Some revolutions are quiet.
Tapestry opens with “I Feel the Earth Move,” a song about an earthquake. I doubt Carole King had any idea that when she released her 2nd album that it would cause such a stir.
Not only is Tapestry a durable classic and one of the best-selling albums of all time, last count it has racked up 25 million sales worldwide and is still selling, but it helped kick off a quiet revolution in rock, the singer-songwriter movement, a musical sensibility and approach that has endured and outlived nearly every other trend in pop music. You could say it’s ironic that Carole King never wanted fame as a performer, never wanted the spotlight, but that would entirely miss the point of why Tapestry was so revolutionary in the context of its times. You would also miss out on why it’s an album that so many of us have connected with at a personal level since its 1971 release.
Since it burst onto the cultural landscape, rock and roll has had at its core, a passion — not for music or poetry, or social impact or cultural significance of any kind — but for stardom. Elvis shaking his assets on TV, The Beatles and Stones battling each other up the charts, Dylan raising the bar, Jim Morrison bellowing his mad poetry, The Who smashing their instruments, Hendrix lighting his guitar on fire — none of these rockers were toiling in obscurity, they were all competing for fame and audience attention. But that’s only natural. Who straps on a guitar to intentionally avoid the spotlight?
It would take a great accident, a mutation, to change the landscape of popular music and bend it toward a more personally expressive purpose.
Carole King was already established as a major songwriter, having written some of the best-loved songs of her generation starting from the late doo-wop era of the early 60s, writing more than two dozen chart hits with her then-husband, lyricist Gerry Goffin. While known for novelty smash hits like “The Loco-motion,” the duo’s lasting contribution is their pioneering work in bringing a deeper, more personal point of view to the hit parade with songs like The Shirelles contemplative song about premarital sex, “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?,” The Drifters introspective “Up On the Roof,” and Aretha’s majestic soliloquy on love, “(You Make Me Feel Like) a Natural Woman.” The Beatles early on cited Goffin-King as one of their prime influences and even covered “Chains” on their debut album. What was perhaps even more remarkable than Carole King’s expert musical ear, her melodic talent and her skills as an arranger was the fact that she accomplished most of her greatest work in the 60s as a young mother, caring for her two daughters between takes in the studio.
As the 60s came to a close, the Goffin-King marriage fell apart as did their songwriting partnership. Carole started writing songs with other lyricists, beginning to write her own words as well. Though they stopped writing together, I get the sense that Gerry Goffin’s pioneering approach to lyrics in terms of of personal point of view, empowerment, and human dignity in matters of love and other affairs of the heart left its indelible mark on the songs Carole King would write for the remainder of her career. Even though there are only two Gerry Goffin lyrics on Tapestry, his essence lives in its grooves.
But in 1968, Carole King was still a Brill Building songwriter whose endearing, authentic voice had only been heard on demos. Following her new boyfriend, bassist Charles Larkey out to California in search of a fresh start, Carole and her six and eight year-old daughters settled into the cozy Laurel Canyon songwriter scene in the idyllic hills of Los Angeles. Already a fan of The Flying Machine (James Taylor’s band), she jumped at the chance to jam with guitarist, Danny Kortchmar. The couple formed a trio with “Kootch,” and followed producer Lou Adler into the studio to record the album Now That Everything’s Been Said under the group name, The City. Though Tapestry would be a few years away, the nucleus of its talented team was already forming.
Having once been pursued in New York to record as a solo artist by legendary producer Jerry Wexler, King’s stipulation with Adler and The City was the same. She would agree to sing and record but refused to perform, tour, or promote the album in any way, so as not to disrupt her inviolable duties as mother to her young children. Though a warm and endearing album with some fantastic songs, predictably, Now That Everything’s Been Said didn’t chart and The City disbanded (Re-released in 2015, the album is definitely worth seeking out). But King kept writing and Lou Adler convinced her to record her own album, just to give an outlet to new songs that other artists didn’t cover. Again with the “no touring” stipulation, 1970 saw the release of Carole King’s first solo album, called Writer, which featured new songs as well as her own version of the Goffin-King classic by The Drifters, Up On the Roof. Sounding much like Tapestry but with less compelling material, the King-Kortchmar-Larkey nucleus, aiding by drummer Joel O’Brien and now the additional guitar of friend James Taylor was homing in on the intimate feel that would fuse together as the “living room” sound that would make Tapestry so appealing.
Returning the favor, Carole provided piano for her friend James Taylor’s new batch of songs for his second album being recorded at Sunset Sound, the album that would become the landmark Sweet Baby James LP. Obviously kindred spirits, the two had been musically courting each other ever since she first caught The Flying Machine at The Night Owl Cafe in Greenwich Village in 1967. Enthralled with his music, and with James Taylor already a huge fan of her songwriting, the two musicians were destined to bond. Her parts on the Sweet Baby James album are the perfect compliment to his featured acoustic guitar work and with Kootch’s electric weaving in and out, it’s an album that endeared James Taylor to millions of fans and essentially launched his career.
But in many ways, Sweet Baby James was just a preamble.
