If an artist cements a moment in time for the collective memory, does it make the creator a lifetime artist or the creation a masterpiece?
With Carole King, it appears to be both.
List the songs most commonly associated with Carole King and it’s a reasonable suggestion that the list will be dominated by tracks on “Tapestry.” “So Far Away.” “You’ve Got a Friend,” “Smackwater Jack.” “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow.” “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.” “Where You Lead.” And the album’s biggest single, “It’s Too Late.”
That 1971 release – a declaration from a woman known for writing singles presenting herself as an album artist – was a landmark album artistically, socially and economically. It demonstrated that a songwriter, even those with significant ’60s legacies, could be a performer who provides sincere interpretations of their work; it cemented music’s creative epicenter in Los Angeles instead of New York; and it convinced the biz that well-crafted albums of powerful, confessional material cane be accepted by the masses.
At the time, it was perceived as Carole King taking control. With Epic Legacy’s release of an expanded edition of the album, with a bonus CD of live solo takes recorded in ’73 and ’76, it becomes evident how much “Tapestry” was just as much the work of a producer as it was the artist.
Lou Adler’s angle when he entered the studio with King, was a demo-tape feel enhanced at times by a small string section, according to Harvey Kubernik’s liner notes. A central influence was June Christy’s “Something Cool,” specifically the manner in which the sequencing of tunes creates an emotional ride. (In the realm of demo tape performances, few top Christy’s “Cry me a River” with only Barney Kessel’s guitar behind her).
In this deluxe edition presentation, however, it is the live recordings that have a demo tape feel; there’s a distinct contrast between the way Adler effectively positioned King’s voice against the music vs. the way King performs the tunes. (Solo, she enhances the rasp, eases up on the emotion and gets a little wobbly in her pitch). By the time the mid-’70s rolled around, though, it was pretty clear she was performing James Taylor’s interpretation of “You’ve Got a Friend” rather than her more emotionally raw recording. Live tracks show limits in her voice that “Tapestry” conceals.
“Tapestry” achieved its landmark status about two years after its release. It spent 15 weeks at No. 1 – and would not leave the charts for six years – sold 24 million copies worldwide and led to King taking home four major Grammy Awards. And the music from the album felt fresh and inviting when King performed late last year with Taylor to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Troubadour.
King released another nine albums in the 1970s to bring her total for the decade to an astounding 11 yet none of the others captured an audience the way “Tapestry” did. I remember attending a King concert at Pauley Pavilion after the release of “Wrap Around Joy” – she let Waddy Wachtel handle every solo – and the L.A. Times review bemoaned the fact that the program was brought down by the abundance of “Tapestry” material. Obviously, it did not bother the audience.
Yet due to “Tapestry,” King has a solid and unthreatened position in the rock canon. Consider it against modern female singers. Norah Jones will always have her “Tapestry” moment thanks to “Come Away With Me” and Madonna will have her hitmaking, culture-shaping legacy, but the woman who now sits at the top of pop singles chart history, Mariah Carey, has suddenly become a punching bag for reaching No. 1 more than any other solo artist.
It comes down to the fact that she has not created her own “Tapestry.” Beyond her debut with the stunning “Vision of Love,” Carey lacks a watershed moment or album; for all her success, she has not galvanized a nation except for her moments of bizarre behavior. And during her years of working with a Svengali-mogul who became her husband, many believed she was being given an unfair advantage.
Facts are facts though. She hit No. 1 seven times in 1990 and ’91 and 2005 was dominated by “We Belong Together.” Of her 18 hits though, only nine are remembered by the masses; two of those, “I’ll Be There” and “Without You,” have the benefit of being covers of hit songs; and another, “Fantasy,” was sung over the melody of pre-existing record (Tom-Tom Club’s “Genius of Love”). It practically reduces her career to “Emotions,” “Always Be My Baby,” “Visions of Love” and “We Belong Together” – an unfair reduction, certainly, as she has made some impressive records that did not hit No. 1. Down the road, though, will she be remembered for statistics, recovery or artistry, for integrating club and hip-hop techniques into pop music or public breakdowns?
She is the latest in a string of pop/R&B/rock artists who adapt with changing times and even forge new ground within a commercial realm. Chicago, Hall & Oates and others did that, too, but longevity is written in scarlet at places such as the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Carole King is a survivor who has made bank on a 37-year-old collection of 12 songs and is cherished for never straying from the roots she planted a decade after being a central figure in Brill Building songwriting. Mariah Carey is a wanderer, whose music is just as crafted as “Tapestry” yet rarely comes across as the voice or inner thoughts of a single human.
And when it comes down to music that endures – and this is as true of Frank Sinatra, who never wrote a hit in his life, as it is if Kurt Cobain – it’s the songs that emerge from the artists we believe are telling the truth. Mariah may have the records … but she has yet to deliver “The Record.”