The prolific singer-songwriter reflects on her past songs and the inspiration for her art, as described in her memoir, A Natural Woman.
Singer-songwriter Carole KingOriginally aired on May 15, 2012
Tavis: Pleased to welcome Carole King back to this program. Her legendary career in music is the subject of “The New York Times” best-selling memoir, “A Natural Woman.” In addition, she’s out with this terrific, and I do mean terrific, CD called “The Legendary Demos,” featuring never-before-heard recordings of many of her iconic songs. Carole King, good to have you back on this program.
Carole King: Why thank you, it’s always a pleasure.
Tavis: I love the packaging here. Bam. Isn’t that cool?
King: That was a very, very, very young woman. (Laughs) It’s a long time ago.
Tavis: Yeah. Do you recall – it’s a strange question – do you recall this stuff when you hear it? Do you remember?
King: Oh, I do, I do.
Tavis: The moment?
King: It takes me back. There was one song that we’ve actually been hearing a lot of feedback about, called “So Goes Love” that I don’t think was a big hit by any artists in particular, but I hear the demo today and I’m just stunned by how it sounds. It just puts me right back there.
Tavis: Strange question. Let me ask you to set your modesty aside for just a second.
King: I can do that. (Laughs)
Tavis: When you hear (laughs) – that’s funny. When you hear your demos, what do you think?
King: I’m glad you put it that way about the modesty, because it’s very difficult for me to evaluate my own stuff. When I hear it, I go, “How did that young woman know how to do that? How did she, which is now I, of course – you can hear in every track the artist for whom the demo was destined, the song was destined.
I just listen to that and I’m quite taken with that, but I’m so far removed from it that I don’t feel, like, immodest by saying that, but just sort of marveling that when I was young, I did that?
Tavis: Another strange question here – when you hear certain of these demos, to your point now, demos that you wrote for other people, obviously it’s your stuff, you can record it any time you want, but do you ever say to yourself, “I wish I’d held that one back?”
King: No, because it’s always a pleasure when somebody does record it. One of the fun things about – for example, “Natural Woman,” you hear my original version as presented to Aretha Franklin and her producers, and then I recorded it later on the “Tapestry” album, and you have my book there, the title is “A Natural Woman,” and there’s this whole chapter about a natural woman, and from the beginning through the end, to the end, to the end, and there’s really no end, because people keep recording it.
Tavis: Yeah, I guess that’s the best way to do a song.
King: You bet.
Tavis: That they keep recording over and over and over.
King: I’m so grateful. That’s one of the things I love about being a songwriter first, last and always, because whether I do it or not, if someone does a great job on it, my work is done. (Laughter)
Tavis: Let me go right inside the book. I was fascinated – for those of us who are fans of yours, there is so much to learn about the back story to Carole King. I assume you’re okay talking about it because you wrote about it. Let me put it as a question this way – how much of your success today has to do with your brother?
King: Interesting question. My brother was intellectually disabled and he left the home and went into a place where they could take better care of him. They were more specialized.
I felt the onus on me to be really excellent at everything to make up for what he couldn’t do, so it definitely informed my life and my career.
Tavis: That comes through pretty loud and clear at the beginning, that you felt like you needed to step your game up, but for a person who was as young as you were, that’s a lot of pressure to put on yourself.
King: Probably, but I didn’t see it as pressure. I just did it. Does that make sense? It was, like, I didn’t have the pressure, I’ve got to be great, I’ve got to be excellent. I just felt the drive to do that and consequently was.
It wasn’t like I have to do this or something might happen. It was just I want to be excellent in everything I do. Really, if my brother hadn’t had that condition I might have done that anyway, because I value excellence. I value it so much that I’ll cry when I see some pair of shoes that’s handcrafted by someone with love and art. I’ll weep because excellence means so much to me.
Tavis: How did that drive, that wanting to be because he couldn’t be, how’d that impact your relationship with your parents?
