Photo: Jim McCrary/Redferns
For The Record: Inside The Historic Legacy Of Carole King's 'Tapestry' At 50
Fifty years ago, A&M Recording Studios in Los Angeles was buzzing. In Studio A, the popular group the Carpenters were recording their self-titled third album. Over in Studio C, the singer/songwriter Joni Mitchell was also laying down tracks. But it was in Studio B, with the lights down low and candles flickering, where a songwriter was crafting an iconic work that would indisputably change the course of music history.
The success of Tapestry seems like a given today, a ubiquitous part of the pop culture landscape. Even King's monumental career seems obvious, with a reputation and pedigree as the consummate singer/songwriter. At the 14th GRAMMY Awards, in 1972, King earned the distinction of becoming the first woman to win multiple GRAMMYs in the General Field, with Tapestry winning Album Of The Year and Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female as well as Song Of The Year ("You've Got A Friend") and Record Of The Year ("It's Too Late"); all three releases were later inducted into the GRAMMY Hall Of Fame, while King received the Recording Academy's Lifetime Achievement Award in 2013.
In addition to its critical acclaim, Tapestry was also a commercial behemoth, topping the Billboard albums chart in the U.S. and reaching diamond status in 1995; this week, the album was certified 13 times multiplatinum.
"Tapestry struck a chord with a whole new legion of fans, including me," former President Barack Obama remarked in 2013 when King received the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, becoming the first woman to win that honor. "It cemented Carole's status as one of the most influential singer/songwriters that America has ever seen."
To understand Tapestry's impact and King's triumph, you'd have to rewind the narrative. King's talents were on full display from an early age. The Brooklyn-born daughter of a piano-teacher mother, she was a music prodigy by 15, and by 17, she became a Brill Building powerhouse, penning the Shirelles' standard "Will You Love Me Tomorrow," the first No. 1 song by a Black girl group.
Alongside writing partner and former husband Gerry Goffin, King poured out songs. The Goffin-King discography eventually became the soundtrack of the '60s: the upbeat "Up on the Roof" for the Drifters, Little Eva's dance anthem "The Loco-Motion," the peppy "One Fine Day" for the Chiffons and Aretha Franklin's sparkling "(You Make Me Feel) Like a Natural Woman." It was a run so impressive, the Beatles, who once recorded the Goffin-King track "Chains," remarked at the time that they aimed to be the Goffin and King of the U.K.
"It's hard to describe," King once said, musing about the flow of creative inspiration. "If you ever worked on a story—typed it into a computer and watched the story come out of you—it's a similar thing. People who are creative in any way, sometimes that happens."
Young King's stunning list of achievements would have been more than enough for an already-astounding career. Besides, songwriters at the time—faceless names behind the scenes—rarely, if ever, made the transition to the stage as they were neither accepted nor welcome; the idea of a singer/songwriter was a foreign concept. However, once Goffin's and King's marriage dissolved, Carole packed her bags and moved from the East Coast to the Los Angeles enclave of Laurel Canyon, with two kids in tow. As fate would have it, she'd soon fall in with the likes of James Taylor, Joni Mitchell and a scene that was about to explode.
Still, King had both a disinterest and aversion to being in front of the mic. "There's always the concern they won't like you," she said in a 2006 interview of her original hesitancy. "You can write the song, but (at least) you're always at a safe distance from the artist." However, it was Taylor, then a new star, who King credits with her success as a performing artist. "I have James Taylor to thank for sort of nudging me out in front and teaching me by example that all you have to do is go out there to be yourself, sing the songs and everything will be fine," King once explained.
As a member of Taylor's backing band, she has a distinct memory of the night she performed a lone song at one of his shows when her view on performing was forever altered.
Around the same time of her change of heart, she was also suffering from the commercial failure of her first artist project as part of a band called the City, no doubt stymied in 1968 by King's reluctance to perform live. And while some may confuse Tapestry for her debut album, she officially debuted as a solo artist in 1970 with the aptly titled Writer, which featured covers of previously recorded Goffin-King tracks and boasted an otherwise muted cover with the sole dash of color from a rainbow.
