to King’s incredible songwriting.
Tapestry contains several other solo-authored, phenomenal songs including the album’s opening track “I Feel the Earth Move”. In writing the song, King said: “I just read ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’ by Ernest Hemingway, and when they speak about the earth moving, it’s when they make love. And I figured, `All right, I’ll go with that.” King’s brilliant piano playing on the track brings out the song’s earth-rocking lyrics and the song has enjoyed well-deserved longevity. While producing the album, Lou Adler wanted to highlight King’s skills as a pianist and the feeling you get from hearing her play and sing:
“Carole’s piano playing on the demos dictated the arrangements. What I was trying to do was to re-create them in the sense of staying simple so that you could visualize the musicians that were playing the instruments and also tie Carole to the piano — so that you could visualize her sitting there, singing and playing the piano, so that it wasn’t “just the piano player,” it was Carole.”
From the opening track of “I Feel the Earth Move” to the album’s closing, with “Natural Woman” King’s piano playing and her singing are the showcase of the entire album. It is her independent voice – in every sense – that carries the album and captured the hearts of a generation.
Tapestry was released on February 10, 1971 and quickly dominated the charts. It held the number one spot on the Billboard 200 for an unbelievable 15 consecutive weeks. Further, it was listed on the Billboard 200 for 302 weeks consecutively from April 10, 1971 to January 15, 1977. It received four Grammys in 1972, including Album of the Year. “It’s Too Late” and “I Feel the Earth Move” both became number one singles.
50 years later, its legacy has held firm. In 2020, Rolling Stone listed the album number 25 on their list of the greatest 500 albums of all time. It is one of the few albums to be added to the National Recording Registry to be preserved in the Library Congress – an honor given to recordings deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically important.” It also cemented King’s legacy as a songwriter and performer. In 1987, Goffin and King were inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, and three years later, they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for their songwriting achievements. Just this year, 2021, King has been nominated to enter the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a solo artist.
Before Tapestry, King was already one of the greatest songwriters in American popular music history. With Tapestry, she found her voice as a solo songwriter and as a performer, and she shared that voice with the world. Tapestry was one of the most important albums to kick off the singer-songwriter movement in Los Angeles in the seventies, and has inspired generations of musicians since. It showcased a true marriage of intimate and personal performance with unparalleled songwriting. In 1971, Tapestry became the soundtrack of a generation, and remains one of the most important and influential albums of all time.
Check out the video below to learn more about Carole King and her unforgettable album, Tapestry!