King: Boy, I hadn’t really thought about it. I think more with my dad. He was the boy, I was the girl, and so with the boy unable to achieve the things that most dads want their sons to achieve, I took it upon myself to achieve the things that sons achieve.
Again, not in a pressured way, but in the way that, like, being a girl or a woman later didn’t stop me from trying if there were things that I wanted to do and no woman had gone there before. It didn’t occur to me not to go there, but I wanted to learn things. Like I have an interest in baseball, which I shared with my dad. Making things, tools, I’m handy with tools if I want to be. So like that.
Tavis: How has your creative process, your songwriting process, most flourished? I ask that because every artist you talk to has certain conditions under which their best stuff comes out. For some it’s pressure, for some it’s angst, for some it’s anger, for some it’s – everybody has their own process.
Can you put your finger on the pulse of what motivates, what inspires your best stuff?
King: I think I’ve had a mix of all of those things. I’ve written songs from a place of frustration, anger. I know you and Dr. West work on the poverty issue; that’s something I completely find frustrating. So I might have in the past written a song about my frustration.
But I also write out of feeling good and warm and wonderful, and sometimes I write when I’m not thinking about what I’m going to write. Sometimes I just show up, and when I show up something magical happens and I step out of the way and let it come through me.
Tavis: One of the other characters in your book is the neighborhood that you grew up in. That comes through pretty clearly to me. How much of your neighborhood, your upbringing, your surroundings, had to do in any way, if at all, with ushering your gift?
King: Well, the first piece of furniture in my parents’ home was a piano, so it was there and I evidently have some sort of gift with it, so that was an opportunity. My parents were both supportive, exposed me to the arts, to music. I lived in New York City. I technically lived in Brooklyn with access to New York City, and my mother brought me to shows, Broadway shows.
So I think living in New York was a world of opportunity that maybe is not as readily available to others who grow up in more rural communities. That is not to say that that stops them. They just have to travel farther.
Tavis: Yeah. Bob Dylan was not born in New York City. (Laughs)
King: No, he wasn’t, but he showed up.
Tavis: Yeah, so it can work even in Duluth, Minnesota, I guess.
King: That’s right.
Tavis: But to your point about your mother exposing you to the arts, what impact do you think that had on your – I’m trying to figure out beyond that piano and maybe being exposed to the arts, what allowed you to tap into this gift? What were the conditions?
King: Just the exposure to great music of all kinds, first classical, then Broadway shows, then popular music, and then the music that Alan Freed brought into my teenage world, it kind of hit at the same time as me feeling the lower half of my body hit.
It was a good mix, and then I just wanted to get into that world. So really, if you expose me to it musically, it comes out.
Tavis: Yeah. When do you recall hearing words, lyrics, in your head?
King: After Gerry and I stopped writing – Gerry Goffin was my first husband, my first co-writer, wrote all those great hits that we wrote in the ’60s, he is often not credited. It’s very important to me that he be credited, because he not only wrote the lyrics, but he often drove the melody into where it needed to go.
But after Gerry and I were divorced, there was a period of time where I wasn’t writing with him, and I began to hear lyrics myself, and often they’d come out together with the music. Sometimes I would actually write a lyric first, but most often they came together.
Tavis: I was laughing in the book about how you used to sit in cubicles and write.
King: Yes, yes.
Tavis: How do two songwriters sit in different cubicles and work on music together?
King: Well, they’re basically writing the same song upside-down and sideways, and they don’t hear each other until one of them stops. (Laughter) Then you hear the song in the other room coming out at you.
Tavis: It made me laugh. It sounded like a weird way to write a song.
King: Well, it is, but we were fiercely competitive and that was where we had to write. Gerry and I also could write at home, as could Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, but we often came to the office and we had other stuff going on.
Then Don Kirshner, who passed away a couple of years ago and who I just inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he would say, “Okay, we gotta get that next,” fill in the blank, Drifters, whatever, record.
We’d all go into the cubicles immediately, trying to deliver that song and compete for the one that Donny was going to show to the artist. “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” was the one that we were chosen for.
