Author Interviews
3:24 am
Tue April 10, 2012

Carole King, From Doo-Wopper To Chart Topper

Originally published on Tue April 10, 2012 7:16 am

Carole King has an armful of Grammy Awards and countless Top 10 hits, both under her own name and as a songwriter for artists from Little Eva to the Monkees to Aretha Franklin.

Her solo album Tapestry spent 15 weeks at the top of the charts, becoming one of the biggest-selling records of all time. King managed to fit in all those hits by starting very, very young. She tells NPR's Renee Montagne that she was just 15 when she and some classmates formed a doo-wop group called the Co-Sines.

"We got the name off our math book," King says. The Co-Sines never made it big, but in just a few months, King was working as a professional songwriter, thanks to some advice from the famous disc jockey Alan Freed.

"He told me to ... open the phone book and look up record companies and get appointments and go play my stuff for them," King says. "And no, you can't do that anymore. At that time, the record industry was established, but record executives were actively looking for acts that would resonate with teenagers. And there weren't a lot of them out there, so the doors were wide open."

King tells the story about meeting Freed in her new book, A Natural Woman: A Memoir. Following Freed's advice, she wrote her first big hit at age 17, the Shirelles classic "Will You Love Me Tomorrow?"

That was the first song that King wrote with her collaborator and eventual husband Gerry Goffin. But their musical partnership — and also their teenage marriage — ended in the late 1960s, just as the center of the pop music universe was shifting from New York to Los Angeles.

King soon found herself in Laurel Canyon, surrounded by soon-to-be-famous singer-songwriters who became friends and collaborators — like James Taylor. King says it was Taylor who really pushed her to become a full-fledged performing artist.

"I was just with him on his little college tour the first year he went out," she says. "And James one night just said, 'You're going to perform 'Up on the Roof' tonight.' It was just a wonderful transition for me, from being really scared to realizing that the audience was with me, and it's because James had set me up for that."

King returned the favor by writing "You've Got a Friend," which became one of Taylor's biggest hits — though she says she didn't write it specifically for him. "He was in my mind," she says, "but that song just came through me."

"You've Got a Friend" is one of the tracks included on King's new record, The Legendary Demos, a collection of the original versions of some of her most famous songs.

Her writing process differs from song to song, she adds. "Sometimes I get a lyric, and the lyric, you know, comes off the page, and goes into my brain and comes out with a melody. Other times, I may create a melody first. Sometimes they come together when I'm the writer of both. 'You've Got a Friend' really just came out. I don't think I had to apply any craft, at least not that I was conscious of."

King recalls the creation of one particular song that did require a great deal of craft: "It's much later in my life, it's a song called "Love Makes the World," she says, which required her to work hip-hop into her style.

"It's not a combination you would think would work," she says. "But that is actually one of my most fun songs to perform. I just love it. It just makes me happy and it has a little groove to it and it's kind of sexy and it's got a good message: Love makes the world go round."

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Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Carole King has had lots of number one hits and won an armful of Grammys for her songs for artists, from Little Eva...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE LOCOMOTION")

LITTLE EVA: (Singing) Everybody's doing a brand-new dance now. Come on, baby. Do the locomotion.

MONTAGNE: ...to Aretha Franklin.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "(YOU MAKE ME FEEL) LIKE A NATURAL WOMAN")

ARETHA FRANKLIN: (Singing) You make me feel like a natural woman...

MONTAGNE: And then, already a famous songwriter, Carole King put out an album of her own, "Tapestry," and it became one of the biggest sellers of all time.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TOO LATE")

CAROLE KING: (Singing) And it's too late, baby. Now it's too late though we really did try to make it...

MONTAGNE: Carole King talked to us recently about her new memoir. One way she managed to fit in all those hits was by starting really, really young. She was just 15 when she put together a doo-wop group back in the late 1950s. She and her classmates called themselves the Co-Sines.

KING: We got the name off our math book.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MONTAGNE: But, you know, you already had this natural talent - except that it is pretty funny, some of the first songs you were coming up with. One was called "Leave, Steve."

KING: "Leave Skeeve." It was like - the thing went (Singing) Leave, Skeeve. Um doobie do-wop.

