It’s early February of a suddenly extremely new-feeling year, after four tumultuous ones when riots broke out, youngsters embraced a new technology and women shattered glass ceilings.
The year is 2021, right?
Nope. It’s 50 years ago: 1971. The new medium isn’t TikTok, but FM radio. The tumults are grave: the 1968 assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, the chaotic Democratic National Convention in Chicago that same year, and deaths at Altamont and Kent State in 1969 and ‘70. And in this case, the female breakout star is Carole King.
While King had already made her way as a composer of pop both jaunty (1962’s “The Loco-Motion”) and soulful (1962’s “Up On The Roof,” 1967’s “A Natural Woman” written with her then-husband Gerry Goffin), it was her album Tapestry, released Feb. 10, 1971, that revealed her to be a stunning, venerated purveyor of serious rock. Her visage on the album cover defined a new form of beautiful — natural and makeup-free — and rallied the counterculture FM generation. Tapestry was the most Grammy-winning album of 1971, just about the most successful album of the decade, and proof that women could rule rock’s formerly male-dominated world.
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A new road, a new start
Tapestry‘s success starts with a pivotal journey of King’s. In 1967 she moved, with two young daughters, to L.A.’s new young-rock mecca, Laurel Canyon, after divorcing Goffin. She fell in with a musical family of friends including James Taylor and poet Toni Stern (who wrote lyrics for “Where You Lead” and “It’s Too Late”). Her new, younger friends were intrigued with her professionalism, lack of artifice and earth-motherliness, a term just coming into use. “You’d go to Carole’s house and she was already making stuffed peppers for dinner … at 11 a.m,” said Betsy Asher, first wife of Peter Asher, the producer who discovered Taylor. “I think Carole was comforted and inspired by the freedom and the closeness she found with us — she blossomed,” her best friend Stephanie Fischbach told me. “She seemed happy. She told me this was the right life for her.” At 29, King was personifying the Dylan lyrics made famous by her Laurel Canyon neighbors the Byrds: “I was so much older then; I’m younger than that now.”
Carole King playing the piano in 1971 in Los Angeles. The four Grammy Awards she won for her album ‘Tapestry’ are visible on top of the piano.
From life to lyric
Except for Stern’s two tunes, the songs of Tapestry were entirely King’s solo compositions or co-composed with Goffin, whom she always credits.
They trace the course of a conventional young woman’s adjustment to the new life she has made, celebrating the integrity of improvised “families.” In the title song “Tapestry,” the narrator is a young woman looking back on an eventful past (“a tapestry of rich and royal hue”) and marveling at ephemeral new sensations (“a wondrous, woven magic … impossible to hold”).
“Home Again” makes the same point, if more worriedly, but “Way Over Yonder,” set to a deep-gospel melody, seems to say: Yes, a crew of renegades from dysfunctional traditional homes can create its own nurturing community! “You’ve Got a Friend” is a vow of loyalty. The arrangement King wrote for it opens it with the solemnity befitting a congregation’s favorite hymn. Fischbach says, “I think Carole wrote ‘You’ve Got a Friend’ for all of us.”
Striking gold with Tapestry
The album, recorded in less than two weeks, sold slowly at first; by June it sold a million copies, hitting No. 1 for 15 weeks, and its single “It’s Too Late” hit No. 1 for five weeks, followed by James Taylor’s No. 1 hit cover of “You’ve Got a Friend.” It stayed on Billboard‘s Top 100 for six years and sold 24 million copies.
King’s success made sense: There was a uniting quality to the album. It was hummed along to by working-class young marrieds pushing strollers and Ph.D.-laden back-to-the-landers, by teenage girls and their mothers. “There was hardly an under-30 soul in the Western hemisphere,” wrote The Washington Post‘s Alex Ward, “who couldn’t hum at least a few bars of ‘It’s Too Late.’”
King performing at the 2019 Global Citizen Festival: Power The Movement in Central Park in New York City.
A vibrant legacy, 50 years later
In 2021, few have forgotten. “My God — fifty years ago!” says Stern. “I think Tapestry‘s significance, after all these years, is that it’s still fresh, honest and sincere — still relevant from a musical standpoint. In a song that Carole and I wrote later, ‘Peace In the Valley,’ there’s a line, ‘I think I saw a brand new light coming over the horizon.’ I know Carole put that on her Instagram account. The album is about today — and yesterday.”
One song Stern wrote with King, “Where You Lead,” was criticized in the 1970s because the narrator tells her sweetheart, “I will follow/ Anywhere that you tell me to/ If you need, you need me to be with you.” “Too stand-by-your-man-ish,” says Stern. “But now I listen to it and — because of all the young women songwriters Carole has inspired and the feminist gains over the last 50 years — it’s taken on a new light for me. It’s about loyalty and strength and women saying, ‘Let’s go!'”
Perhaps most significant about Tapestry today is its sharp staying power with women fans, this month when the album turns 50 and King 79. She influenced not just musicians, but writers, and all women. Author Ann Hood (The Book That Matters Most) says, “Tapestry was the soundtrack to my high school and college years. I played it when I felt heartbroken, happy, disappointed or triumphant. That album was — is still — magic.” Adds Amy Ferris, author of Marrying George Clooney, “Her words dug down deep, her voice seemed friendly and familiar and her hair — just like mine — unruly, untamed. ‘Doesn’t anybody stay in one place anymore, it would be so fine to see your face at my door’ — she was singing to all of us who had broken hearts and, yes, needed a friend.”
For girls everywhere, Carole King became a savior. A half century later, she remains so.
Sheila Weller is the author of the best seller Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon — and the Journey of a Generation.