Consider that winter of 1971, at the A&M studios off Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles. Carole King, who had long viewed herself as primarily a tunesmith and “always enjoyed being a sideman,” set up shop in Studio B to record her second solo endeavour.
She was a name, but not yet a voice. The previous year’s album had created little noise, loitering at No. 84 on the charts.
Producer Lou Adler knew precisely what he wanted from King, with assists from her friends James Taylor and Joni Mitchell. “Make it simple,” he recalls 44 years later. “Tie her to the piano. Make it sound like she’s playing just for me. Accessible, vulnerable, personal.”
For the cover photo, nothing elaborate. King posed on the sunlit windowsill of her Laurel Canyon aerie, in jeans, her cat Telemachus near her bare feet.
“Tapestry” took three weeks to record, Adler notes, and soon “became the soundtrack to people’s lives.”
The album sold more than 25 million units. It cruised the charts for more than 300 weeks, perched at No. 1 for 15. “Tapestry” collected four Grammys, including for Record, Album and Song of the Year.
King, home with her third baby, didn’t attend the New York ceremonies. Later, she was photographed beaming, once again in jeans, clutching her haul like produce.
“Tapestry” was a watershed, yet King, who will be honored with rainbow-ribboned swag at the 2015 Kennedy Center Honors on Sunday, Dec. 6, had long before conquered the music industry.
Before she turned 30, King blew up twice, triumphing in two distinct yet interrelated chapters of her career, in radically different incarnations, seizing the musical moment to create indelible hits first for a cavalcade of artists, and then for herself.
She was the rare artist to make a successful transition from New York Brill Building-era gun for hire to accessible, vulnerable, personal California singer-songwriter.
As pedestrian jazz emanates from the Duchin Lounge, King, now 73, strolls barely noticed into the tony Sun Valley Lodge in Sun Valley. Petite, perhaps 5-foot-2, in black Skechers, she looks much as she does on the “Tapestry” album, although her nimbus of hair is now silver.
Never one to follow a script, the nice Jewish girl from Brooklyn, a fierce liberal and diehard Democrat, has lived in this fire-engine-red state for more than three decades.
Not simply, with outhouses and as an earth mother — although she tried that for a stint — but on a 128-acre Architectural Digest-worthy ranch in Custer County, whose motto is “We Are What America Used to Be.” It’s an hour north of Sun Valley, through the Sawtooth National Forest, and close to nothing except gobsmacking natural beauty and a serious number of elk.
The ranch is for sale, asking price $9.9 million, and has been “for a long time,” says King, settling into an overstuffed chair in a quiet second-floor room overlooking the lodge’s skating rink. Her home is the kind of place “that most people with money don’t want. They don’t like the isolation. I craved it.” Until the right buyer comes along, she says, “I’m so happy to be living there.”
Although not so happy to have outsiders visit. Deeply private and guarded with her time, King didn’t want to be interviewed at her home. In fact, she didn’t want to be interviewed at length at all.
That’s not surprising from the woman who once said of her solo-artist breakout, “I didn’t know what to do with the success. I didn’t want the problems that come with being famous, and I didn’t want my private life to be public.”
Gracious but removed, she will share, but only up to a point. Her 2012 memoir, “A Natural Woman,” is curiously candid (about her four marriages, the last two to mountain men, one a maker of sheepskin coats, another known as “Teepee Rick” for his lodging proclivities) yet thin on introspection about those choices and the creative process. She prefers that you know her through her songs.
And what songs.
In the 1960s, before “Tapestry,” before she was Carole of the Canyon, King and her first husband, Gerry Goffin, banged away at Broadway’s Aldon Music, penning songs for groups with high hair and syncopated dance moves.
Goffin and King were a factory of three-minute music sensations, producing hit after finger-snapping hit, more than 100 in all, recorded by almost everyone: the Shirelles (“Will You Love Me Tomorrow”), the Beatles (“Chains”), the Animals (“Don’t Bring Me Down”), Little Eva (“The Loco-Motion”), the Drifters (“Up on the Roof”), Aretha Franklin (“(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”), and many more.
Peter Asher, of the duo Peter and Gordon, became a fan while working with the Beatles. “Back in England then, American music was magical. We would get new records and study every word, looking at the little names in brackets,” says Asher, who later produced and managed James Taylor. “We didn’t know who the mysterious ‘Mr. King’ was, but so many great songs turned out to have that name on them.”
Consummate artist at work
“I sing or play piano every day,” King says of her musical regimen. “I’m not trying to write a song, or do anything for public consumption. It’s the way all of us musicians and composers start. Just us, and our instrument, and whatever force powers us. Often, it will be nothing known. I just sit down and something comes out, and it’s always very pure.”
But songwriting, she emphatically answers, is over. King had top-selling albums after “Tapestry,” but the extraordinary run of hits ended decades ago.
Instead, she’s writing a novel. “I had this creative energy left, and this story I wanted to tell, and I decided to tell it fictionally,” she says. “It’s going to be a woman’s journey, and the woman is not me. But she will have my worldview, and some experiences of my own will be incorporated.”
