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Carole King: A Natural Hitmaker

Walk of Fame Honors: Carole King

Tuesday night, “A Celebration of Carole King and Her Music” will be staged at the Dolby Theater in Hollywood. The evening — which will benefit the Painted Turtle Camp, an outreach program for children with life-threatening illness — is being produced by Lou Adler, whose association with King dates back to her ’60s songwriter days with then-husband Gerry Goffin at 1650 Broadway through such as albums as “Tapestry,” “Rhymes and Reasons” and “Wraparound Joy.”

In a way, the King tribute is an extension of a five-decade-long celebration of her music by various artists dating back to 1960’s “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” initially made famous by the Shirelles, as well as such songs as “Up on the Roof,” recorded by the Drifters in 1962 and, as musical solace from a heartless world, stands head and shoulders along with such classics as Brian Wilson’s “In My Room.”

In fact, until King — who gets her star on the Walk of Fame today — became a solo artist in the early ’70s, most people weren’t aware she was the co-author of some of the biggest hits of the previous decade. It was Adler and James Taylor — whose version of King’s “You’ve Got a Friend” was a top-charting single in 1971 — who urged King to take ownership of her music by emerging from the background into the spotlight. On a tour in support of Taylor’s “Sweet Baby James” in 1970, Taylor coaxed King, who played piano in his band, to sing one of her own songs in public for the first time at Queens College, King’s alma mater.

In her biography, “A Natural Woman,” King admits she “wasn’t in the same league vocally as Aretha Franklin, Joni Mitchell or Barbra Streisand (whom I considered ‘real singers’), but I knew how to convey the mood and emotion of a song with an honest, straight-from-the-heart interpretation.”

King’s voice, Adler tells Variety, is “easy to relate to. You almost think ‘I could do that.’ But not everybody could.”

This seeming simplicity extended to King’s piano playing as well.

“What she has is an ability to make it sound so simple but there’s a lot of different patterns going on,” says Adler. “When we did ‘Tapestry,’ when you really sit down and listen to the piano part, you’ll hear string and horn figures in there. And that comes from her days of making demos where she was laying out charts for whoever was going to record the song. So it sounds simple but it’s intricate.”

Adler says he had early inklings of King’s solo potential when he headed the West Coast office of Aldon Music, King’s publishing company, in the late ’60s and would submit King’s demos to record producers and A&R execs. “I couldn’t get the demos back,” he recalls. “They were collecting them as part of their record collection. … There’s something about the piano feel and the fact that she was doing a lot of the parts and the vocals and the background vocals that just captivated all of these people, including the artists.”

The title “A Natural Woman” is very apropos to King’s approach to life in general. She has never been one to crave publicity, much less notoriety. Even though she lived in Laurel Canyon during the height of the singer-songwriter movement, which she helped spearhead, she didn’t participate in the sex, drugs & rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle that consumed so many of her contemporaries. Between songs on “The Carnegie Hall Concert” album recorded in the wake of “Tapestry’s” mega-success, she assures the audience that what she’s drinking is “apple juice. I know it’s hard to believe, but …”

That live set might be the best example of the perfect balance between the strength of King’s songwriting and the fragility of her vocals. On “Song of Long Ago,” which she describes as having written “under the heavy influence of James Taylor,” her voice cracks at one point. But it’s part of the beauty of who she is.

“I am now 70 and proud of it,” she tells Variety. “I don’t try to look younger or shave years off because I’ve earned every year of it.” That no-frills, unadorned philosophy extends to everything she does. Even her albums are stripped down to the most essential monikers: “Writer,” “Tapestry,” “Music,” “Fantasy,” “Rhymes and Reasons,” “Simple Things.” You get the idea.

Her vibe is very comfy, like a pair of faded jeans. She didn’t dub her series of live performances in 2004 “The Living Room Tour” for nothing. The resulting album sold 44,000 copies out of the gate, her highest charting recording since 1977 and testament to her enduring popularity.

