One Fine Evening
Carole King proves that she’s still the queen of song.
As the sun set on Chastain Park Amphitheater in Atlanta in late July, the final rays of the day glimmered off the glossy black grand piano at stage center. A pair of lamps, towering potted plants, a couch, and a couple of plush thrift-store chairs decorated the stage. A posh audience peeled shrimp, uncorked wine, and chatted incessantly. It took a full 10 seconds for the high-brows to realize that Carole King had wandered onto the stage and was waiting patiently (and somewhat slightly embarrassed) for their acknowledgement. King, who is still easy on the eyes at 62, smiled as a smattering of applause erupted into a standing ovation. After bowing ceremoniously and taking her seat behind the piano, she flicked on the small lamp above the instrument and pounded out the opening chords to “Home Again,” her dirty-blond curls bouncing in time to her prancing fingers. Due to King’s notorious stage fright, she rarely gives live performances. This was her first tour in more than a decade, and I was fortunate enough to be in the front row witnessing a performance I’d been waiting my entire life to see.
It’s been more than four decades since the songs of Carole King and her former husband, lyricist Gerry Goffin, ignited a 1960s phenomenon known as “girl groups.” The Shirelles scored one of their earliest hits in 1960 with the couple’s “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” The Cookies recorded “Chains” (which later became an even bigger hit for The Beatles); the controversial “He Hit Me (and It Felt Like a Kiss)” was recorded by The Crystals in 1962, while The Chiffons put the irresistible “One Fine Day” on the pop charts in 1963. Other artists began paying attention, and soon The Animals added a tone of danger to King’s music with their foreboding version of “Don’t Bring Me Down.”
Her songs also found a niche in the 1966 bubblegum craze: “Pleasant Valley Sunday” by The Monkees; “I’m Into Something Good” by Herman’s Hermits; and Donny Osmond with the syrupy “Go Away Little Girl” and “Hey Girl.” Her babysitter landed in the Top 40 as Little Eva singing “The Loco-Motion,” the vocals of which sounded suspiciously close to King’s. Aretha Franklin recorded a soulful version of “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.” Blood, Sweat, and Tears covered “That Old Sweet Roll (Hi De Ho).”
King was a prominent pioneer in modern pop music at a time when it was a man’s world. Yet despite the legacy of her influence on early rock’n’roll, 1971′s Tapestry remains King’s masterpiece. Her two previous albums received little response, but Tapestry was the record that made King a star. It sold in the millions before such numbers were relatively common in the music industry (current sales of Tapestry are over 15 million). The record introduced a new genre: soft rock. “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” “You’ve Got a Friend,” “I Feel the Earth Move, “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” “Home Again,” “Tapestry,” “It’s Too Late,” and the sentimental “So Far Away” brought hippies from the edge to the middle of the road, and suddenly the piano was almost as hip as the electric guitar.
Carole King has dubbed her summer concert itinerary “The Living Room Tour.” She had been stumping for presidential candidate John Kerry, going into rich folks’ homes to raise money and, inevitably, to play a song or two. King decided that an intimate series of shows armed with only her piano and a couple of acoustic guitarists (who wisely stayed out of the way for much of the evening) would be a good way to spend the summer. Surprisingly, the only political grandstanding of the evening came when King plugged wilderness protection near her Idaho home (“I moved to Idaho after Tapestry when heavy metal appeared,” King told the audience, laughing) and demanded that people register to vote, regardless of their choice of candidates.
Her voice, never a thing of beauty but nevertheless always a perfect fit, has aged with a ragged edge that adds a touch of oddly refined dignity and genuine personality. The only glaring negative was a near-condescending moment when she and the guitarists decided to “write a song from scratch” to give the crowd a taste of the mystery of songwriting—which is really not so mysterious considering that probably 99 percent of the audience had invented an equally stupid little tune at some point in their lives, even if it were only making up melodies to nursery rhymes as kids.
Several of her 1960s hits recorded by others were lumped into a medley, which was understandable given time constraints. A verse and chorus of “Go Away Little Girl,” in which King wished aloud that Donny Osmond was present to perform a duet with her (which would’ve made a near-perfect evening even finer) was certainly better than nothing. A surprising highlight was a full rendition of her Monkees hit “Pleasant Valley Sunday.” Throughout the evening, she chatted amicably to the audience between songs, engaging in stories behind the creation of some of her biggest hits. It really was like having Carole King playing piano in your living room—if your home had been invaded by a wine and cheese brigade staffed by balding, affluent men and middle-aged women with fake breasts and skirts too short for ex-hippies hoisting glasses of Burgundy in toast to Carole King. &