10 Songs You Didn’t Know Carole King Wrote
Played back to back, Carole King‘s chart entries would run about five straight hours. And those are just her hits – not to mention album tracks, B sides, and the odd flop. King’s career as a songwriter is so expansive that it dwarfs even the monster sales figures of her classic 1971 solo juggernaut, Tapestry, which currently tops 25 million and counting.
Related: 100 Greatest Songwriters of All Time
King was a musical prodigy, selling melodies to New York City publishing companies while she was still in high school. In college she met Gerry Goffin, destined to be her lover and lyricist for the next decade. Though the marriage didn’t survive, their musical partnership weathered the shifting styles of the Sixties, yielding smashes for teen idols and rock bands, big-haired girl groups and big-voiced R&B legends.
King’s hits helped make her the most successful female songwriter — and certainly among the most influential songwriters, period — of the 20th century. King turned 75 on February 9th, 2017, so in honor of that milestone, we look beyond her immortal smashes like “You’ve Got a Friend” and “(You Make Me Feel Like) a Natural Woman” to spotlight 10 tracks you may not have known she had a hand in creating.
“Take Good Care of My Baby,” Bobby Vee (1961)
When Goffin and King's rhapsodic "Will You Love Me Tomorrow" elevated the Shirelles to Number One in late 1960 – making them the first all-female group to summit the charts – the songwriting newlyweds became a hot commodity practically overnight. But success didn't equal glamor, and the pair toiled away in a small room deep inside New York City's famed Aldon Music song factory at 1650 Broadway. King later described the miniscule office as a "little cubbyhole with just enough room for a piano, a bench, and maybe a chair if you were lucky. You'd sit there and write and you could hear someone in the next cubbyhole composing some song exactly like yours."
One bouncy melody stayed in their heads, but Goffin struggled to find suitable lyrics. Flummoxed, King showed the incomplete song to her cubbyhole neighbor Cynthia Weil, whose songwriting partnership with future husband Barry Mann would rival Goffin and King's for Sixties pop gold. Goffin's competitive streak took over when he learned of the meeting, and the key line finally came to him: "Take Good Care of My Baby."
A demo of the song, sung by King herself, found its way to producer Snuff Garrett, who was looking for material to suit Bobby Vee – a singer who had risen to prominence after filling in for Buddy Holly on tour after Holly's death. Garrett liked the song, but insisted that it needed a slow introductory verse. King was summoned to compose one instantaneously. "I'm sure I screamed and yelled," Garrett told author Ken Emerson in his book, Always Magic in the Air: The Bomp and Brilliance of the Brill Building Era. "And I remember Carole crying. I wanted to get a hit quick, right now, boom!"
He got his hit quick. "Take Good Care of My Baby" reached Number One in September 1961, staying in the position for three weeks.
“Chains”; The Cookies (1962), The Beatles (1963)
The Cookies were actually two distinct groups that shared a name and a single member, Dorothy Jones. After the original lineup scored a 1956 hit called "In Paradise," Jones' bandmates Darlene McCrea and Margie Hendricks were poached by Ray Charles to form the basis of his backup group, the Raelettes. Undeterred, Jones kept the Cookies name and built a new group around her cousin Margaret Ross and Darlene's younger sister Earl-Jean "Jeanie" McCrea. Together they played local gigs around their native Brooklyn, ultimately winning the prestigious Amateur Night at Harlem's Apollo Theater.
The trio was soon discovered by Goffin and King's Aldon Music neighbor, Neil Sedaka, who used them to record publishing demos and provide backing vocals on some of his own hits, including "Breaking Up Is Hard to Do," "The Dreamer," and "Bad Girl." Once they graduated to a contract of their own, the Cookies Mark II reached mainstream success with a Goffin and King number about a controlling boyfriend – or, in some liberal interpretations, S&M.
The irregular foot-stomping, hand-clapping rhythm of "Chains" made the song a midtempo dance-floor filler, sending it high up on the U.S. R&B charts, and also across the pond to Liverpool. It became a favorite of the Beatles, who briefly incorporated it into their early club-date set lists with George Harrison on the lead vocal. When the band hunkered down at EMI Studios to record the bulk of their debut album on February 11th, 1963, "Chains" was one of six cover songs to make the cut.
“The Loco-Motion”; Little Eva (1962), Grand Funk Railroad (1974), Kylie Minogue (1988)
Goffin and King gave the Cookies a hit song, but the Cookies gave them a babysitter – and in the early Sixties that was probably just as valuable to the overworked couple with two baby girls. Eva Narcissus Boyd had moved to New York from her native North Carolina with dreams of making it as a singer. She became friendly with the Cookies, auditioning for them by belting Goffin and King's "Will You Love Me Tomorrow." The performance earned her a spot as an "alternate Cookie," occasionally singing backup on their recording dates.
