Sunday, October 16, 2016

American Masters: Carole King (PBS-TV, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Two nights ago Charles and I watched a couple of music programs on KPBS. One was an American Masters episode about Carole King, the iconic singer-songwriter who began as a collaborator with her first husband Gerry Goffin (they married when he was 18, she was 17 and he had just got her pregnant), working out of the celebrated Brill Building for a company co-owned by Don Kirschner, the fabled producer and marketer later responsible for the Monkees, the Archies and the TV show Don Kirschner’s Rock Concert. The Brill Building in New York City had been the center of the fabled Tin Pan Alley in the 1910’s, 1920’s and 1930’s, and by the time Goffin and King — along with their lifetime friends Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, who wrote for some of the same artists and were fiercely competitive with Goffin and King in terms of who could place their songs with whom and how successful they’d be — got there the rules of the songwriting business were pretty much the same as when Irving Berlin, George Gershwin and others had tried to crack it decades earlier. The music business was ruled by publishers, who had the songwriters under contract and had them crank out songs in huge buildings, equipped with cubicles, each of which contained a piano and a couple of chairs. The publishers would pay the songwriters a regular salary and in return they would own all their material; then they would send out song pluggers to get musicians to perform and record their songs, and if all went well some of them would be hits and make the publishers huge amounts of money, which they might or (more usually) might not share with the actual songwriters. The standard royalty rules was that songwriter payments went half to the writer and half to the publisher, but there were plenty of ways unscrupulous publishers could get around that, either by putting their own names on as co-writers (as Irving Mills infamously did on most of Duke Ellington’s greatest hits from 1926 to 1939, when Ellington left Mills and set up his own publishing company) or by forcing the writers to accept lower royalties — or none at all, on the basis that they were already being compensated by the regular salaries they were getting from the publishers.

Also, publishers often arranged for the singers or bandleaders to take so-called “cut-in credits,” having their names put on a song as “co-composers” even if they’d had nothing to do with writing it so they’d get a steady income not only from their own record of a song but from anyone else who recorded it as well. Some stars, like Paul Whiteman and Frank Sinatra, found cut-in credits immoral and refused on principle to take them; others, like Bing Crosby and Elvis Presley, were notorious for refusing to record a song unless they got a cut-in. This system began to break down in the 1950’s because most of the early Black rock-’n’-rollers like Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Fats Domino wrote or co-wrote their own songs — the Tin Pan Alley old-timers really didn’t understand how to write for Black artists and white songwriters who could “write Black” like Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, Mann and Weil, and Goffin and King were much in demand — though most of the white rock artists still relied on other people’s songs. (The big exceptions were Carl Perkins and Buddy Holly, who not only wrote for themselves but wrote great songs that are still being performed today.) The system was blasted apart by the huge success of the Beatles, who not only wrote most of their own material (though their first, second and fourth albums each adhered to a ratio of eight originals to six covers, and one of their covers from their first album, Please Please Me, was King’s and Goffin’s “Chains”) but were affirmatively promoted by their manager, Brian Epstein, as doing so. The assumption that performers who did their own material did so only because they weren’t strong enough in the business to get the best songs from the publishers went out the window, and instead audiences, record companies, managers and promoters started assuming that performers who wrote their own songs were better, more complete artists than those who didn’t. (In the late 1980’s and 1990’s, thanks largely to the success of Whitney Houston, the pendulum started swinging back the other way and singing and songwriting were once more seen as separate skills — so non-singing songwriters like Diane Warren and Carole Bayer Sager could once again have major careers and make lots of money without having to perform their own material.)

Goffin and King remained together for about a decade and wrote some of the greatest hits and best songs of the period: Little Eva’s “Loco-Motion” (it was a song about a dance but when Goffin wrote the lyric no dance called the Loco-Motion existed; Little Eva, whom Goffin and King met when they hired her to baby-sit, had to invent one in a hurry when she went out on the road to support the record), the Chiffons’ “One Fine Day” (which Goffin and King recorded a backing track for, intending it for Little Eva; when she inexplicably turned it down they gave it to the Chiffons, and the Chiffons added their vocals over the original backing track — you can hear this because Carole King had recorded a hammering piano part for the breaks, which she wouldn’t have if the track had been intended for a vocal group instead of a solo singer because the group members could supply the fills vocally, so you hear the Chiffons singing their backups over King’s slam-bang piano chords), the Drifters’ “Up on the Roof,” Bobby Vee’s “Take Good Care of My Baby” (also covered by the Beatles, though only on their Decca audition tape — this show featured a TV clip of Vee singing it and, not surprisingly, the Beatles’ version is worlds better even though anyone listening to the Decca tape as a whole, which is O.K. but falls far short of what the Beatles did once EMI signed them, will probably think, “Gee, if this is what I’d had to go on, I wouldn’t have signed them either!”), “Halfway to Paradise” for Tony Orlando pre-Dawn (later covered beautifully by Nick Lowe), “I’m Into Something Good” for Herman’s Hermits, “Pleasant Valley Sunday” for the Monkees (the show is an attack on suburban conformity and it was written after Goffin and King had moved to the suburbs, which King loved — she saw them as a much better place than Manhattan to raise their two daughters — and Goffin hated, and made clear his hatred for in his lyric), “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” for Aretha Franklin, and a little-known and quite beautiful song called “Hi-De-Ho (That Old Sweet Roll),” which wasn’t recorded until 1970 by Blood, Sweat and Tears — two years after the marriage of Goffin and King came to an abrupt end. It seems he wanted to see other women and even asked King for permission (it doesn’t seem to have occurred to him to go the Joseph Smith, Jr. route and simply found a new religion where polygamy would be permitted), and the two of them moved with their two daughters, Louise and Sherry, to L.A. but bought separate houses there. King took up with some of the singer-songwriters beginning to emerge on the L.A. scene, including James Taylor and Joni Mitchell (both of whom sang uncredited backup parts on her commercial breakthrough as a performer, Tapestry), and started a band called The City with her second husband, bassist Charles Larkey, and Danny “Kootch” Kortchmar, long-time collaborator of James Taylor. The City’s one album, Now That Everything’s Been Said (1969) for Lou Adler’s Ode Records, flopped — it didn’t help that the terminally shy King was now willing to perform in the studio but was still petrified at the thought of playing live; it also didn’t help that Adler shifted the distribution of Ode from Columbia to A&M just after The City’s album was released — and so did King’s first solo album, Writer (1970).

