“Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow.” “(You Make Me Feel Like a) Natural Woman.” “Up on the Roof.” “You’ve Got a Friend.” All of these songs have found a permanent home as part of The Great American Songbook, and all come from the pen of one Carole King. Her repertoire as both singer and songwriter is celebrated with this week’s release of Legacy’s The Essential Carole King (Ode/Epic/Legacy 88697 68257 2), the first set to focus on both aspects of King’s now 50-plus year career.
Producers Lou Adler, Steve Berkowitz and Rob Santos made the smart decision to compile Disc One as “The Singer,” and Disc Two as “The Songwriter.” (Adler, in particular, is well-qualified to assemble this set, having originally produced all but five tracks on “The Singer.”) Thus Disc One opens with the 1962 single “It Might As Well Rain Until September,” with young King emulating the girl group sound that prevailed at that time, a sound which she helped engineer as composer of hits like “One Fine Day” and “Chains” (more on them later). “September,” though, is a quaint precursor to the mature music that follows. Adler & co. jump a number of years to 1970, and we pick up with the Brill Building Queen (as named in Andrew Loog Oldham’s entertaining liner notes) having moved to L.A.’s Laurel Canyon as the 1970s began. Unfortunately nothing is heard from The City, the short-lived band featuring King, Charles Larkey and Danny “Kootch” Kortchmar. The smoldering “Hi-De-Ho (That Old Sweet Roll),” rocking “Now That Everything’s Been Said” or elegant “Snow Queen” would all have been great choices for inclusion. But with “Child of Mine” from 1970’s Writer, we hear the style fully in place that would lead to King’s most familiar hits and establish her as an icon and influence to a new generation. Defining album Tapestry has been pared to four songs, and if “Where You Lead,” “Beautiful” and “Smackwater Jack” are all missed, it’s likely that any purchaser of The Essential Carole King will already own that truly essential title. Indeed, Disc One of this latest addition to Sony’s Essential series is about the best single-disc overview of King’s career imaginable. While nothing is heard from her short-lived tenures at Capitol or Atlantic, the set concludes with her comeback song from the film A League of Their Own, “Now and Forever,” taking in 2001 collaborations with Celine Dion and Babyface along the way. For completeness’ sake, a song from those largely-fallow Capitol years might have been preferable to one of the two tracks from children’s television special Really Rosie or even to the live medley with old friend and current touring partner James Taylor, but it’s impossible to go wrong with this eminently-listenable disc.
Arguably even better is Disc Two, titled “The Songwriter.” This disc only features 15 tracks as opposed to the first disc’s 18, most likely because of the high cost of licensing 13 of the 15 songs selected. But what songs! Again, this is about as definitive a look at the big hits penned by King and her then-husband Gerry Goffin throughout the 1960s as may be possible. (For an alternative view of this period, see Ace’s two incredible volumes Goffin & King: A Gerry Goffin and Carole King Song Collection 1961-1967 (Ace CDCHD 1170, 2007) and Honey & Wine: Another Gerry Goffin & Carole King Song Collection (Ace CDCHD 1216, 2009) which place many rarities alongside the big hits.) It’s too bad that “I’m Into Something Good” couldn’t be included, as Oldham even refers to the Herman’s Hermits smash in his liner notes. But virtually every other big song is here, and King’s evolution as a songwriter is easily traceable, from the teen pop of “Take Good Care of My Baby” to the Phil Spector majesty of The Righteous Brothers’ “Just Once in My Life” and the early country-rock of The Byrds’ “Wasn’t Born to Follow.”
Deep soul isn’t in short supply, either, with Aretha Franklin’s galvanic “Natural Woman” and Dusty Springfield’s sublime “No Easy Way Down.” All of these styles would blend to create King’s own signature sound. The durability of these compositions is shown via Billy Joel’s 1997 cover of “Hey Girl,” originally recorded by Freddie Scott. Only The Beatles are missed here, as early word leaked that their cover of “Chains” would be featured. It was eventually, if unsurprisingly, replaced by The Cookies’ original. It’s a disappointment, good though The Cookies’ version is. Many British Invasion acts found chart success with Goffin and King compositions, and it would have been terrific to see this period represented, as well. And who better than The Beatles?
Still, The Essential Carole King is recommended without reservation. The booklet has track-by-track discographical information including chart positions, original source and producer credits, as well as two short essays: the aforementioned one by Oldham for Disc Two, and one by Harvey Kubernik (author of the excellent coffee table tome Canyon of Dreams, about that famed California scene) for Disc One. Vic Anesini has remastered both discs with his customary excellence, with the individual instrumentation on Disc One’s tracks sounding especially crisp and present. A minor quibble is the somewhat unflattering cover photo, a bit of a mystery considering the beautiful photos within the booklet. But with apologies to Nick Lowe, The Essential Carole King is pure pop for all people, now and then.