To help Boyd earn some extra income, the Cookies introduced her to Goffin and King, who hired her to look after their daughters Louise and Sherry for $35 a week. "When we were first talking to her about coming to babysit she might have mentioned that she sang in the church choir or something like that," King recalled in a 2003 interview with NPR. "And we said, 'Oh, you sing – cool! Sing something!' And she sang a little something and we thought, 'Oh, this is cool, she's got a really great voice. Make note to self.'"
By 1962, the pop charts had become inundated with an increasingly absurd list of dance-craze songs. Chief among them all was Chubby Checker's monster 1960 hit "The Twist," which trounced the copycat tunes it spawned to make an unprecedented repeat trip to the top of the charts that January. The achievement, unequaled to this day, sent denizens of the Brill Building rushing to their pianos to hammer out the latest dance record.
Goffin and King were no exception. Using Dee Dee Sharp's recent smash, a "Twist" clone called "Mashed Potato Time," as a blueprint, the pair penned a relentless tune called "The Loco-Motion." The original plan was to give the song to Sharp herself, so Boyd was asked to sing the demo version – backed by none other than the Cookies. While it remains unclear whether the song ever actually made its way to Sharp, Dimension Records founder (and music publishing titan) Don Kirshner liked Boyd's version enough to release it as a single under the name Little Eva.
The composers spruced up the demo with some instrumental embroidery, including a striking sax riff overheard at Bobby Darin's Copacabana Club set. "It fit perfectly," Goffin told author Ken Emerson. "We had that drumroll that sounded like an engine and then the horns that sounded like a railroad." The only thing they didn't have was a dance. Instead, they left it for the newly rechristened singer to improvise. "We invented the song and the concept that it would be a train-like movement, but she invented the dance," explains King. "She just did what she thought was the right movement and that became the Loco-Motion."
The song became Goffin and King's third Number One. It would top the charts again for Grand Funk Railroad in 1974, and reach Number Three for Kylie Minogue 14 years later.
“He Hit Me (and It Felt Like a Kiss),” The Crystals (1962)
In light of her later reputation as a beacon of female empowerment, it's jarring to realize that King had a hand in creating this notorious paean to abuse, which makes "Chains" scan like a feminist anthem by comparison. Even more troubling is that the song has its roots in reality. Eva Boyd arrived at Goffin and King's home one night covered in bruises after a visit with her boyfriend. The concerned couple questioned her, but, as King remembered in her 2012 memoir, "she sort of smiled before she went to her room, and she said, 'He really loves me.'" Boyd and her boyfriend would reportedly marry by the end of the year.
Disturbed and dumbfounded by Boyd's response, Goffin attempted to write lyrics that gave voice to a problem that didn't yet have a name.
"He was like, 'Really?' King explained in a 2012 interview with NPR. "It wasn't speaking for me, but it was something that Gerry wanted to write because he felt the same and [this] was his way of getting it out there. Maybe he had a little irony going in his mind because he was really intelligent. … So maybe that's why it got written."
Whatever irony might have been intended was lost in the song's chilling arrangement. In a macabre twist, "He Hit Me (and It Felt Like a Kiss)" was produced by future convicted murderer Phil Spector, who insisted the Crystals sing the song with utmost sincerity. The women had a hard time summoning the emotion. "That was weird for us," confirms La La Brooks of the Crystals in a 2011 issue of Mojo. "We were thrown aback by the song. I'm a teenager at the time. [Crystals singer] Barbara [Alston] was a little uneasy doing it. And I was trying to figure out the song and why Phil would record something like this. Barbara was so turned off because she was singing the lyrics and can't feel anything. So in the studio Phil was telling her, 'Don't be so relaxed on it.'"
"He Hit Me (and It Felt Like a Kiss)" was met with an immediate outcry when it was released that July. Few bought it, and many radio stations refused to play it after fielding angry calls from listeners. Spector, rarely one to back down, ultimately withdrew the single. Even as an album track on the Crystal's 1963 LP He's a Rebel, the song remained infamous.
Half a century later, King has an uneasy relationship with the title. "I wrote the music to 'He Hit Me (and It Felt Like A Kiss).' Obviously, I'm complicit in having written that song. I kind of wish I hadn't written any part of that song, but Gerry wrote that lyric. … And I think in some ways – I'm only speculating – that for some women that may be the only manifestation of what they perceive as love. And that's certainly true for the woman in that song. And you know, that's all wrong. So, again, that's one song I kind of wish I hadn't had any part of writing."
