Born Carol Klein, Carole King was the most successful female songwriter of the second half of the 20th century in the U.S., writing more than 100 Billboard 100 hits. King grew up in New York, and attended Queens College, where she collaborated with other musicians of Jewish heritage; she recorded demos with Paul Simon, dated Neil Sedaka, and married Gerry Goffin.
The newly married Goffin and King wrote songs together at night, becoming professional songwriters when The Shirelles hit number one with ‘Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?’ They continued as hit-makers through the 1960s, writing a hit song for their babysitter (Little Eva’s ‘The Loco-Motion’), while King also flirted with a solo career, most notably with ‘It Might as Well Rain Until September’ in 1962.
In 1968 King and Goffin divorced, and King moved to Laurel Canyon. She formed The City with bassist Charles Larkey and guitarist Danny Kortchmarr, releasing one album, Now That Everything’s Been Said. In 1970, she released her first solo record, Writer, featuring James Taylor on guitar and backing vocals. After these two unsuccessful records, King hit pay-dirt with her second solo LP, Tapestry. Recorded at the peak of soft-rock and singer-songwriters in 1971, it was phenomenally successful, with King reinterpreting old standards like ‘Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?’ and writing new ones like ‘It’s Too Late’.
King continued to record solid albums and enjoy commercial success through most of the 1970s. No other artist with a successful, long-term career has as many of their best-loved songs clustered on one LP as King does with Tapestry, but it’s well worth exploring other 1970s records. On albums like the slick jazz-pop of 1974’s Wrap Around Joy and 1973’s social conscience Fantasy,King successfully deviated from the Tapestry template. I’ve covered through to 1975’s Thoroughbred, which is the end of an era; King’s last album on the Ode label, and her last with producer Lou Adler. After Thoroughbred, King relocated to Idaho and became involved in environmental issues, releasing albums with less frequency and less success.
Carole King was successful despite a singing voice that’s nasal and flavoured with a heavy New York accent. She’s a capable pianist and with her track record of hits, it’s impossible to denigrate her abilities as a writer of durable, effective songs. Contemporaries like Joni Mitchell and Laura Nyro made more ambitious records, but King’s radio friendly music is infused with musicality. It’s also notable that King achieved a blockbuster career in pop despite becoming a mother at the age of 18.
Carole King Album Reviews
Best Album: Tapestry
Overlooked Gem: Tapestry gets the attention, but albums like Fantasy, Wrap Around Joy, and Really Rosie are also worthwhile.
Writer | Tapestry | The Carnegie Hall Concert: June 18, 1971 | Music | Rhymes & Reasons | Fantasy | Wrap Around Joy | Really Rosie | Thoroughbred | Simple Things | Welcome Home | Touch the Sky | Pearls: Songs of Goffin and King | One to One | Speeding Time | City Streets | Colour of Your Dreams | Love Makes the World | A Holiday Carole
Now That Everything’s Been Said – The City
1968, not rated
Between her years as a songwriter with Gerry Goffin and her solo career, King recorded a one-off album with The City. She was joined by Danny Kortchmarr on guitar and her future husband Charles Larkey on bass – both would reappear on her subsequent solo records. I haven’t tracked this down, but opener ‘Snow Queen’ is one of my favourite King songs.
King’s debut album was released in 1970; she’d already written dozens of hits in a ten year career. Former husband Gerry Goffin is co-credited as a writer on all these tracks, indicating that she’d had them stored up for a few years. In structure, Writer is close to Tapestry; a couple of standards from King’s 1960s songbook alongside new material. But Writer is also stylistically not as settled as Tapestry – more diverse, despite the presence of soft-rock maestros like James Taylor and Danny Kortchmarr. The prominent swirling organ on some tracks is a 1960s remnant, while opener ‘Spaceship Races’ bursts out of the gate more vigorously than you’d expect from a 1970s Carole King record. The production is weaker than on her subsequent 1970s albums, recorded with Lou Adler.
The 1960s standards that King revisits include ‘No Easy Way Down’ and ‘Goin’ Back’, both already popularised by Dusty Springfield, while ‘Up On The Roof’ was recorded by The Drifters back in 1962. The mellow songs like ‘Goin’ Back’, ‘Eventually’, and ‘Child Of Mine’ are the most effective, which makes sense given the direction she’d later pursue. Still, it’s interesting to hear King play strait-laced country on ‘To Love’ and rock through ‘Spaceship Races’.
Writer is an uncertain but often fascinating record, a talented writer dabbling in different ideas before settling on her trademark soft-rock.
