Carole King is one of the great songwriters of history, penning countless classics during her career and earning herself a legacy that’s built to last the ages. She is one of America’s most successful 20th century female songwriters, being involved in 118 hits on the Billboard Hot 100, and charting 61 times in the UK between ’62 and ’05.
King was destined for great things from a young age – developing perfect pitch at the tender age of five. Whilst at college, King met Paul Simon with whom she made demo tapes with and eventually made her first official recording, the single ‘Right Girl’, in 1958. Songwriting, though, was more of a part time hobby for King at this point as she struggled to find success with any of her releases in the run up to 1960. All of that changed, however, when King wrote ‘Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow’ for doo-wop group, The Shirelles. The song went to number one and King was able to quit her day job and focus on her music career.
King’s early career saw her take more of a backseat; cowriting songs with her then husband, Gerry Goffin, for already established acts like The Ronettes, Ben E. King, and Aretha Franklin throughout the 1960s. King then dropped off the radar somewhat when her marriage fell apart and she was involved in a few projects that never really took off.
In 1970 King met James Taylor, whom she collaborated with on a number of songs with before deciding to release her first solo album, ‘Writer’. Taylor was a key factor in encouraging King to pursue her own solo project and featured heavily on her debut as well as ‘Tapestry’ himself. Although ‘Writer’ didn’t to that well commercially, it gave King a new drive to make more music.
King’s new found motivation yielded the main subject of this post, 1971’s ‘Tapestry’. The album would go down as her true masterpiece; featuring a number of hits, some old and some new but all performed by King for the first time. The album was recorded in Hollywood and features a number of well known musicians, including Joni Mitchell and the aforementioned James Taylor (who would go on to hit number one with his version of ‘You’ve Got a Friend’) as well as a number of session musicians. It was the subject of widespread critical acclaim, winning four Grammy Awards in 1972 and making King the first woman to win the Grammy for ‘record of the year’ and ‘song of the year’. The album performed well commercially as well, spending 15 weeks at the top of the Billboard Chart and has, to this day, sold over 14 million copies globally.
Musically, the album takes inspiration from the soulful sounds that were so popular in the ten years previous, with King’s vocal shining through. King showcases her incredible vocal dexterity throughout the album; her voice has a soft and comforting feel to it and seems to often act as the pillow on which the rest of the album rests. The instrumentation is pure soul, with the sound being largely guided by piano, drums and bass. There are also flashes of King’s blues and jazz inspiration; track 10 on the album, ‘Smackwater Jack’, for example, features a bluesy shuffle bass line with a guitar to match, while track six, ‘Way Over Yonder’ features a jazz-influenced saxophone solo.
The overall sound is full bodied, featuring orchestral instrumentation that give the sound an extra layer of complexity. The added layer is subtle enough, however, to leave the album with a generally stripped back and simple feel to it. For me, it’s the record’s most stripped back points that stand out for me; the album’s title track is an example of this and features King only, playing the keyboard and singing, while the closer ‘(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman’ takes a similar approach and features vastly reduced instrumentation, putting King’s voice at the heart of the track. Track nine, ‘Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?’ is, however, the record’s stand out track for me; it features gentle piano, Motown-inspired backing vocals and, most importantly, shows King’s voice at its peak. Despite being a previously released track, King gives it a whole new and simplistic feel, reimagining it in terms of production and making it her own beyond doubt.
Lyrically, the record is as heart felt as it is well performed. King touches on themes present in many people’s lives including those of love, loss and longing. Themes of this nature are present in almost all of soul music but it’s King’s brutal lyrical honesty that sets her above many of her contemporaries. Track seven, ‘You’ve Got a Friend’, features the line: “Winter , Spring, Summer or Fall/All you have to do is call” which lays bear how she feels about the relationship she’s singing about. Similarly, track two, ’So Far Away’ conveys the emotions felt when in a long distance relationship and features the line “Long ago I reached for you and there you stood/Holding you again could only do me good” which, again, shows king to have an innate ability to capture emotions in their most simple form. Early Soul music often capitalises on simplistic and emotive lyrics; they are part of what make Soul soulful, and King’s ability to hit the proverbial bullseye makes her, in my mind, one the greatest soul acts ever.
On the whole I think ‘Tapestry’ is a sublime record. It shows King at her most passionate, her most thoughtful and her most daring. Tracks like ‘(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman’ and ‘Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow’, for examplecould have been omitted, given that they had already been performed and owned by different artists, but King makes them hers beyond doubt. In many ways I think it’s these tracks that really go a long way to prove King to be a master of her craft, in that they show her ability to make something new out of something old. The standout on the album is its most primal feature; King’s soulful delivery of her emotive and honest lyric. It’s that, in a sentence that makes this album one of the best soul albums ever made.