And it's like - that, in those days, constituted a song, I suppose.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MONTAGNE: But just a few months later, Carole King was professional songwriter.

You managed to get in to see Alan Freed, a really famous disc jockey. And he gave you - Alan Freed gave you a bit of advice that, as we know nowadays, would seem completely crazy 'cause you couldn't possibly do it. But what did he tell you?

KING: Well, he told me to, you know, open the phone book and look up record companies and get appointments, and go play my stuff for them. And no, you can't do that anymore. At that time, the record industry was established, but record executives were actively looking for acts that would resonate with teenagers. And there weren't a lot of them out there, so the doors were wide open.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WILL YOU STILL LOVE ME TOMORROW?")

THE SHIRELLES: (Singing) So tell me now and I won't ask again, will you still love me tomorrow?

MONTAGNE: Tell us about your first hit, which was for the girl group The Shirelles. You were only 17, right?

KING: Yes. "Will You Love Me Tomorrow" was the first big hit that I had with Gerry Goffin. We were two of many writers that Don Kirshner had, you know, working in the cubicles to write the next hit for whoever. And in this case, it was The Shirelles.

MONTAGNE: Carole King's musical partnership with lyricist Gerry Goffin, and also their teenaged marriage, ended in the late 1960s - just as the center of the pop music universe was shifting from New York to Los Angeles. King soon found herself in Laurel Canyon, surrounded by soon-to-be-famous singer-songwriters who became friends and collaborators.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UP ON THE ROOF")

JAMES TAYLOR: (Singing) When this old world starts-a getting me down, and people are just too much for me to face...

KING: James Taylor actually pushed me into being a full-fledged, full-blown performing artist. I was a sideman to James Taylor. I was just with him on his little college tour, the first year he went out. And James - one night - just said, you're going to perform "Up on the Roof" tonight. It was just a wonderful transition for me, from being really scared to realizing that the audience was with me, and it's because James had set me up for that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UP ON THE ROOF")

KING: (Singing) When this old world starts getting me down and people are just too much for me to face...

MONTAGNE: Carole King returned the favor by writing one of James Taylor's biggest hits.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU'VE GOT A FRIEND")

TAYLOR: (Singing) When you're down and troubled, and you need a helping hand....

MONTAGNE: Did you write "You've Got A Friend" for James Taylor?

KING: I did not. He was in my mind but I - it - that was - that song just came through me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU'VE GOT A FRIEND")

TAYLOR: (Singing) Close your eyes and think of me, and soon I will be there...

MONTAGNE: What is your process of writing?

KING: It's different for every song. Sometimes I get a lyric and I - the lyric, you know, comes off the page and goes into my brain, and comes out with a melody. Other times, I may create a melody first. Sometimes, they come together when I'm the writer of both. "You've Got a Friend" really just came out. I don't think I had to apply any craft - at least, not that I was conscious of.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU'VE GOT A FRIEND")

KING: (Singing) And I'll be there. You've got a friend...

MONTAGNE: Is there an example you could give, of a song that pulled in all that level of craft?

KING: I guess I can. It's much later in my life. It's a song called "Love Makes the World," which I wrote with Sam Hollander and Dave Schommer. They were in hip-hop world. And when I was writing with them, there was inspiration but there was also, how do we blend hip-hop with me? It's not a combination you would think would work. But that is actually one of my most fun songs to perform.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVE MAKES THE WORLD")

KING: (Singing) I can't stop believing love makes the world go round. As long as you're a part of me, nothing's going to take me down. Oh...

I just love it. It just makes me happy. And it has a little groove to it, and it's kind of sexy. And it's got a good message - love makes the world go round. Oh God, I wish.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MONTAGNE: Carole King, thank you very much for joining us.

KING: Thank you for having me. It's been pleasure to speak with you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "(YOU MAKE ME FEEL) LIKE A NATURAL WOMAN")

KING: (Singing) You make me feel, you make me feel, you make me feel like a natural woman...

MONTAGNE: Carole King's new memoir is called "Natural Woman." She also has a CD coming out containing the original demos that we've just heard, of some of her famous songs.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "(YOU MAKE ME FEEL) NATURAL WOMAN")

KING: (Singing) Oh, baby, what you done to me. What you done to me. You make me feel so good inside. Oh... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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