“Go Away Little Girl”; Steve Lawrence (1962), Donny Osmond (1971)
Lightweight? Maybe. Questionable, even? Potentially. But "Go Away Little Girl" became the first song to reach Number One twice by two different artists (to date only nine songs have accomplished the feat), so clearly it does something right. Originally earmarked as a single for Bobby Vee, Don Kirshner decided it would work better as a solo single for Steve Lawrence, famous for performing alongside his wife Eydie Gormé as the easily listening power duo Steve and Eydie.
A grown man crooning "Go Away Little Girl," might have raised some eyebrows – one New York Times columnist believed the titular girl was underage and denounced the song as "sick" – but Kirshner's instincts were right on the money and the tune was a winner. Ultimately, the lyrical content was probably better suited to Donny Osmond, the 13-year-old frontboy of the Osmonds. His solo version of "Go Away Little Girl" brought bubblegum sweetness to a generation of actual little girls who sent it to the top of the charts a second time.
“Up on the Roof,” The Drifters (1962)
Few songs in the Goffin-King canon match the sweeping cinematic grandeur of this ode to the most scenic of urban hideaways, perched atop a high-rise. The breezy Latin rhythm recalls the Drifters' earlier hit, "Save the Last Dance for Me," but Rudy Lewis' vocals soar even higher as he climbs the elegant melody to his secluded sanctuary.
Appropriately enough, the song was born among the rat-race noise of a crowded city street. "Carole came up with the melody in the car – an a cappella melody," Goffin told Ken Emerson. "I said, 'How about a place to be alone?' She says, 'My secret place.' So the song was originally called 'My Secret Place.' I said, 'No, that's no good. How about 'Up on the Roof'? It was imaginary – maybe something that I copped out of West Side Story." The film had won the Best Picture Oscar in early 1962, and the theatrical version played just down the street from Aldon Music at the Winter Garden ("I remember it was always there, blinking on the marquee," says Barry Mann).
A peaceful moment above the fray would have seemed like heaven to King – a young woman with two children and a demanding full-time job in a hit factory. The sophisticated arrangement was overseen in the studio by King herself, who was barely 20 years old at the time. "Carole used to hang in there with us tough," Drifters member Charlie Thomas told Emerson. "She used to pound down. She wasn't no hard woman – a girl, at her age. But she played the piano and it was amazing the songs she gave us."
The song remained a favorite of Gerry Goffin, who later ranked it among the best he ever wrote. King clearly felt similarly, including it as the closing track on her debut solo album, 1970's Writer. James Taylor, who played guitar on King's version, recorded his own Top 40 cover in 1979.
“I’m Into Something Good,” Herman’s Hermits (1964)
This instantly hummable piece of mid-Sixties ear candy was originally written as a solo vehicle for Cookies vocalist Earl-Jean "Jeanie" McCrea in 1964 – a surprising display of teamwork considering that Jeanie was pregnant with Goffin's child at the time. The affair had begun in earnest when the 25-year-old lyricist accompanied the Cookies on tour to oversee live production duties. "They were kids – practically teenagers," fellow songwriter Jack Keller told Girls Like Us author Sheila Weller. "Gerry was a kid, in the music business. And a guy may go on the road, producing, while his wife is home. You get what I mean? It's normal, everybody does it – it's no big deal."
At a time when mixed-race couples were still taboo, and even illegal in some parts of the country, Goffin relished his role as a social boundary breaker. He flaunted the illicit relationship and claimed paternity of the child immediately, making McCrea's own marriage uncomfortable. By many accounts, King was painfully aware of the situation and devastated by Goffin's brazen infidelity. Given the circumstances, it's unsurprising that King's melody for "I'm Into Something Good" is a comparatively unfussy variation on a standard 12-bar-blues progression. One can't help but wonder if she was secretly pleased that the song failed to set the charts on fire: It peaked at Number 38.
The tune had a second life later that year when British producer and pop impresario Mickie Most heard King's demo and licensed the song as a debut for the group Herman's Hermits, fronted by a 16-year-old JFK ringer and former soap-opera actor named Peter Noone. "On the record you can hear the enthusiasm of this band who believe that they were going to be heard on the radio," Noone said in a 2016 Songfacts interview. "When the record was on the radio, we thought we'd made it." They had made it: The song went to Number One in their native U.K., and cracked the Top 20 in the United States.
“Don’t Bring Me Down,” The Animals (1966)
The Beatles and their electrified British Invasion brethren heralded the beginning of the end for tunesmiths like Goffin and King, as more bands tried their hand at composing their own songs. Not so the Animals, whose breakout hit, 1964's "House of the Rising Sun," was an inventive reimagining of an old mining song popularized on the Greenwich Village folk scene by the highly influential Dave Van Ronk – and the exponentially more influential Bob Dylan.