Those experiences started in Brooklyn, where she was born Carol Klein, adding the “e” later to distinguish herself from so many other Carols, adopting the King to appear less Jewish, a tendency of the times.
She did almost everything in life early. She skipped two grades. By high school, the gifted pianist was composing songs. At age 15, she sashayed into the Atlantic Records office of Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler in a poodle skirt, a pony tail and sneakers.
With no trepidation? “None!” she squeals.
Madly in love, King married Goffin at 17 and produced their first hit at 18 (the enduring “Will You Love Me Tomorrow”). He wrote the lyrics, she created the melodies and learned to arrange music on the fly.
“She was just too damn talented,” says friend and rival songwriter Cynthia Weil, one of the few other women penning hits in that era.
When I met her, she was this 16-year-old girl that you knew was going to make it.
“Just the way she talked, her confidence in herself really was great,” says Barry Mann, Weil’s songwriting partner and husband; they wrote their own constellation of hits, including “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” and “On Broadway.”
Goffin, however, was nobody’s dream of a husband, philandering and struggling with bipolar disorder, King writes in her memoir.
She divorced young, becoming a single mother of two by her mid-20s. She moved to Los Angeles just as the music scene was shifting coasts and styles and became a member of a new crop of female singer-songwriters in an industry dominated by men.
Although she was not without trepidation.
She thought she couldn’t write lyrics — that was Goffin’s gig.
She could write lyrics. More than half of “Tapestry’s” dozen tracks are hers alone, including “You’ve Got a Friend,” “So Far Away” and “I Feel the Earth Move.” James Taylor says that King has “a musical green thumb, just constantly creative.” And she shared, giving Taylor “You’ve Got a Friend,” which he released before her version. “A remarkably generous thing to do,” Taylor says. The song became a monster hit for him, one of his signatures.
King thought she wasn’t a solo performer. “I used to hate the sound of my voice,” she said in a 2012 interview, after being told that it was too hoarse, too thin. She was content to play keyboards and contribute harmonies as a member of Taylor’s band.
She could perform. Her voice, absent theatrics or gloss, resonated with audiences craving an authentic, intimate sound.
“I was inspired and broken through by James Taylor. He said, ‘No, you’re going on,’” she recalls of her first solo performance in 1970. “He was just so comfortable, and being himself. That was the key.” The fear immediately dissipated.
“As soon as she did, the reaction was huge,” says guitarist Danny Kortchmar, who played with King and Taylor. “People don’t understand what a consummate musician she is. She can write scores for strings, for orchestras.” He notes, “Carole has a very heavy-duty work ethic. She sits down. She doesn’t procrastinate. In an hour, she can make a song work.”
Renaissance for King
The Kennedy Center Honor arrives a quarter-century after King’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with Goffin, who died last year. She hasn’t been out much on the road since her Troubadour Tour with Taylor in 2010.
Yet the recognition comes during a kind of King renaissance, following the 2013 George Gershwin Prize (she was the first female recipient) and last year’s MusicCares Person of the Year for her philanthropic work, her signature project being protecting the Northern Rockies that are her home.
“I’m aware that I’m loved and appreciated. So when I step out on a stage, that’s a given,” she says, her voice raw, a scratch, still laced with Brooklyn. “But I only partly own it, because the other part of it is it’s my music that they love, that audiences love, and it’s what that music means to them and their lives.”
King is also the subject of the Tony-winning musical “Beautiful,” which centers on her New York career and her years with Goffin, with productions on Broadway, London’s West End and on tour.
It’s a show that she initially and vehemently opposed, walking out of a workshop “when Gerry says he wants to sleep with someone else.” The finished show depicts him consorting with two other women.
King informed her daughter and manager, Sherry Kondor, an executive producer, “I can tell you, with my professional hat, that this is going to be very good, but I want no part of it. I will never go see it. I will not go to opening night.”
She didn’t. But ultimately, she embraced the show, which also features Mann and Weil.
“I didn’t want it to be about me, but all about those people,” she says, unhappy with the spotlight solely on her. “Gerry doesn’t get enough credit,” something the show seeks to rectify.
She is happy to be honored for her songs, some more than half a century old and many having never withered out of favor. “Where You Lead” became the theme song of “The Gilmore Girls,” attracting a fresh crop of admirers.
“It’s now three generations of fans at the shows,” she says. “It’s not just women. You get husbands who are closet ‘Tapestry’ fans.”
She knocks a coffee table for good luck, hoping to acquire a fourth generation.
“When I say these things, it’s not with arrogance, it’s with the understanding that I’m a vehicle that makes people have feelings that they enjoy feeling,” she says.
“So, yeah!” she adds, offering a little jazz hands cheer. “I’ll gladly take the award.”
In 1967, in a single evening, in a room with red velvet wallpaper and matching drapes, King and Goffin composed a soaring anthem, a song of passion and fulfillment. The words were Goffin’s, but the label stuck to King for good.
“Carole’s the natural woman,” says Taylor, who is scheduled to perform at the honors. “She doesn’t get buffed up, a chrome-accented version of Carole. You get Carole.”
“She’s had some really tough times, but she’s indomitable,” he says. “She shines through it. She won’t be denied.”