Tavis: Let me back up. Again, there’s so much in this book that I –
King: It’s a long life.
Tavis: It is a long life, and hopefully one that’s not anywhere near being over yet.
King: Oh, thank God, I hope so.
Tavis: Yeah, yeah. Let me just jump back, though, because you said something now that made me remember. One of the stories I loved in the book is the way that you hustled your way – I was hesitating about whether I wanted to use that word.
King: In the good sense.
Tavis: In a good sense, yeah, but you did. The way you really bust your behind and hustled your way into making them sign you. You first have a meeting with Ahmet Ertegun. I’ll let you tell the story about how you got that first contract.
King: Well, the first meeting, I just went through the phone book, per the advice of Allan Freed, and got to Atlantic, just walked in off the street, and Jerry and Ahmet in those days, Jerry Wexler and Ahmet Ertegun, were eager to see new talent anywhere they could find it.
So a teenage girl off the street? Okay, why not? They had a piano, and I played the piano, and they didn’t sign me. They liked what they heard, they said come back.
Tavis: (Unintelligible) they didn’t sign you. I’m just impressed, though, that you went to the phone book and got a meeting with Jerry Wexler and Ahmet Ertegun.
King: Oh. But they were –
Tavis: I mean, who does that nowadays?
King: Well, nobody does, and everything’s corporate. But this was a company that were these three or four people, and Jerry and Ahmet were seeing people, and it was their joy. They went – I write about it in the book.
They’d go to bars, they’d go to churches, they’d go wherever music was, all over the country, and they found people like Solomon Burke and Ray Charles and Ruth Brown and Lavern Baker, Mickey Guitar Baker – no relation. But they found these people, and so they were open to it. It’s not like that anymore.
Tavis: So they did not sign you.
King: They did not, but Don Costa –
Tavis: Don – exactly.
King: – with ABC Paramount, and that was a place I went because Paul Anka, I loved his song, “Diana,” and I was kind of curious. First of all, Paul was only seven months older than I, so okay, he’s a teenager. If he could do it, I could do it. Then I went in and I wanted to know what made that sort of (makes noise) kind of hook in “Diana.”
I wanted to ask the producer, so he had me in, listened to my songs, “Let me hear the next one, let me hear the next one,” and then I think okay, I don’t have any more, and then he offered me a contract. It was amazing. I’m 15.
Tavis: Yeah, exactly, I was about to say that – at 15. So did, and maybe I missed this in the book, but what did Jerry and Ahmet Ertegun ever say anything to you years later about not signing you?
King: Well, they wanted to sign me later, but it wasn’t synchronistic. But much later I recorded a couple of albums for Atlantic, but it just wasn’t synchronistic. But they encouraged me and they loved the songs and they recorded songs that I had written or that Gerry and I had written.
Tavis: You were very open, very honest, very courageous, I think, about your marriages, and particularly one that was abusive.
Tavis: Maybe I’ve got to spend more time going back through the Carole King playlist, but I’m trying to figure out where that came out, to the extent that it ever did come out, in the songwriting, in the music. Did I miss something in your corpus?
King: I don’t know if or where it did, because the man that was abusive to me was named Rick Evers, just so we clarify who it isn’t.
Tavis: Right, you got it.
King: I was kind of taken over. His personality took me over and he influenced my songs, and I don’t think I really did my best work when I was with him. If it did come out, I really can’t specify which song.
Tavis: That may be the answer, though, that maybe the – that’s why I said I had to go back through my Carole King corpus here, because maybe the way that it came out, to your point, is not doing your best work.
King: I think that’s right.
Tavis: That may be the result of it.
King: I think that’s right. I was trying to speak for him in a lot of cases, and he wanted to be a star, and I was the vehicle to that. He’s gone now and he, I don’t think he was ever happy being here, and he overdosed on drugs and took himself out of the mix, but the only reason I wrote about it, it was scary to write about it because it was a very painful thing.
But I did it because I figured if there is one woman, and there are some men that are abused as well, but there’s one woman out there that thinks it’s her fault, and that she deserves to be treated that way, my message is you don’t deserve to be treated that way.
