John and Karen were our downstairs neighbors in the first apartment my wife and I shared. When John returned from some misadventure, often with me, Karen would let her feelings be known by blasting Carole King’s “It’s Too Late (Baby)” at varying volumes depending on the level of her ire.
In the early 1970s, Karen certainly wasn’t alone in using that song’s album, “Tapestry,” as a touchstone. It was ubiquitous, spending 15 weeks at #1 on the Billboard top 200, remaining on the charts for an astounding six years and eventually selling 25 million copies. But listeners who only know King from “Tapestry” missed out on a slew of chart toppers she composed with her husband Jerry Goffin a decade earlier. When I picked up King’s memoir, “A Natural Woman,” it was like catching up with an old friend.
From King’s discovery of Rock and Roll to marrying Goffin at age 17 and beginning their songwriting partnership, King’s memoir captures how she grew and helped a generation do the same. Goffin and King’s first hit, The Shirelles’ “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,” became the first song by an all-black girl group to reach number one. It reflected a maturity in its subject matter not previously found in pop music. Other hits soon followed, and unlike most of their contemporaries, Goffin and King did not fade away with the arrival of the British invasion; the Beatles, the Animals, Herman’s Hermits and Dusty Springfield all covered Goffin and King songs. The memoir relates how John Lennon, at the height of Beatlemania, was so intimidated upon first meeting King that he masked his insecurity with a rude remark. Years later, a mellower Lennon admitted his gaff and told her that he and Paul McCartney started out with the hope of being England’s answer to Goffin and King.
For all her success, King remained down to earth and uncomfortable in the spotlight. She writes that she was happy as a backup piano player in James Taylor’s band and content to chop wood, milk goats and homeschool her children in her remote Idaho homestead.
As strong as her musical instincts were, her choices in husbands were not as fortunate. She married four times, unions that were marred by emotional problems, drug use and physical abuse. Some of the friction in her marriages may have been because the men couldn’t measure up to the accomplishments of their wife.
In recent years, King has stayed busy composing for films and TV. Her memoir also highlights how she devotes herself to environmental causes, Democratic politics and the occasional acting gig. In 2010 she teamed up with James Taylor on The Troubadour Tour, recalling their collaborations in the early 1970s that defined the singer/songwriter movement. Countless tributes and awards have also come her way. Since Carole King published “A Natural Woman” in 2012, a Broadway musical based on her life and music, “Beautiful,” opened in 2014.
Any reader interested in the popular music of the 1960s and 1970s will enjoy this candid look into the life of one of the most successful recording artists of all time.
Reviewer Dan Bogey is a retired librarian from Bells Landing. He was director of the Clearfield County Public Library until 2016, and spent over 40 years working in libraries.
"Beautiful," the Carole King musical, is currently touring the country. The musical is playing at the Center for the Performing Arts at Penn State from February 19-24.