When Beautiful pop was kosher


At London's Aldwych theatre, the young English cast of Beautiful, taking their wildly applauded curtain call on the first night, were joined by three Jewish Americans, in their 70s: a long-married couple Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann, and, stage centre, diminutive, frizzy-haired and grandmotherly Carole King, whose work the musical celebrates. They became friends over half-a-century ago and wrote song after song that went to the top of the pop charts - some are no longer remembered, others may never be forgotten.

The composers and lyricists who wrote the great Broadway musicals were (Cole Porter excepted) all Jewish, so were all the kids writing pop songs at 1650 Broadway in the early Sixties - and so was Don Kirshner, the tin-pan-alley genius who ran the building, demanded hit over hit from them and decided what had magic and what hadn't. There they sat, a musician and a lyricist, two by two in tiny cubicles each with a piano. Three of these twosomes sooner or later became married couples: Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich (Da Doo Ron Ron; Chapel of Love, Leader of the Pack); Mann and Weil (On Broadway; We've Got To Get Out Of This Place) whose magnificent song You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling was one the most-played of the 20th century and its life is not yet run.

Absent from the Aldwych stage that evening, and separated from Carole King these past 45 years, was the late Gerry Goffin, the other half of Goffin and King, a writing credit on a host of early Sixties hits. Some of the songs they wrote then we still love now - Up On The Roof, Take Good Care of My Baby; (I think I'm) Goin' Back. Few could capture young girls' doubt and anguish as they did with songs like It Might As Well Rain Until September and above all, Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?

Who but a woman could come up with such lines? Gerry Goffin could. Carole King was the musical prodigy; Goffin wrote the lyrics. When he died, age 75, in June last year, King tweeted a photograph of him in his youth with a message that was the perfect envoi: "There are no words".

There were those who sneered at production-line pop, seeing it as synthetic rubbish produced by hacks working to order. That ignores the fact that Goffin and King and the others were geniuses at what they did. Consider this: in 1967, when they were well-seasoned veterans (Carole was all of 25) the couple were walking down Broadway one afternoon when the record producer Jerry Wexler rolled down the back window of his limo and called out to them: "I'm looking for a real big hit for Aretha… how about writing a song called Natural Woman?" They drove home to New Jersey and after spending some time with their little girl, Carole sat down at the piano and instantly came out with the gospel notes to start the song and Goffin felt they were so right that the lyrics came to him immediately.

Carole King was a veteran of the pop scene by the time she was just 25

She remembers she was in awe of his line about the unhappy woman's soul retrieved from lost property: "When my soul was in the lost and found/You came along to claim it."

The following morning, they made a piano-and-vocal demo disc and presented the song that became one of Aretha Franklin's greatest. In the Seventies when Carole sang it on her own album, it became a favourite in her hands, too (but she's no Aretha. Nobody is).

Carole King (born Carol Klein), was the daughter of a New York fireman and his music-and-drama-loving wife. From early childhood, Carole played the piano; as a little girl she was writing songs; at 15, she walked into the offices of Atlantic records and asked to be heard by the boss, the great Ahmet Ertegun who said she had talent. Days later, she was signed by ABC Paramount.

At Queens College, where Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel were also students, she met Goffin, three years her senior, an aspiring playwright who for practicality's sake was training to be a chemist. Only when Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow? had sold a million did he give up the day job and become a full-time writer.

By then Gerry and 18 year-old Carole had a baby daughter and in her memoir, A Natural Woman, she writes about the demands and joys of childcare and homemaking alongside hitmaking, though the Goffins, now expecting a second child, did themselves no favours in when they wrote The Loco-Motion and gave it to the 17 year-old Eva Narcissus Boyd, thus transforming their babysitter into Little Eva, a chart-topping dance sensation.

Gerry's mental frailties, drug taking and desire to be more Bob Dylan-like, tore apart their relationship. Carole left New York for Los Angeles. There was a new marriage and a new career as a solo artist. The second Carole King album, Tapestry, a mixture of songs written with Gerry and songs she wrote alone, found a place in tens of millions of homes and tens of millions of hearts.

She has a special place in the musical firmament not just because of her soaring talent but because she is truly loved, coming across as a beautiful spirit, a wonderful person. She married again, had two children, divorced and had a couple of relationships, including a marriage, with wild men living in wild remote places - she still has a ranch in Idaho. Then she returned to LA and in 1986, a 44 year-old grandmother, she attended barmitzvah classes with her son. She writes that her Grandma Sarah always aspired to be an eshes chayil; one feels that she, in her own way - mother, environmentalist, political campaigner, singer/songwriter - is certainly an eshes chayil worthy of the name.

In the second half of Beautiful, when Carole (brilliantly played by Katie Brayben) sings You've Got A Friend, the audience erupts in recognition, appreciation and affection. Carole King has always been a woman who strikes a chord.

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