‘Still I’m Glad For What We Had . . .’

Last week, the Texas Gal and I watched the contestants on American Idol make their ways through the songs of Carole King. And as the evening moved on, I was reminded once again of the depth of King’s catalog.

It wasn’t exactly a surprise; one can’t dive too deeply into the history of pop music in the U.S. without running into the tunes that King has written, many of them with Gerry Goffin during the Brill Building era. That long list includes “Chains” by the Cookies (covered memorably by the Beatles), “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” by the Shirelles, “Up On The Roof” by the Drifters, “Goin’ Back” by the Byrds, “Every Breath I Take” by Gene Pitney and on and on. I looked at the list of recordings of her songs at All-Music Guide and after the first nine pages, I was only up to the letter “G”. It’s an astounding body of work.

As I watched American Idol, I wondered vaguely if any of the Goffin-King songs had been included among the 228 records that I discussed here during the Ultimate Jukebox project. Well, I know that the Gene Pitney record was there, but other than that, nothing obvious stands out. I’m not certain, given the depth of the Goffin-King catalog. But what came to me as I thought about that was the realization that not a single recording by Carole King herself was included in the project.

That startled me, given that the Ultimate Jukebox was as much an exploration of memory as a dissection of musical value. And when memory takes me back to my first year of college – 1971-72 – one of the primary sounds on my internal soundtrack is Carole King’s Tapestry. It seemed like any time I visited a lady friend in any of the women’s dorms that year, I heard Tapestry coming from behind door after door as I walked down the hallways. It might have been “Beautiful” or “I Feel The Earth Move” or any of the other tracks on the album, but Tapestry provided the backing track for a good chunk of that time of my life.

And King’s absence from the UJ made me stop and wonder if that was an error. It probably was. As with other explorations of my Jukebox Regrets, I’m not going to figure out which record of those 228 I’d pull out to make room for Carole King. But I do have to acknowledge that she should have had one in there.

So, which track? Given the strength of memory associated with the album, the tune will likely come from Tapestry. After that, King’s albums were inconsistent. There were a few strong tracks, but King never came close to matching that 1971 classic. Well, how could she? Tapestry was in the Billboard Top 40 for sixty-eight weeks and was No. 1 for fifteen of those weeks. Two double-sided singles hit the Top Twenty, with “It’s Too Late/I Feel The Earth Move” spending five weeks at No. 1. So she couldn’t match Tapestry with her succeeding albums? If there’s a list of those who could, it’s a very short list.

(It should also be noted that sales and popularity are not the only criteria by which Tapestry was nearly unmatchable: King won four Grammy awards in 1972, including album of the year, record of the year [“It’s Too Late”] and song of the year [“You’ve Got A Friend”]. Note added August 14, 2013.)

Still, those later albums had some gems. Music, her 1971 follow-up to Tapestry, included the sweet regrets of “It’s Going To Take Some Time” as an album track. (It was covered nicely in 1972 by the Carpenters.) “Been to Canaan” was a No. 24 hit from 1972’s Rhymes & Reasons. I also like “Jazzman” from 1974’s Wrap Around Joy. It went to No. 2 and featured a sax solo by Tom Scott. And finally, I’d take a hard look at King’s own version of “One Fine Day” from her 1980 album, Pearls: Songs of Goffin and King. In 1963, the Chiffons took the song to No. 5 hit. King’s version went to No 12.

In the end, though, it’s impossible to resist the sirens’ sounds of Tapestry. But which track? “Smackwater Jack” and “You’ve Got A Friend” are easy to dismiss, the first because I’m not all that fond of it and the second because James Taylor did the definitive version. “Tapestry” drops out of the running because the story sometimes feels forced, and “So Far Away” gets trimmed because it reminds me of a place and time I’d rather not ponder too often.

That leaves eight tracks, and sorting through them, I come to the conclusion I thought was likely when I began writing this piece: There are few sounds that pull me back in time as potently as the piano figure that opens “It’s Too Late.” And its tale is universal; rare would be the person who hasn’t been on one end or the other of its sorrowful monologue. Given all that, it should have been among the tunes in the Ultimate Jukebox.

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6 Responses to “‘Still I’m Glad For What We Had . . .’”

  1. jb says:

    As I read along, I was guessing you’d end up on “It’s Too Late”–and I nodded in agreement when you referred to its opening piano figure. That’s the sound of the summer of ’71 distilled to a few seconds. I can’t complain about your semifinalists, either. I do like “Smackwater Jack” quite a lot, though—suckered equally by that electric piano sound and by memories of the season in which the song was on the radio.

  2. Yah Shure says:

    I recently obtained the collection of Carole’s first five albums (sans ‘Tapestry’) and had one “oh, I remember this!” moment after another. Carole seems to be one of those artists who we take for granted, hovering below our everyday radar until the next refresher course beckons. One of her deeper cuts I’ve always liked is “Goodbye Don’t Mean I’m Gone”, from ‘Rhymes And Reasons.’

    Like jb, I’m also a “Smackwater Jack” fan, and received a couple of e-mails a year ago from Ralph Schuckett, who’d played that very same electric piano. I’d posted an online label scan of a very obscure 45 on which Ralph had played during his first professional recording session in 1970. I’ll have to share the juicy details at the next Singles ‘n’ Suds Session.

  3. Paco Malo says:

    whiteray, I was still in high school when Tapestry was dominating the charts. So the record player with Tapestry on it all the time was the one in my room at home. I distinctly remember completely wearing out 3 copies of the album, replacing each promptly. While “It’s Too Late” is one of two songs I’d pull off Tapestry for an Ultimate Jukebox, I’d also add “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” — it’s pure poetry.

    One final note: while I never much cared for the studio version of “I Feel the Earth Move” on Tapestry, Carole King and James Taylor’s new “Live at the Troubadour” (2010) contains a version of this track that made the earth move under mine.

  4. porky says:

    Like JB the “Tapestry” singles instantly capture that era when I hear them.

    But give “Believe in Humanity” a spin and it also captures that eery early-to-mid 70’s sense of doom that hovered over lots of records back then. Hearing them in the dark via a transistor radio only added to those vibes.

  5. […] pop/rock albums, and three others, if they happened not to make that list, would come close. I wrote extensively about one of those essential albums, Tapestry, a year ago, so we’ll let that one go by today. The […]

  6. […] Rose and a few other records, it was the summer of “It’s Too Late” by Carole King. As I wrote in a post a couple of years ago: “There are few sounds that pull me back in time as potently as […]

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