You deserve to be safe, and that if it could happen to me, it could happen to you, and it can happen to anybody. So that was my reason for including it in the book, to say it could happen to Carole King – I had money, I had fame, I had a support system, I had family. But I just fell into it, because that’s how it works.
Tavis: And you stayed, by your own admission.
King: I stayed.
Tavis: Too long.
King: Too long. After you’re smacked upside the head and you stay – and in the book, I don’t want to talk about it here because it’s so complicated, but in the book I outline why women stay, and I’d always say, “I’d never stay with a man like that. I would leave in a New York minute.”
But I didn’t, and the reasons are sort of outlined in the book. It’s very complex, but we do stay until we realize.
Tavis: One last question on that. If not released through your expression, which is songwriting, then as you look back on it and write about it in the book, how did you navigate your way out of that? How did you navigate your way through it?
King: Through is more complicated, but navigating out of it was – I came to a realization that it was time to go, and I took my children and went away, and while I was away he overdosed on drugs.
So I was already on the way out. I finally came to the realization that this was detrimental.
Tavis: Yeah. On to happier stuff.
King: On to happier stuff.
Tavis: On to happier stuff.
King: But I do hope people will read that who are in that situation and have the courage to know – I even put a little box in the book, where to go to get help, so.
Tavis: Yeah. Happier times. You obviously know that I am a huge fan of yours and a huge fan of James Taylor, and anywhere that Carole King and James Taylor appear, I’m there on the front row, as you know.
King: I know, I saw you.
Tavis: Having seen you a thousand times on tour, but you guys were out a couple of years – I felt like I was stalking you guys, you saw me so many times on tour.
When I say James Taylor, you think what?
King: I think friend. I think a special connection musically that I’ve not experienced with a lot of people in the same way. Again, I describe this in the book in such a lovely, wonderful way. I put myself back in the moment of playing with him for the first time, and it’s the same whenever we come together again after years.
We don’t see each other, we don’t play, we might not speak, but here we are, hello, and that’s what happened in the Troubadour tour.
Tavis: Yeah. I was there, I was there at the Troubadour.
King: And before that, really, at the Troubadour club in 2007, which we also have out. Concord has that out.
Tavis: I was there too.
King: You were there? You were there for everything. (Laughter)
Tavis: I was there. Not for everything, but for this part I was.
King: You know what? I treasure it. I treasure that you were there, I treasured being part of that phenomenon. It’s remarkable. I’ve had a remarkable life. I seem to be in such good places at the right time, and if you were to ask me to sum my life up in one word – gratitude.
Tavis: At the Troubadour club, I’m there to see you and JT; I’m sitting in my seat, having a great time. I look to my right and I’m kind of bouncing, the person next to me is bouncing. I look over – it’s Jane Fonda. I’m like, it was just a surreal moment of bouncing next to Jane Fonda at the Troubadour.
To your point about gratitude, I was, again, fascinated near the end of the text. You spent a whole chapter, basically, talking about gratitude.
King: I do.
Tavis: You highlight a number of persons whose work, whose gift, is being expressed, their gratitude being expressed through their philanthropy, through their charity. Strange in a good way, but an interesting way to close a book. I’ve never seen a book where somebody spends a chapter just talking about gratitude and celebrating not her own philanthropy or charity but the work of others. Interesting way to –
King: Well, they inspire all of us. Paul Newman with his Hole in the Wall Gang camps, Bono with his work to eliminate Third World debt and God knows, we all need debt eliminated.
But just people committing themselves, people who take their fame and their success and spend time really working for a cause. My cause, just by – there are a million great causes. The cause you work on is dear to my heart as well, eliminating poverty.
But I live in the northern Rockies, and because I live there I’m uniquely qualified to know how my neighbors see things and how it fits together as an ecosystem, and I found myself lobbying since 1990, I think, to protect the northern Rockies.