The album, which peaked at No. 84 on the Billboard charts, came and went without much fanfare. Perhaps that's why when King set out to work on her follow-up, she felt free of pressure. She already stepped in front of a mic and survived. At worst, listeners were indifferent. What more was there to fear?
Inspired by the success of Taylor's much more successful 1970 album, Sweet Baby James, King began work on Tapestry, enlisting Lou Adler, a songwriter (Sam Cooke's "Wonderful World"), producer (the Mamas and the Papas' "California Dreamin'") and founder of King's record label, Ode Records, to produce the album.
"The first thing I envisioned with Carole is that she was a solo artist," Adler once said during an episode of the PBS series "American Masters" devoted to King. "You always felt she was sitting at the piano and singing to you." As a result, in the aforementioned dim of Studio B at A&M on La Brea just off Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, the atmosphere was meant to mimic the inviting aura of a living room.
The album's subsequent production was purposely sparse, which suited King, who was previously accustomed to recording demos anyway. "Records like Tapestry can be overproduced in a minute," Hank Cicalo, the album's engineer, explained. "'Oh, let's add more guitar,' or this and that. Lou and Carole wanted that simplicity. They wanted it to be nice and warm, and a very comfortable record for people to enjoy."
With that in mind, it's not hard to envision King in your living room, a piano in front of her, tapping away at the opening piano hook—not chords, but the single keys—of "I Feel the Earth Move," which appropriately heralded not only the beginning of a powerhouse album, but announced a new era. (It was inspired by a line in Ernest Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls that likened lovemaking to the Earth moving). The album's second track, "So Far Away," introduces itself similarly: a piano riff consisting of lone keys, only to be accented by an acoustic guitar, played by Taylor, and a bass. Later, drums and a fittingly distant flute appear.
By the time the album's third track kicks in, the aching, GRAMMY-winning "It's Too Late," which she wrote with Toni Stern, the listener is gifted with three astounding original songs in a row. It's a feat fitting for a greatest hits collection.
But therein lies the magic, and gravity, of Tapestry. "Home Again" and "Beautiful" both fit into that warm feeling Adler tried to concoct in the studio, the former an obvious allusion to that living room feel and the latter the namesake of the Tony-winning Broadway musical in which King's pop hits were transposed to wild success on the Great White Way.
"You've Got a Friend," the first track on the album's B-side, which Carole wrote in response to Taylor's "Fire and Rain" in which he sang, "I've seen lonely times when I could not find a friend," is an emotional epicenter for King. She initially employs the might of those single piano notes she favors with melancholy vocals when she mournfully sings, "When you're down," later crescendoing into the resounding proclamation of "I'll be there." King later said writing the song was so easy, it was one of the most incredible songwriting experiences of her life.
As for the rest of Tapestry, King takes a page from Writer and returns to her favorite songs written for other artists: Her first hit, "Will You Love Me Tomorrow?," now infused with sweet emotion, featured backing vocals from Mitchell and Taylor, while her version of "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman," remade all her own, serves as an understated companion piece to Aretha Franklin's beloved rendition.
"Tapestry changed my life," King said of its personal impact upon its release on Feb. 10, 1971, after taking three weeks to record the album with a $22,000 production budget. "In an immediate way, it gave me financial independence, which was really wonderful. Less immediate and in an ongoing way, it opened doors." She also separated its success from her life at the time: caring for two kids and expecting a third. "I buried myself in (motherhood) and kept fame and the whole thing around success at bay. And I think I did that successfully."
On a larger scale, Tapestry solidified the singer/songwriter genre and was a brick in the road to a decade, and soon generations, of artists both writing and performing personal songs, sounding like they were made by hand with lyrics so freshly handwritten you could still smell the pencil. A disparate list of cultural icons and works could have King and Tapestry to thank for paving the way, among them the career of the songwriter-turned-artist Barry Manilow to Taylor Swift albums like Folklore and Evermore.
Did Carole King know she had lightning in a bottle? Does she even know when she's writing a good song? "You like to think we do know, but you don't always," she explained in a 2012 interview. "We never know. It's a big, old, crazy thing."