CSFTD#34: Carole King – You’ve Got a Friend

As Classic Song returns from its summer siesta this one is for Rosey T of Salford, an aspiring young musician. Like Holly Golightly, that’s not her real name. But she knows who she is, even if, like Holly, she’s not quite sure yet where she’s going.

The multi-award winning composer Carole King (born Carol Joan Klein in Manhattan in 1942), one of the most successful songwriters of all time, began writing with her husband, Gerry Goffin, in the 1960s, mainly for other artists.

After writing The Shirelles’ #1 hit ‘Will You Love Me Tomorrow,’ the first #1 recorded by a black girl group and Aretha Franklin’s classic ‘(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,’ (both of which later appeared on King’s album Tapestry) Goffin and King gave up their daytime jobs to concentrate on writing.

When she started to write for herself in the 1970s, aged 29, her songs were mostly for self-accompaniment on piano, as with today’s selection.

It wasn’t a case of ‘difficult second album’ for King; in fact quite the reverse. Her first one, Writer, was a commercial flop but the follow-up, Tapestry (1971), couldn’t have been more different becoming one of the best-selling albums ever and racking up estimated sales of 25 million worldwide out of a grand total of 75 million across 25 solo albums.

Tapestry received four Grammy Awards in 1972, including the most prestigious one of all, Album of the Year (they were the only Grammys she received in her career) and held the record for the most weeks at #1 by a female artist for more than 20 years. Tapestry went on to be ranked #36 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. You know, one day Rolling Stone will write about an album being #36 on Too Many Blogs’ list of the 500 greatest of all time but, for now, it’s a case of age before beauty.

Choosing a representative track from Tapestry was no easy task because others fared better commercially. The lead single for example, the double A-sided ‘It’s Too Late/I Feel the Earth Move,’ spent five weeks at #1  on the Billboard Hot 100 and Easy Listening charts but in the case of It’s Too Late King wasn’t the lyricist (neither was Goffin), which she was on You’ve Got a Friend. Also, some critics have described You’ve got a Friend as the ‘core’ of Tapestry.

Some argue that James Taylor’s version of You’ve Got a Friend is better. Taylor was a much bigger star than King and she actually opened for him at concerts in 1971. The two versions were recorded simultaneously, with shared musicians. Taylor’s version did get to #1 on Billboard and to #4 on the UK’s singles chart while King’s was never a hit as a single because it was never released as one.

So it won Best Male Pop Vocal Performance for Taylor, while King had to ‘make do’ with Song of the Year, an award she didn’t pick up because of inveterate stage fright, sending Tapestry’s producer, Lou Adler, to the Grammys instead. He had to call her to tell her she’d won.

Nevertheless, You’ve Got a Friend is a track I always associate first and foremost with King and it is the first that comes to mind when her name is mentioned.

King herself has said that “the song was as close to pure inspiration as I’ve ever experienced … (it)… wrote itself. It was written by something outside myself, through me.” According to Taylor, King told him that the song was a response to a line in Taylor’s earlier song Fire and Rain, and that “I’ve seen lonely times when I could not find a friend.” She denies that she wrote it specifically with Taylor in mind despite the fact that for Taylor the lyrics had particular resonance owing to the depression he had recovered from shortly before hearing King play the song.

Lyrical analysts have interpreted the song’s theme to include an expression of a universal sisterly-brotherly agape-type love of one human being for another, regardless of gender. Its reassuring lyrics have always made the song popular with lonely people needing a boost to their self-confidence, unlike Andrew Gold’s ‘Thank You for Being a Friend,’ which he described as a “little throwaway thing” that took him “about an hour to write.”

One of the qualities of the song is that it is written in, and moves between, both major and minor keys, bestowing on it a sympathetic mood. The melody and the lyrics appear to be self-sustaining and it is hard to believe that the album was made on a shoestring $15,000 budget with Lou Adler keeping production to a minimum.

Many other artists have recorded You’ve Got a Friend, including Dusty Springfield, Michael Jackson, Anne Murray, Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway, Aretha Franklin, as well as British artists Janine and McFly. It was also amongst a medley of songs played at Freddie Mercury’s funeral.

Tapestry was not only a huge seller but also very influential with future generations of singer-songwriters. It was an album she probably never bettered.

In 2000 Billboard named King the most successful female songwriter of 1955–99 because she wrote or co-wrote 118 pop hits that charted on the Hot 100. She wrote 61 hits that charted in the UK. In 2005 music historian Stuart Devoy found her to be the most successful female songwriter on the UK singles charts between 1952 and 2005.

King has been inducted into the both the Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She was named the 2013 recipient of the prestigious Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, the first woman to receive the distinction given to songwriters for a body of work.

She retired from musical performances in 2012 declaring that her 2010 Reunion show with Taylor at the Troubadour in West Hollywood had probably been her last but she later said she was misquoted and has since performed in Australia (2013) and at a Boston Marathon Bombings memorial event the same year, again with Taylor.

Then she surprisingly popped up at the BST Festival in Hyde Park just two months ago at the age of 74 as the headline act, and playing Tapestry in its entirety for the first time ever. A farewell concert at The Eagle? Who knows, stranger things happen at sea.

Fascinating fact of the day. Neil Sedaka, who dated King when he was in High School, wrote his famous 1959 hit ‘Oh! Carol.’ King’s husband and lyricist in the early days, Gerry Goffin, wrote a playful response ‘Oh! Neil’ for her and which was released as a single the same year but unsuccessfully. The B-side contained the Goffin-King song ‘A Very Special Boy.’ Could Sedaka have been the object of ‘You’ve Got a Friend?’

The fate of the cat is not known but it is believed no longer to be active in the business.

©D J Bentley, 2016