The Life That Inspired "Beautiful: The Carole King Musical"
Carole King and Gerry Goffin, her husband and writing partner, didn't single-handedly compose the sound track to my adolescence, but it's hard to imagine coming-of-age without "Up On The Roof," "Natural Woman," and "The Lo-co Motion." King, born Carol Klein, in Manhattan in 1942, was barely out of adolescence herself when she and Goffin wrote these tunes. When King had her first number one hit, "Will You Love Me Tomorrow," recorded by the Shirelles in 1960, she was only eighteen. She was also married and a new mother.
If "A Natural Woman," King's memoir (just out in paperback) makes anything clear, it is that Carole King is not an underachiever. Drawn to the piano as soon as she could toddle to the instrument, she was raised by doting parents who told her she could accomplish anything. While she absorbed the prevailing 50s era view that a woman must first be a wife, mother and homemaker, she also knew from an early age that she wanted to have a successful career writing music.
King is first a musician. She wrote the music and others penned the lyrics for most of her hits. (It may surprise you to learn that hubby Goffin, not King, wrote the words to "Will You Love Me Tomorrow.") She worked on her memoir for over a decade, a process she likens to "herding cockroaches." "Memories scurried out of sight as soon as they came to light," she writes, "but I persevered."
The words "I persevered" could sum up King's life. Through any number of problematic relationships, as well as profound shifts in the nature of the music business itself, King kept doing what she did best, not only writing music, but finding collaborators who could express clearly what was in her heart, and, as luck would have it, in ours as well.
The heart of "A Natural Woman" chronicles King's early years as a hit maker, including the nuts and bolts of writing and recording songs, her encounters with famous folks like Aretha Franklin, Joni Mitchell and John Lennon, and the love and support she received from fellow musicians like James Taylor. King's writing is as straightforward, upbeat and honest as the artist herself, with the occasional delightful turn of phrase, like this description of a man who King thought of as a bad influence on her spouse: "my husband was inexorably drawn to Aronowitz as a boulder to the bottom of a lake."
King claims that she never sought stardom, or even a solo career. A collaborator at heart, she ended up creating "Tapestry," one of the best selling albums of all time, on her own because Goffin had left her, and she didn't perform as a solo artist until James Taylor, insisted, literally pushing her onto the stage. Not surprisingly, she found that she loved being there, and from then on her solo career flourished. Everything musical came naturally to King.
When it came to romance, however, King made some spectacularly bad choices. While she deserves credit for facing up to and writing about this with candor, it occasionally makes "A Natural Woman" tough to read. We all know how frustrating it is to see a smart, accomplished and seemingly together woman give her heart to a total loser. None of King's husbands or boyfriends seem worthy of her. But when she hooks up with a delusional jerk who lives in his van, then takes him home, lets him control every aspect of her life, and not only stays after he abuses her but actually marries the guy, it's hard to keep reading.
Ultimately, however, King achieves the goal she's set for herself, which is to "keep writing, recording and making a good living while enjoying a normal life." "A Natural Woman" shows her trying for, and for the most part, achieving this precious balance. She raises four children, moves to Idaho, teaches Yoga and becomes active politically. This could be the life of any woman of our generation. Except that this one composed mega-hits, wrote for Aretha, and jammed with James Taylor. And is now the subject of a hit Broadway show.
(This review first appeared on Womens Voices For Change.