I’ve made all these friends in Congress, really on both sides of the aisle, people who care about the environment. I just love the work, because we haven’t gotten there yet, but just meeting all those people who really want to make a difference in that field is important to me.
Tavis: I’m not going to give out your home address, so don’t get scared.
King: Oh, it’s in the book, unfortunately, but oh well.
Tavis: You’ve lived – you had a home and spent a great deal of your time in Idaho, to your point, in the northern Rockies in Idaho for about 33 years now, by my count. What has that space, or put another way, being away from the rat race, not being in New York, not being in L.A. except when you wanted to be, what has – my word, not yours – the solitude, I suspect, of being in that space done for your songwriting over these 33 years?
King: I think it can only have made it better. I think that I am stimulated to write by the turmoil of the city, by the confusion, by the problems, but I’m also nourished by the solitude, the closeness to big, vast nature. Big places. When people say, “Oh, what does wilderness mean when you’re starving?” I get that. I get that.
Bu it also think that doesn’t mean destroy the wilderness, because it’s an important part, and when you’re not starving you’re going to want to have a place to go, and your kids and your grandkids are going to want to have a place to go.
So I see it as my responsibility, yes, to help take care of the problems that are going on in the city right now, big problems, and rurally as well, but to take care of that wilderness for future generations. We have to. We have to.
Tavis: Tony Bennett, who I’ve seen a thousand times, love him to death, after every song, every single song in a Tony Bennett concert, he takes his microphone, he sticks it under his arm, he looks at the audience, and while they’re applauding him, he applauds them.
Every Tony Bennett song, the mic goes under the arm, he applauds the audience. I come back to that with you because we were talking about gratitude a moment ago. What’s your sense of your fan base over the years? I ask that again because I’ve seen you countless times, and you have a die-hard, loyal fan base over all these years, and I was just marveling at the tour with you and JT.
You guys aren’t kids anymore. You guys, shall we say – you’re chronologically gifted. Is that okay?
King: You bet. I have the numbers – 70 for me. I’ll let him say his own number.
Tavis: There you go, and you’re still selling out stadiums all these years later. That is not the easiest thing in the world to do, so talk about your fan base over these years.
King: Well, it’s increased in terms of it’s my contemporaries, but I see people, fifties, forties, thirties, I see teenagers in the audience, and they’re mouthing the words, they know the words. That is remarkable.
I was talking about that this is on the best seller list, the book. I pinch myself about that, and I pinch myself about having so many people who live the music that I’ve written, co-written, whatever, and James too, the same thing.
It is kind of a pinch me moment, because really, all I do is do the work I do, and I just go, “Wow, that’s quite amazing.” I do feel, to complete Tony Bennett’s story, I write about that in the book, too. Like, we do what we do and we’re going to do that one way or the other, but when we touch people, when we reach out and we make that connection to people, it’s a completion of a circle, and we know that there may be an us without the audience, but there’s a much better us with the audience.
They feed us, they nourish us, and just like the wilderness nourishes me, seeing the music received so well by so many across generations – gratitude.
Tavis: The love you have given, though, is boundless, and I’m always delighted to have you on this program. This is so unfair, to have a life that is so rich and so full that you can’t even scratch the surface of it in a 30-minute conversation. But thankfully there is a “New York Times” best-selling book out now that you can pick up. It’s called, “A Natural Woman.” I wonder how that became the title? (Laughs) Written by the one and only Carole King.
Along with the new book there’s some new music out as well. It’s called “The Legendary Demos,” so the timing of all this is a beautiful thing. As I said, it’s on “The New York Times” best seller list, and who’s surprised by that?
King: And available in vinyl, may I add.
Tavis: I love this. I really do love this. I love this.
King: Thank you.
Tavis: It’s a throwback. I love it, and I love you.
King: I love you, too.
Tavis: I’m glad to have you on.
King: Thank you for your work. I really appreciate it.
Tavis: No, I’m glad to have you here. It’s a love fest. I just adore Carole King.
King: I know, isn’t it?
Tavis: That’s our show for tonight.
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