by Eleni P. Austin
Carole King recorded and released “Tapestry” in 1971. The landmark
effort stayed on the charts for over six years, becoming the best-selling album
of that era.
King first established a name for herself as a songwriter in the late fifties.
In partnership with then-husband Gerry Goffin, King began writing for publishers
Don Kirshner and Al Nevins.
Goffin & King set up shop in the infamous Brill Building. Working alongside
top tunesmiths like Neil Sedaka, Doc Pomus and Neil Diamond, Goffin & King scored
hits for everyone from Little Eva, the Drifters, Aretha Franklin and the Monkees.
Even the Beatles covered Goffin & King on their 1962 debut, “Please Please Me.”
“The Legendary Demos” present some of King’s best known songs in their
earliest incarnation. Traditionally, demo (or demonstration) recordings are stripped
down affairs, meant to be a basic reference guide for the performer.
But the revelation of King’s demos is that although they are in this embryonic state,
her versions are sometimes just as powerful as finished product from the artists who
recorded the songs.
“The Legendary Demos” opens with “Pleasant Valley Sunday.” A huge hit for the Monkees
at the height of their popularity, their version was a propulsive rocker that highlighted the
generation gap. In the demo context, King’s folky instrumentation belies the lyrics’ cutting social
commentary on suburban ennui.
On “Take Good Care Of My Baby,” King works out the exact same arrangement
that producers later used on the Bobby Vee hit. Her lilting piano arpeggios and tough & tender
vocals completely mirror the finished product.
Conversely, “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” lands somewhere between
Aretha Franklin’s gut-bucket soul and King’s later version from “Tapestry,” which
felt more intimate and confessional.
Six of the thirteen tracks here come from “Tapestry,” and even in this bare,
no-frills atmosphere they are a revelation.
The title track is stripped-down but powerful; plaintive and eloquent.
Truly a touchstone from the early 70s, the song fades out with a beautiful piano coda.
“It’s Too Late” feels resigned but resolute. It’s interesting how King’s vocalese
foreshadows the intricate instrumental solos on the studio recording.
The New Age-y pep talk lyrics of “Beautiful” are leavened by King’s
“Way Over Yonder” remains “Tapestry’s” most underrated track.
The simplicity of the demo spotlights the gravitas of the lyrics. King’s accompanying
piano goes from rollicking to spiritual to soulful in the span of three minutes.
A couple of the songs here may seem unfamiliar. Even in the demo
stage, “Like Little Children” has the down-home grit of a Stax recording.
Despite having been recorded by Irma Thomas, Gene Pitney and Cher,
“Yours Until Tomorrow” was never a hit. King’s demo is deep and dramatic, in
the sweeping style of the early sixties.
“Crying In The Rain” is really just a blueprint. King double tracks her
vocals but they can’t compare to the depth of the Everly Brothers’ fraternal harmonies.
The opposite is true of “Just Once In My Life.” King communicates the
urgency and emotion of Goffin’s lyrics. Also, her arrangement approximates both
the majesty of Phil Spector’s “Wall Of Sound” production and the complex blue-eyed
soul of the Righteous Brothers. It’s no surprise that the song was a top 10 hit for the Righteous
Brothers and Spector, following the phenomenal success of “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling.”
“The Legendary Demos” closes with “You’ve Got A Friend.”
Famously covered by James Taylor, this warmhearted paean to friendship also
nudged King from behind the scenes as a songwriter and launched her into
the stratosphere as a singer-songwriter.
Not unlike Bob Dylan’s “Basement Tapes,” “The Legendary Demos”
gives us a window into King’s creative process. It’s a rewarding journey.
by Eleni P. Austin