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Music

Carole King’s progression from expert songwriter to top performer in ten songs

@TylerGolsen

The story of Carole King was one that was made for sappy biographical write-ups. The daughter of working-class Jewish New Yorkers, King developed an insatiable love for music at an early age, mastering the piano while playing along to doo-wop songs on the radio. A young woman with a startling intellect, King made it to college early and met Gerry Goffin, who she married at the age of 17.

Befriending Don Kirshner at the Brill Building, the epicentre for the music industry at the time, King and Goffin quickly rose through the ranks as their songs found major success on the pop charts. Versatile and assiduous, King began to drift away from Goffin and longed for her own success, eventually deciding to strike out on her own and put her voice at the forefront of her compositions.

You can see why King’s life was made into a Broadway musical. But even with all the background information, there’s still nothing like listening to the classic songs that King wrote and performed to get the best illustration of her genius. Her life story is in her songs, and those are the pieces of history that will be remembered forever.

We’ve outlined ten songs that chart King’s progression from young and impressionable piano player to top songwriter and world-famous performer. These are the songs that made Carole King the legend that she is today.

Carole King’s evolution in ten songs:

‘The Right Girl’

Carole King didn’t have a solid idea what path she was going to take at first. While she was willing to write for others, she had also recorded quite a few demos as a teenager and already had confidence in her own voice by 1958. ABC Records put out her first single, ‘The Right Girl’, in 1958, but the song failed to gain any kind of major success.

When King failed to find success as a singer, she didn’t give up on her music dreams. She simply moved behind the scenes.

‘Will You Love Me Tomorrow’

It’s almost inconceivable: a recently-hired 18-year-old with a young child who just quit college to be a songwriter full time brings in a song that is a smash hit. Even though she hadn’t found the success she was looking for as a singer, it didn’t take long for King to land her first number one hit when The Shirelles took ‘Will You Love Me Tomorrow’ to number one in early 1961.

King was also a part of chart history, as The Shirelles became the first Black girl group to land a number one song in America.

‘The Loco-Motion’

King and Goffin were on a roll by mid-1962, but they weren’t immune to the wild popularity of dance-craze music that was sweeping the country. It meant the two songwriters had a new task ahead of them.

The duo were popular songwriters first and foremost, and they weren’t above a little trendy silliness. So when ‘Mashed Potato Time’ singer Dee Dee Sharp didn’t want to rehash (sorry) that style, King’s and Goffin’s babysitter “Little Eva” Boyd stepped in, giving King and Goffin another number one song.

‘Chains’

Although they had notched a number of songs at number one in America, King and Goffin weren’t quite aware of the impact they had in Britain, or if they had any impact at all.

But, soon enough, upstart rock groups who had a strong appreciation for doo-wop and R&B picked up on their writing and began integrating their songs into their own repertoires, including a young group by the name of The Beatles, who included ‘Chains’ on their debut LP Please Please Me.

‘Up on the Roof’

With swift success also came trouble for the marriage of King and Goffin. Goffin began an affair with Jeanie Reavis, lead singer of the Cookies, and fathered a child with her in 1964. King, meanwhile, was longing for escape and recognition on her own.

Those feelings from both were channelled into a melancholic ballad that was quickly picked up by The Drifters, and ‘Up on the Roof’ wound up being one of the most enduring classics from the doo-wop era. It also subtly showed the cracks that were forming in the Goffin-King relationship.

‘(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman’

As Atlantic Records head Jerry Wexler sped away from the Goffin-King household after requesting a “Natural Woman” song for Aretha Franklin, King composed a song that, perhaps not for the first time, she felt that she could carry as well.

The song was always meant for Franklin, and no one would be able to better her earth-shaking performance. But the inklings for King to start reclaiming her own compositions were now in place, and soon she would begin to seriously consider going down her own path.

‘It Might As Well Rain Until September’

A rare opportunity landed in King’s lap in 1962: she often recorded demos of her own singing to show how the songs she and Goffin wrote were to sound, but when Bobby Vee decided not to release ‘It Might As Well Rain Until September’ as a single, King was asked by friend Don Kirshner if she wanted to release the demo as a solo single. She agreed, and the song landed just outside the top 20 in the US, giving King visibility as a singer for the first time.

Nearly a decade later, buoyed by years of successful pats on the back, King finally gained the confidence to commit to her singing career full time.

‘You’ve Got a Friend’

Carole King was so good at writing songs that even when she was no longer working as a professional songwriter, her songs were still being covered and taken on. King was working on both Tapestry and James Taylor’s Mud Slide Slim record when she wrote ‘You’ve Got a Friend’, and there was a mini-race to see who could record it first.

Taylor’s version wound up hitting number one in America, but even though Taylor won the battle, King and Tapestry wound up winning the artistic and commercial war.

‘It’s Too Late’

It took two decades, an artistic rebirth, and major album success, but with ‘It’s Too Late’, Carole King had finally achieved complete success on her own terms: a number one hit that was written and recorded exclusively for herself. Grammys and platinum records came pouring in, and King’s position as an unparalleled musical talent was finally getting the centre stage it had always deserved.

Perhaps the greatest testament to it all is that ‘It’s Too Late’ still has the same impact today as it did when it hit number one over 50 years ago.

‘Jazzman’

It would be tempting to call the Carole King story complete by Tapestry. It was clearly her peak, and the ultimate summation of nearly 15 years of hard work, sacrifice, and perseverance. But King kept putting out albums and singles well after Tapestry, something that certain Broadway musicals tend to ignore.

‘Jazzman’ was a number two hit, and in a way, it saw King come full circle. Now it was other writers, like former Steely Dan singer David Palmer in this case, who wanted to put their names on King’s hit songs.