Her second album, Tapestry (1971), was a different matter altogether; song after song on it — “I Feel the Earth Move,” “It’s Too Late,” “Beautiful,” “You’ve Got a Friend,” “Where You Lead” — became not only hits but enduring standards, and the album sold nine million copies, the best ever by a woman artist to that time. (The record for sales by a woman King broke had been held by Judy Garland for her Live at Carnegie Hall album.) James Taylor had the hit on “You’ve Got a Friend” but King didn’t mind — they had actually recorded it about the same time and she generously made a deal with him that whoever got their record out first would have the hit — and apparently King made a promotional film performing much of Tapestry in private, because there’s quite a lot of footage of her playing these beautiful songs at her piano at home, with Charles Larkey sitting down with his bass guitar on his lap and providing her only other accompaniment. She made one more great album after Tapestry, Carole King: Music, with the great rocker “Back to California” and a reworking of the Goffin-King song “Some Kind of Wonderful,” but after that her albums became increasingly repetitive as she decided that “mellow” would be her stock in trade — though occasionally she’d return to rock, notably with a Capitol release called Pearls: Songs of Goffin and King (1980), her own versions of the songs she and Goffin had written for other artists in the 1960’s. (King gave an interview with the release of Pearls saying that her working title for that album had been the comment a lot of people had had about those songs: “I Didn’t Know You Wrote … ”.) Along the way she ended up with a third husband, Rick Evers, with whom she moved to rural Idaho in 1977; Idaho stayed with her but Evers didn’t. It seems he beat her on a regular basis and he also took large amounts of drugs, and two days after King had had enough and told Evers she was leaving him, he did a major overdose of cocaine which at the time was announced as a fortuitous accident but on this show was presented as suicide. She stayed in Idaho and worked on a bill to protect much of the state from exploitation for its minerals (Idaho has a reputation as the most Right-wing state in the U.S. — it was home to Randy Weaver and his white-supremacist movement, it was the last state in the country to report a case of AIDS and according to the Human Rights Campaign, the only U.S. state that has no openly Queer elected official — so this has been an uphill battle); she’s also had a reputation for supporting, and doing benefits for, Democratic Presidential candidates from George McGovern to Hillary Clinton (in 2008).

King made her most recent comeback when Douglas McGrath got the idea to write a musical called Beautiful, which would be about the career of King and Gerry Goffin and would use their songs as the soundtrack. The people who first read McGrath’s book were disappointed that he stopped the story when Goffin and King split up and told him to expand the story at least to the recording and release of Tapestry. He did, and ended up with a sensational hit; Jessie Mueller won a Tony Award for her performance as the young Carole King and did a spectacular duet on “Beautiful” at the Tony Awards show with King herself. Carole King’s story is fascinating mostly because her songs are so beautiful and so enduring — though, like Burt Bacharach, King survived as a songwriter despite the poor quality of some of the early recordings of her songs. The show features a TV clip of the Shirelles singing “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?,” and confirms my impression of them as a mediocre group who became successes because whoever was picking their material got them a succession of incredible songs. (When I got the Supremes’ 25th Anniversary Retrospective two-CD set, which featured one disc of their hits and one of obscurities and previously unreleased tracks — including a great record from 1961 called “Those D.J. Shows” which should have made them stars three years before “Where Did Our Love Go?” actually did — one of the surprises was hearing the Supremes try to imitate the Shirelles even though they had much better voices than the Shirelles ever did.) One other aspect of the Carole King documentary is how much her music, like all blues, soul and rock, owes to Black Gospel music: it seems every time she sat at a piano, especially to write or record a mid-tempo or fast song, her fingers went to those same chords that had begun in the Black churches.