Music Features

The Goffin & King Songbook

When Carole King became a household name with Tapestry, she already stood tall as one of the top songwriters of the rock era. Her diverse, awe-inspiring back catalogue with ex-husband Gerry Goffin had been accrued through fruitful years that saw them rise from Brill Building hopefuls to sought-after hitmakers. Their work, however, didn’t happen in a vacuum. The Goffin-King songbook reflects the abrupt social changes that were going on around them as they experienced the joys and travails of courtship, marriage, and parenthood. These songs caught the mood of a generation and have stood the test of time as they continue to be covered by new artists.

The songwriters were an unlikely pair. King was a musical prodigy set for a career as a composer and arranger, but her heart was captured by the rock ‘n’ roll music that was taking over the airwaves in the mid-fifties. With new goals, she started to make the rounds of New York music publishers while she was still in her teens. At this stage, her songs lacked the lyrical polish that made a hit. All that changed when she met Gerry Goffin at Queens College. Goffin was studying chemistry there after a stint in the Navy, so there was nothing remotely musical in his background, yet this young man, just three years her senior, had precise ideas about song lyrics, with a strong dislike for moon-June platitudes and doo-wop glossolalia. They clicked right away, and not just professionally, their brief courtship resulting in King’s pregnancy at 17 and fast marriage. Day jobs became a priority for both, but inspiration couldn’t be stopped. Goffin was still working at a chemical plant when they had their first chart topper in early 1961 with The Shirelles’ Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow.

The song’s subject would have been mishandled in other hands. Goffin, who had studied the work of Broadway songsmiths since childhood, focused on character and situation, the foundations of his style. Through character, he was able to articulate the fears that play in a young woman’s mind when virginity is surrendered: “Is this a lasting treasure/or just a moment’s pleasure/can I believe the magic of your sighs?” King proved her mettle with a lush melody that sustains the emotional impact, brought to life through wistful lead vocals from Shirley Owens.

Though their approach was modern, the couple adhered to the classic Tin Pan Alley structure. Their next big hit, Bobby Vee’s “Take Good Care of My Baby”, opens with an old-timey sectional verse before launching into the AABA form. This nod to tradition is also found in King’s “It Might As Well Rain Until September”, her first solo single. Yet craft also abounds in up-tempo numbers like Little Eva’s “The Locomotion” and The Chiffons’ “One Fine Day”. What set them apart was a willingness to explore contemporary styles, and this adaptability would serve them well through the decade while their peers faltered. Their songs ranged from adult pop (Steve Lawrence’s Go Away Little Girl) to soulful rock (The Animals’ Don’t Bring Me Down). They weren’t mutually
exclusive either. Goffin wrote Run To Him with Jack Keller for Bobby Vee, and King paired up with Howard Greenfield for the Everlys’ Crying In The Rain, both efforts becoming huge hits.

Their presence on the charts increased with every passing year, with highs and lows. Up On The Roof, written for the Drifters, is a song for the ages. King came up with one of her most arresting melodies, which is matched by Goffin’s poetic feelings: “At night the stars put on a show for free/ and darling you can share it all with me”. The couple’s first collaboration with Phil Spector began, auspiciously enough, with Gene Pitney’s Every Breath I Take, a minor hit that should have done better. Their next song for Spector, however, would become their biggest blunder: The Crystals’ He Hit Me (It Felt Like A Kiss). Just the title alone brought protests from sellers and customers, and rightly so. Girl group songs of the era were characterized by melodrama, but this controversial piece could only work in the context of a Broadway musical, not as product for teenage consumption. The song, with its ominous melody, was deemed untouchable for decades until it was covered by The Motels. To be fair, Goffin and King were documenting the co-dependent state of mind of their babysitter, at that time involved in an abusive relationship. Some time later in 1962, a hint of the subject was thinly-veiled in Chains, a more palatable vehicle sung by The Cookies.

By the mid-sixties, the couple was famous for make-out songs like Oh No! Not My Baby” (Maxine Brown), Just Once In My Life (Righteous Brothers), and Hey Girl (Freddie Scott). But the times were changing, and there was a need to follow suit. It wasn’t just that their songs were now being recorded by beat groups like The Beatles and Herman’s Hermits; what went on around them had a deeper impact. Traditional roles were being questioned and found to be hollow, and young people everywhere were on personal quests and spiritual journeys. Suddenly, the couple’s cozy suburban life wasn’t enough. Goffin did his share of soul-searching, and that would have been acceptable, but his infidelities and drug use placed the marriage in jeopardy. Through all this, however, the songwriting was gaining new depths. The wry, acerbic Pleasant Valley Sunday was recorded, of all people, by The Monkees, which ensured a broad audience. A more direct statement is found in The Byrds’ Wasn’t Born To Follow, a lyrical masterstroke that ranks high in the hippie canon. Smackwater Jack, with its sardonic bent, became a Tapestry highlight. Even the pop-oriented material was now layered with meaning, like the touching, nostalgic Going Back and the aching No Easy Way Down, both recorded by Dusty Springfield. Meanwhile, King was broadening her musical range with an innovative gospel-based approach that surfaced on A Natural Woman (Aretha Franklin), a precursor to her solo career style.

“New dreams can’t be born until the old ones are finished”, a line found in Darlene Love’s A Long Way To Be Happy, seemed to foretell the future. Goffin and King, having shared a journey, now had to find new paths on their own. Though their divorce became final in 1968, the love and respect for each other would survive. King lost her fear of performing and became an iconic artist. Goffin, who used to dismiss his talent, would continue to garner hits and accolades until his death on June 19, 2014, never conceding his worth as a top lyricist.

Just about every oldies compilation contains a share of Goffin-King hits. To my ears, the most rewarding is King’s The Legendary Demos (2012), which unearths the passion and longing behind these songs.