King recorded Tapestry simultaneously with James Taylor’s Mud Slide Slim – both albums shared musicians and both featured a version of King’s ‘You’ve Got A Friend’. At the height of the popularity singer-songwriters and soft-rock, Tapestry was phenomenally successful, King’s elegant, relatable songs were beloved. Her limited vocals work in her favour, making her work more approachable. Lou Adler’s production is also a huge step forward from Writer, and Adler would continue to produce King for the rest of the 1970s.
Indeed Tapestry is so jam-packed with King’s best-loved songs that it’s overshadowed her subsequent career. King re-interprets her 1960s compositions ‘(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman’ and ‘Will You Love Me Tomorrow?’ – in particular, her gentle reading of the latter is devastating. New hits ‘I Feel The Earth Move’ and ‘It’s Too Late’ are just as memorable, and songs like ‘So Far Away’, ‘Tapestry’, ‘Home Again’, and the gospel-tinged ‘Way Over Yonder’ are gentle and excellent album tracks. There are a lot of great songs and a couple of weak points – ‘Beautiful’ hasn’t dated well, while the upbeat shuffle of ‘Smackwater Jack’ is incongruous with the outlaw lyrics.
Carole King’s never matched the wall-to-wall song quality of Tapestry again, despite a lengthy solo career, and it’s the album that she’s remembered for.
The Carnegie Hall Concert: June 18, 1971
1971 (released 1996), 7.5/10
Usually it takes years of gigging before taking the stage at Carnegie Hall; amazingly, King made her live debut in Carnegie Hall in 1971. This album documents King’s first ever gig, in the wake of the success of Tapestry. King starts solo on piano, but is joined by Larkey, Kortchmarr, and eventually James Taylor. Unsurprisingly, the song selection leans heavily on Tapestry, but King also dips into her back catalogue, and ‘Snow Queen’ from The City’s 1968 record is a highlight. She also features two songs from the upcoming Music, stating that ‘Song of Long Ago’ was written under the heavy influence of James Taylor. ‘After All This Time’ was covered by backing vocalist Merry Clayton in 1971, but never appeared on a King album.
It’s not essential, but Carnegie Hall is an interesting live document – both of King’s first time on stage, and hearing her songs in less ornate arrangements than usual.
Tapestry was released in early 1971, and presumably there was record company pressure to get a sequel into stores in time for Christmas. Music was released in December 1971, and reportedly sold 1.3 million units in the US on the day of release. Sequel’s a good description of Music – it’s a very safe followup to Tapestry, using many of the same musicians, and the same mellow soft-rock sound. This places Music in a difficult position, as it’s merely a very good record, that lacks the knock-out classics of Tapestry.
Opening track ‘Brother, Brother’ breaks the most new ground for King – Bobbye Hall’s bed of percussion and the electric keyboards give the song different textures than anything on Tapestry. The rest of Music is classy soft-rock – ‘It’s Going To Take Some Time’ was also a hit for The Carpenters, while James Taylor duets with King on ‘Song of Long Ago’. ‘Too Much Rain’ is pretty and introspective with its acoustic guitar picking and piano.
Music is a very competent followup to Tapestry, but a composite twelve song album from the two would be dominated by songs from Tapestry.
Rhymes & Reasons
Rhymes & Reasons is a strange choice for a title given that another soft-rock star, John Denver, released an album with the same name in 1970. It’s sometimes regarded as Tapestry III, but it’s different in character without James Taylor and without dipping into King’s 1960s catalogue. Instead, it’s the mellowest album that King had released to date, centred on her piano – song titles like ‘Come Down Easy’ and ‘Peace in the Valley’ indicate a gentle listen. With no new elements to King’s sound, Rhymes & Reasons represents diminishing returns, a solidly written set of songs that are sometimes perfunctory.
Charles Larkey’s only co-writing credit in King’s catalogue is on the intimate, affecting ‘The First Day in August’. Otherwise, the best songs are clustered towards the end – the lead single ‘Been To Canaan’ is tuneful, if low key like the rest of the record, while ‘Ferguson Road’ has pretty piano work and a nice hook.
Rhymes & Reasons is a pleasant listen, but King wisely tackled a more ambitious project for her next record.
After a couple of formulaic records, King wrote a song cycle for Fantasy where the pieces segue into each other. While her previous work often used lyricists, usually either Gerry Goffin or Toni Stern, here King wrote all of the lyrics. Half of these songs are typical Carole King fare, and the other half are social commentary, not unlike Curtis Mayfield’s contemporary records. It’s not just the lyrics – the social commentary songs follow Mayfield musically as well, with R&B rhythms, horns, and tougher vocals from King.
