The Rise of Carole King: The Reluctant Performer

Carole King Tapestry cover

The story of how Carole King transformed from back-room songwriter to headline performer is a fascinating one especially as it came about after she was thrust into the limelight one night by James Taylor …

Carole King’s Tapestry is officially the thirty-sixth greatest album of all time, according to the two-hundred odd members of Rolling Stone Magazine’s voting panel. I’m not going to argue, having just bought a nice original copy on vinyl.**

And it’s not just me and a few muso-types saying that either. Lennon and McCartney were early fans of Carole King and her songwriting partnership with Gerry Goffin. It’s worth reminding ourselves of the songs that the Goffin-King partnership was responsible for writing:

  • The Loco-motion (Little Eva)
  • Up on the Roof (The Drifters)
  • Will You Love Me Tomorrow (The Shirelles)
  • Take Good Care of my Baby (Bobby Vee)
  • I’m Into Something Good (Herman’s Hermits)
  • Pleasant Valley Sunday (The Monkees)

As Mark Lewisohn says in his book “All These Years Vol 1: Tune In” “to John and Paul, especially, the composer credit Goffin-King would become nothing less than a trademark of quality, sufficient in itself to make them listen to or buy a record, and rarely were they disappointed.”

Early Beatles sets included many Goffin-King covers including “Chains”, “Keep Your Hands Off My Baby”, “The Loco-Motion”, “Don’t Ever Change”, “Sharing You”, “Take Good Care of my Baby”, and there are even witnesses who say John performed “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” with Paul and George on backing vocals. John Lennon summed things up neatly when, in 1971, he told The Trinidadian Express “When Paul and I first got together, we wanted to be the British Goffin and King”.

Goffin and King were part of the Brill Building network of songwriters in New York’s “Tin Pan Alley”. And, it appeared, King was happy to remain out of the limelight.

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Simon Napier-Bell went to the Brill Building as an aspiring song writer in 1966 and writes about it in his superb new book “Ta-Ra-Ra Boom De-Ay”. He saw “a floor on which every door had a six inch square window…like prison cells.” Napier-Bell wondered who “agrees to sit in a little sweatbox and slog away at writing songs in such an atmosphere?”

Their guide opened a door to reveal Neil Sedaka, and then another nearby to reveal Carole King. “It was unbelievable that the reward for having (written “Will You Love Me Tomorrow) was to be imprisoned eight hours a day” reflected Napier-Bell.

“It can be a bit of a nightmare sometimes” Carole admitted at the time.

However, my favourite story about Carole King tells the tale of the first time she sang one of her songs live before an audience and is described in her memoir, Carole King – A Natural Woman. It was all because of James Taylor, who was convinced King could be a solo performer and did what he could to make it happen….

King moved to Laurel Canyon in 1968, and met James Taylor for the first time at Peter Asher’s* house. Asher was preparing the sessions for Taylor’s 1969 LP Sweet Baby James which Asher produced. Asher asked King to play piano on the album and King and Taylor became friends. A year later, Asher asked King to join Taylor’s touring band for a handful of weekend shows.

One night on the tour, Taylor put the Drifter’s song “Up On The Roof” on his set list which Carole had, of course, co-written. Just before the show Taylor leaned across to King and said “I’d like you to sing lead on “Up On The Roof” tonight”.

King was just part of the band and had no desire to perform solo. “Don’t make me sing lead in front of all those people!” she protested and confessed “I was terrified”. But Taylor appeared to have planned the whole thing. “We’ll do it in your key” he whispered.

The moment came. Taylor introduced his band and then his piano player by telling the audience some of the songs she had co-written, to no little applause from the impressed audience. Taylor then declared “Ladies and Gentlemen: Carole King!”

King played the opening chord of “Up On The Roof”, to a rapt and astonished audience. No audience had ever heard King perform onstage before. Yet there she was singing one of popular music’s most well known and well loved songs, that she had written.

King describes how she looked up mid-song to see her bandmates smiling as she performed. The audience began to sing along to the last bridge and Carole King found she had unlocked something within her.

“When the song ended the audience clapped and cheered and wouldn’t stop”.

A magical moment…

King was still a reluctant performer, but agreed to open for James Taylor at the 300 capacity Troubadour club for a week in November 1970, prior to the release of Tapestry.

It was then just a small step to her very first headline appearance in front of thousands at New York’s Carnegie Hall – which was preserved forever on the live album Carole King: The Carnegie Hall Concert.

* There had been a brief “hello” when Taylor had been too shy to speak with King a year or so earlier, but this was their first proper meeting. Peter Asher was the brother of actress Jane Asher – who was Paul McCartney’s girlfriend in the ’60s.
** Very tempted not to hand Tapestry over.

Categories: Music

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2 replies

  1. “Peter Asher was the brother of actress Jane Asher – who was Paul McCartney’s girlfriend in the ’60s.”

    And one half of Peter and Gordon. .


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