After their self-penned follow-up, "I'm Crying," and a cover of Nina Simone's recent "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" failed to duplicate their previous success, their then-producer Mickie Most tapped the same New York songwriting pros who had been so helpful with Herman's Hermits. In a single 1965 phone call he snagged three future classics: "We've Gotta Get out of This Place," "It's My Life" and a pleading Goffin-King number called "Don't Bring Me Down."
The band resented having pop songs foisted upon them instead of their preferred R&B numbers – Burdon can be heard gently mocking "Take Good Care of My Baby" during a live recording of "The Story of Bo Diddley" – and set about giving the song a deliciously nasty makeover. Dave Rowberry's throbbing organ, Chas Chandler's ominous bass and Hilton Valentine's fuzzed-out guitar transform the song into something far removed from the majority of King's work.
Burdon claimed that for years he had no idea who was responsible for writing "Don't Bring Me Down," which cracked the Top 20 in the spring of 1966. "I didn't realize that it was a Goffin-King song until I was in a doctor's office in Beverly Hills and Ms. King came in and sat next to me," Burdon told Songfacts in 2010. "I didn't know it was her, I was just reading a magazine and she turned to me and said, 'You know, I hated what you did to my song.' I didn't know what to say, so all I said was, 'Well, sorry.' And then as she got up to go into the doctor's office, she turned around and said, 'But I got used to it.'"
“Porpoise Song (Theme From ‘Head’),” The Monkees (1968)
While the duo wrote nearly a dozen songs for revolutionary TV-music-performance project The Monkees – notably the 1967 single "Pleasant Valley Sunday" – Goffin generally regarded these products as inferior "throwaways." But by the time the television show began to wind down in 1968, producer Bob Rafelson approached the songwriters with a more interesting proposition: the soundtrack to the Monkees' feature length film, Head.
Non-sequitur and nonsensical, the film was a bid for serious countercultural acceptance from the exceptionally stoned minds of Rafelson and a young Jack Nicholson, who wrote the script by spit-balling into a tape recorder during a drug-fueled weekend spent with the band in Ojai, California. "It wasn't so much about the deconstruction of the Monkees, but it was using the deconstruction of the Monkees as metaphor for the deconstruction of the Hollywood film industry," Dolenz tried to explain years later.
While the plot may have been an almost secondary concern, hit tunes were still a necessity and Rafelson commissioned Goffin and King to write the film's theme song. By this point the musical team's marriage had imploded and they were residing separately in Los Angeles. "Carole King was living in an apartment building on Sunset Boulevard, and I went to her apartment every day, and we would sit and we would talk," Rafelson wrote in the liner notes to the Head soundtrack's reissue in 1994. "That song was critical to me."
Over gently undulating chords, King composed a meandering melody drawn equally from Eastern modes and Tin Pan Alley. The demo kicks off with her recitation of the Latin Mass of the Dead, a nod to the film's opening scene in which Dolenz leaps off the massive Gerald Desmond Bridge to his presumed demise. From there, she sings Goffin's words, an enigmatic psychedelic hodgepodge.
Goffin produced the song himself over six sessions in early 1968, calling upon 20 musicians – including a porpoise recorded especially for the occasion. The marine creature's trill blended with swooping strings, shimmering organ washes, woodwinds, horns and Dolenz's distorted vocals. The song is about as far removed from Bobby Vee as one could get, but it got the job done. "It is far and away my favorite Monkees song," enthused Rafelson.
“If It’s Over,” Mariah Carey (1991)
King's interest in Carey was piqued when she watched the young singer perform her debut single, "Vision of Love," on The Arsenio Hall Show in 1990. During sessions for her second album, Emotions, the following year, Carey was stunned to receive a telephone call from King, asking if she would be interested in recording her composition, "(You Make Me Feel Like) a Natural Woman." Aretha Franklin's 1967 original had gone on to become one of the most iconic recordings in R&B history, making it intimidating territory for any vocalist who might attempt it. Carey ultimately demurred because, as she later explained to New York, "Aretha's one of my idols and I felt what she did with the song was an untouchable performance."
Determined to work with the ascending star, King flew from her home in Idaho to New York City for a one-day writing session with Carey. "It was a true collaboration," King told USA Today of the meeting. "I'd come up with an idea. She'd come back with something else. In the end we came up with what we both think is a wonderful song. I love her voice. She's very expressive. She gives a lot of meaning to what she sings."
The result was "If It's Over," an epic slow burn gospel ballad for the ages. Traces of "Natural Woman" are clear in its sparse melody and laid-back rhythm, giving Carey ample room to showcase her five-octave voice. She would perform the song at the Grammys in 1992, as well during her MTV Unplugged set that year.
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