Most confrontingly, ‘Haywood’ tells the story of a drug addict, and the segue into ‘A Quiet Place to Live’ is affecting. ‘Believe in Humanity’ is a hopeful and sincere closer. King uses Latin rhythms on ‘Corazón’; it’s atypical for King, but it works beautifully. There are still songs that would have fitted easily onto previous albums – ‘You Light Up My Life’ (thankfully not a cover) is as humble and pretty as anything in her catalogue with the lovely “you bought me faith, and hope, and love, and light” hook.
In terms of song-writing Fantasy isn’t necessarily more impressive than King’s previous two records, but its increased diversity and ambition makes it a more interesting listen.
Wrap Around Joy
In early 1974, Joni Mitchell released the jazz-flavoured Court and Spark, featuring Tom Scott’s L.A. Express. It’s reasonable to assume King took a few pointers, featuring Scott and a jazz-influenced, sophisticated sound on Wrap Around Joy. Jazz/pop works beautifully for King – her rhythm piano sounds terrific, and her melodies and vocals are confident. She’s augmented with backing vocalists, notably her daughters Louise and Sherry Goffin on ‘Nightingale’. King collaborated with lyricist David Palmer, best known for his stint as vocalist on Steely Dan’s Can’t Buy A Thrill.
The singles in particular are her most confident and memorable songs since Tapestry – ‘Jazzman’, written about Curtis Amy from the Ray Charles band, features Tom Scott’s saxophone solos, while ‘Nightingale’ is joyous and tuneful. There are memorable album tracks too, with propulsive choruses on ‘My Lovin’ Eyes’ and ‘You’re Something New’. There are traces of doo-wop on the title track, while ‘A Night This Side of Dying’ is dark and dramatic.
The confident jazz-pop of Wrap Around Joy is different in flavour from the home-spun vibe of Tapestry, but it’s King’s next best album, showcasing her melodic skills.
Maurice Sendak, best known for the children’s book Where The Wild Things Are, asked King to write music and perform the songs for an animated TV special based on several of his books. Like King, Sendak was from Brooklyn and of Jewish heritage. King also voiced the titular character, as the studio had trouble finding a child actor to match King’s singing voice.
A soundtrack album, featuring the seven songs from the TV special and some extra material. The soundtrack is the least ornate studio record of King’s career with minimal arrangements, and it’s just about a family affair, with King on piano and vocals, Larkey on bass, and Louise and Sherry Goffin on backing vocals, along with Andy Newmark on drums and occasional uncredited guitar.
Really Rosie is most memorable for the educational singalongs like ‘One Was Johnny’ and ‘Alligators All Around’, but hook-laden piano work and durable tunes abound. With Sendak’s lyrics, Really Rosie is clearly a children’s album, but it’s still very enjoyable. King’s clear, direct melodies and thin voice suit the project, and it’s one of her stronger 1970s records.
Even though it was recorded later than either, Thoroughbred is like the missing link between 1972’s Rhymes + Reasons and 1974’s Wrap Around Joy, melding the mellow, slight songs of the former with the sophisticated, jazzy sound of the latter. With the beach cover shot, there’s a hint on yacht rock about Thoroughbred, with the smooth rhythm section of Russ Kunkel and Leland Sklar.
Thoroughbred marked the end of an era, King’s last album with Lou Adler producing and her last record on the Ode label. Fittingly, several key players from King’s past reappear after a long absence – Gerry Goffin writes lyrics for four songs, while James Taylor sings harmonies on ‘There’s a Space Between Us.’ Charles Larkey’s gently exploratory bass, an important component of King’s 1970s records, had already been dispensed with.
Like Rhymes + Reasons, the short length of Thoroughbred perhaps indicates that King was short on inspiration this time around, but it’s helped by the more detailed arrangements. ‘High Out Of Time’ features Crosby and Nash on backing vocals, and it’s sophisticated and melodic. The mellow AM pop of ‘Ambrosia’, featuring Dave Palmer’s lyrics, is even better with some surprising emotional power in the pretty lead guitar and lyrics like “I need to be replenished/I need to overflow.”
Thoroughbred is a minor pleasure from Carole King’s 1970s catalogue, a mellow record with limited ambitions.
1977, not rated
After a string of successes, 1977’s Simple Things marked a change in King’s fortunes. It was her last album to go gold, and was savaged by Rolling Stone, who named it the worst of the year. King moved to Idaho in 1977 and became involved in environmental issues.
Ten Best Carole King Songs
Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?
It’s Too Late
So Far Away
I Feel The Earth Move
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