Fifth Gershwin Prize Honoree: Carole King
Pop music as we know it would be far different without the many lasting contributions of Carole King, who is more than a half century into her singular career as a songwriter, performer, and author. Indeed, this universally renowned and beloved figure has rarely been more active than during the last five years.
King's late-career whirlwind began in November 2007, when she and longtime friend and sometime musical partner James Taylor returned to the Troubadour—the famed West Hollywood venue that had nurtured them as gifted young artists and soon-to-be critical and commercial sensations—for a three-night, six-show run to celebrate the venue's 50th anniversary. Those historic performances were documented in the Grammy-nominated, RIAA gold-certified Live at the Troubadour (Hear Music/Concord Music Group), featuring 15 songs and 75 minutes of video and audio, including intimate renditions of the pair's most beloved hits. The CD+DVD was released in May 2010.
This memorable event was the inspiration for the pair's 60-concert "Troubadour Reunion" world tour of 2010, which included three sold-out concerts at the Hollywood Bowl and another trio of sellouts at Madison Square Garden. During the tour, The Philadelphia Inquirer marveled that "King and Taylor managed to present an arena-size show that retained their music's innate craftsmanship, intimacy, and soul while adding vigor, muscle, and showmanship."
The Troubadour shows also inspired the Morgan Neville-directed feature-length documentary Troubadours: Carole King / James Taylor & The Rise of the Singer-Songwriter, which made its TV premiere in March 2011 on PBS' American Masters, shortly after being released on DVD by Hear Music/Concord Music Group. "When we sprang out of the box," King notes early in the film, "there was just all this generational turbulence, cultural turbulence, and there was a hunger for the intimacy, the personal thing that we did."
King's first-ever holiday album, A Holiday Carole, followed in November 2011. Produced by her daughter Louise Goffin, the album's 12 songs artfully blended the sacred and the secular with an eclectic mix of standards and newly-written material, and found King ringing in the season everywhere from The Today Show and Late Night With Jimmy Fallon to the Christmas at Rockefeller Center tree lighting.
The crowning glory of King's last half decade was the April 2012 release of her memoir, A Natural Woman—which prompted Vanity Fair to say, "America is having a Carole King moment." USA Today described the book as "candid [and] endearingly chatty… [with] more humor and joy than pathos," while the U.K.'s Independent hailed it as "intelligent, honest, self-effacing, well-written." In the pages of A Natural Woman, which King wrote completely on her own, she shares her incredible story from her beginnings in Brooklyn to her groundbreaking achievements as a songwriter, as well as her first major performances with Taylor and her long years of environmental and political activism. On publication, King's memoir instantly cracked the top 10 of The New York Times best-sellers list.
As a companion to Carole's life story, The Legendary Demos was released by Hear Music/Concord Records. A previously unreleased collection of 13 recordings featuring some of her most celebrated songs, including "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman," "It's Too Late," and "You've Got a Friend," the album traces King's journey from her days as a staff writer at Don Kirschner's Aldon Music in the early '60s—where she crafted hit after hit for other artists—to the dawn of her own triumphant solo career in the 1970s.
To paraphrase one of her songwriter contemporaries, King has traveled a long and winding road during her life in music. She wrote her first #1 hit at the tender age of 17, penning "Will You Love Me Tomorrow" for the Shirelles with then-husband Gerry Goffin. The dozens of chart hits Goffin and King wrote during this period have become part of music legend, including "Take Good Care of My Baby" and "Run to Him" (#1 and #2 hits for Bobby Vee in 1961), "Crying in the Rain" (The Everly Brothers, #6 in 1962), "The Loco-Motion" (Little Eva, #1 in 1962), "Up on the Roof" (The Drifters, #5 in 1962), "Chains" (The Cookies, #17 in 1962, The Beatles in 1963), "One Fine Day" (The Chiffons, #5 in 1963), "Hey Girl" ( Freddy Scott, #10 in 1963, also Bobby Vee and The Righteous Brothers), "I'm Into Something Good" (Herman's Hermits, #13 in 1964), "Just Once in My Life" (written with Phil Spector for The Righteous Brothers, #9 in 1965), and "Don't Bring Me Down" (The Animals, #12 in 1966).
In 1960, King made her solo record debut with a song called "Baby Sittin'," and two years later, her demo of "It Might As Well Rain Until September" made the Top 25 in the U.S., climbing all the way to #3 on the British charts. Lennon & McCartney were well aware of her work; they were quoted as saying that all they "ever wanted to be was like Goffin and King."
In the late '60s, soon after Goffin and King's "(You make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman" was immortalized by Aretha Franklin, Carole moved to Los Angeles with her daughters, Louise and Sherry, setting up house in Laurel Canyon and forming The City, who released one album, 1968's Now That Everything's Been Said. King released her first solo album, Writer, in 1970.
It was 1971's Tapestry that took King to the pinnacle, though. It spoke personally to every one of her contemporaries and provided the spiritual musical backdrop to the decade. While King was in the studio recording Tapestry, Taylor recorded King's "You've Got a Friend," taking the song all the way to #1.
In a first for a female writer/artist, Tapestry won all three of the key Grammy Awards—record, song and album of the year—as well as best female vocalist honors for King. With more than 25 million units sold, Tapestry remained the best-selling album by a female artist for a quarter century, and King went on to amass three other platinum and seven gold albums.
In 1987, King was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, and, a year later, Goffin and King were awarded the National Academy of Songwriters' Lifetime Achievement Award. In 1990, the duo was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and in 2002, King was honored with the prestigious Mercer Award from the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Two years later, Goffin and King received the Trustee Award from the Recording Academy.
In addition to her continuously evolving musical career, King, who has lived on an Idaho ranch since the early '80s, is actively involved with environmental organizations in support of forest wilderness preservation.
To date, more than 400 of her compositions have been recorded by over 1,000 artists, resulting in 100 hit singles. Now 70 and still full of life, Carole King is without question the most successful and revered female songwriter in pop music history.