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Teenage Songwriter in the Music Business


Carole King, fellow songwriters and friends Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, author and music critic Anthony DeCurtis, and Douglas McGrath (writer of book for Beautiful: The Carole King Musical) describe the music business and work of songwriters in the 1950s and early 1960s. As a 16-year-old teenager living in Queens, NY, King would bring her music to one of two publishing houses in Manhattan and get paid $25 for a composition that went to a recording artist. She soon paired professionally and in marriage with Gerry Goffin, who wrote lyrics for her music.


McGRATH: In those days, you could be a kid, as Carole was, 16 years old, coming from Brooklyn, and go into 1650 Broadway or into the Brill Building.

One of the two buildings that people think of when they're talking about the Brill Building sound, in Times Square, that used to be where the Tin Pan Alley songwriters came in the '20s to sell their songs.

You could walk in and they had a piano in the room and you'd sit down and you'd play, and they'd go, 'That's great kid.'

I'll take that song. Here's $25.

MANN: And I was in the waiting room, and there was this kid there.

She looked like she was about 15 years old, in jeans.

And I started to talk with her.

And I thought to myself, 'God, this girl is so confident.'

And I said to myself, if this girl has talent, she's going to be a huge star.

And it happened to be Carole.

ZWICK: She was simply being paid to write songs for top groups that needed songs, 'cause in those days, there were very few singer-songwriters.

That phenomenon had not yet really occurred.

DeCURTIS: It was made-to-order songwriting.

You know, you were either writing for a specific artist or you were writing a song that the publisher you were working for would go out and shop to various singers.

You know, there was a breakdown in those days between who wrote the song and who sang it.

KING: ♪ I don't remember just exactly how it started ♪ I just saw him, and I was like, 'Oh, my God, he looks like the picture of a boy I've been carrying around in my wallet that was a drawing in a magazine.

He was very handsome.

♪ It doesn't make a bit of sense to me ♪ ♪ Why should two people in love have to be ♪ ♪ Like little children ♪ McGRATH: They were married very young, very very young, when they were teenagers because she got pregnant.

KING: ♪ ...Just can't help but fight ♪ ♪ Why should two grown people... ♪ He definitely came at a time in my life when I needed somebody to write better lyrics than 'Baby, baby.'

MANN: Aldon Music was a music publishing company that was started by two fellows, Don Kirshner and Al Nevins.

So the Aldon is Al and Don together.

And they built up such a great reputation.

Don Kirshner was the best publisher that I've ever come across.

And the company became so powerful that he would get record companies to promise him the backside of a record just to get our material.

WEIL: In those days, records had two sides.

MANN: That's right -- there were things called records, too.

-I forgot. -WEIL: Yes, they had two sides.

MANN: Right, so it really became the publishing company in New York City.


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