Finally convinced by Taylor’s producer, Peter Asher to join the Sweet Baby James college tour on the stipulation that the trips away would be very limited in number and scale, Carole found herself on stage with her dream band in front of enthusiastic young audiences (Lee Sklar on bass, Russ Kunkel on drums, Kootch on lead guitar). With the girls home with Charley and their trusted nanny, the pianist was having the time of her life backing James Taylor on these short trips to college towns.
One of these trips was to Carole’s alma mater, Queens College in Brooklyn and Taylor, her musical ally, set about gently coercing the reluctant performer to sing lead on a song.
Though he wouldn’t release his own version until the end of the 70s, the Goffin-King classic “Up on the Roof” was a regular part of the James Taylor setlist and during band introductions, he saved Carole for last and adoringly introduced her as the songwriter behind all of her well-known hits, and announced the treat he had in store, that the writer herself would sing this one. The crowd was thrilled, the band backed her lovingly — It was the push she needed.
In typical self-effacing fashion, Carole King says that she had no idea that when she was recording the songs for Tapestry that she was making an album that so many would cherish. She was just doing what she had always done, recording songs she had written or co-written with no intention of dominating the charts, touring, or even performing the songs live. She let Ode Records label head Lou Adler, her producer, manager and record company take the lead and in January of 1971, she found herself camped out in Studio B of A&M Studios in Hollywood with Hank Cicalo at the board (The Monkees, Captain Beefheart) making a new album with her studio band of brothers.
Cicalo played a key role in the shaping of the album by using a bold recording setup that he thought would be best suited to the music he was hearing in rehearsals. With the musicians in a circle around the piano, Carole could conduct with her head and communication among the players took a lead role, incidental leakage between microphones being an acceptable compromise. With A&M’s coveted reddish-brown Steinway in the forefront, the group cut three stunning tracks in one session, “I Feel The Earth Move,” “Natural Woman,” and “You’ve Got a Friend” and the high bar for the Tapestry album was set in one night. Carole’s team would battle with Joni Mitchell’s who was recording her stunning Blue album down the hall for use of the Studio C Steinway, and musicians would shuttle back and forth seven blocks east to Sunset Sound where James Taylor was cutting his Sweet Baby James follow-up, Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon. All three albums would emerge as masterworks but it was Tapestry that caused an earthquake in the marketplace, selling well over 10 times as much as either album over time.
There are a number of contributing factors to the Tapestry appeal, the first being its feeling of intimacy.
Along with the “living room” sound the musicians and engineers achieved, there’s an empathy between the players that can be heard in the musical interplay, most audibly in the fade section of “So Far Away,” the song that features James Taylor that Carole wrote on the road while touring with James, and thinking about Charley back home. I would even say that the musical empathy between the players supports the empathy the listeners feel for her lament about being separated by miles from her love, and the empathy that her fans instinctively feel in her plaintive singing for their own lives. The record is so personal on every level, it’s as if she’s opened a secret passage between the musicians and the listener where the empathy flows both ways.
What really makes Tapestry unique, however is its lack of showmanship, its humanness. Carole King the egoless rock star, the singer who doesn’t want the spotlight, who just has a song and is going to sing it for us — this humility, this plaintive quality is, I think, the basis of her broad appeal as a solo artist and what helped push Tapestry to the top of the charts (staying number one for 15 weeks on its release) and remaining on the Billboard 200 a whopping consecutive 302 weeks from 1971-1977.
Part of what gave Tapestry its firepower was just timing. The Band broke the 60s rock mold with their brand of intimacy and musical interplay, CSN/Y followed suit, Elton John had a massive hit with “Your Song” in 1970, the year that saw the release of the ubiquitous Sweet Baby James, an album that partially bore the Carole King musical stamp. As they say, timing is everything and Tapestry in 1971 worked as a culmination of a mounting trend of intimacy over bombast. Carole King’s songwriting prowess, plus her Goffin-King history helped her to personify the singer-songwriter in the public imagination. Her plaintive singing, the musical interplay and empathy on display made Tapestry an incredibly personal album to play in your own living room. Carole King did not invent the singer-songwriter genre but she came to embody it and Tapestry’s record-setting success on the charts did move the marketplace, in terms of who labels were signing and, more importantly, promoting.
And Tapestry had a direct effect on her fellow songwriters in Laurel Canyon and beyond — Todd Rundgren admits that “I Saw the Light” and “Hello, It’s Me” were products of his Tapestry obsession. There are just a whole lot of undeniably great songs on this album, with indelible melodies and lyrics that, I contend, that carry the Gerry Goffin DNA. And the performances on Tapestry from all of the musicians are stunning, led by vocals that are authentic and moving. It’s a soulful, fulfilling album on every level and, while Tapestry did not invent the genre, it came to define it and push open the door for singer-songwriters for generations. She did not set out to change music but Carole King’s uniquely egoless intention, combined with her prodigious talent and the fortuitous timing were a happy accident, creating an unanticipated intimacy/empathy mutation in the story of rock, and ripples from that quiet Tapestry revolution are still being felt today.
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