And despite her “soft-rock” associations, the breadth of her reach is remarkable, ranging from rock (“I Feel the Earth Move”) to gospel (“Way Over Yonder”) to disco-inflected samba (“Corazon”) to social commentary (much of “Fantasy”) to even loose, jazzy jams (“Raspberry Jam”). She has also written for Off Broadway (“Really Rosie”) and the movies (“Murphy’s Romance”).

She takes pride in having led a life that balanced career and family, even though becoming a wife, mother and breadwinner by her late teens led her to assume tremendous responsibility at an age when most people are still trying to figure out what they want to do when they grow up. “I worked very hard to hold onto my life as well as a career and I’ve been blessed to have both.”

When Sheila Weller’s “Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon — and the Journey of a Generation” was published in 2008 (and is being talked up as a feature film project from Sony Pictures), King was already working on her autobiography. The result, released last spring, is filled with some very telling moments, such as the time in 1967 when Goffin and King were walking down Broadway and Jerry Wexler pulled up in a limo and told the songwriting couple he was “looking for a really big hit for Aretha” and asked: “How about writing a song called ‘Natural Woman’?” The very next day they recorded a piano-vocal demo and delivered it to Wexler.

Aretha Franklin’s version of “A Natural Woman” remains to this day one of King’s favorite covers of her music, even though the list of interpreters is stunning to behold, including Taylor, Streisand, Dusty Springfield, Laura Nyro, Linda Ronstadt, Dionne Warwick, Aerosmith, Amy Winehouse and the Crusaders, to name just a few.

And at Tuesday night’s benefit for the Painted Turtle Camp, modeled after Paul Newman’s Hole in the Wall Camp, the list of artists who will be performing King’s songs includes Alicia Keys, Amy Grant, Herb Alpert, John Legend, Vince Gill and Katy Perry. Jack Nicholson, who’s frequently seen sitting next to Adler at Lakers games, will co-host with Quincy Jones.

“I’ll be joining them onstage at some point,” says King, “but it’s really going to be a lovely evening of seeing all these people perform my songs; few things give me greater pleasure.”

King, a multiple Grammy winner who’s been inducted into both the Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, continues to carry the torch for her fellow artisans. At the 60th Annual BMI Pop Awards in May, she declared, “I am truly first, last and always a songwriter.” She has generously passed that torch to future generations, including her daughter Louise Goffin, who has enjoyed a career as a singer-songwriter in her own right, and produced and co-wrote three of the songs on a recent holiday album by King, “A Holiday Carole.”

And while King’s music has begun to take a back seat to her environmental and political activism as of late, that doesn’t mean she’s ready to retire just yet, despite rumors to the contrary. She’s embarking on a tour of Australia in February, and tries to keep up with current acts best as she can.

“I haven’t been paying as much attention as I should,” she admits. “Music is alive and well out there. It’s a different business. But as long as there are people with hearts and minds who fall in love, think and feel, then music will always be meaningful.”

Solo shots

Tapestry (1971):
“Tapestry” certified Diamond by RIAA with over 10 million copies sold domestically, and more than 25 million worldwide, and still holds the record for most consecutive weeks (15) at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 by a female solo artist.

Carole King: Music (1971):
King’s second album to hit No. 1 on the Billboard 200, “Music” holds a Platinum certification with over a million copies sold to date.

Rhymes & Reasons (1972):
Hit No. 2 on the Billboard 200 and No. 1 on the Canadian RPM Albums chart. The popular single “Been to Canaan” peaked at No. 24 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Wrap Around Joy (1974):
The Billboard album chart topper, certified Gold by the RIAA, produced two Top 10 singles: “Jazzman” and “Nightingale”

Live at the Troubadour (2012):
King’s first top-10 album since 1976, “Live at the Troubadour” — a collaboration with James Taylor — snagged No. 4 on the Billboard 200 at the time of release and has sold 648,000 copies to date.

Gerry Goffin: King’s partner in rhyme sounds off

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