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Review: Carole King, “The Legendary Demos” and “Something Good from the Goffin and King Songbook”

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Though there’s no one formula for creating a great song, there’s no denying the success of the method that flourished first in New York’s Tin Pan Alley (28th Street between Broadway and Sixth Avenue, for those wondering) and later a bit uptown in and around the Brill Building (1619 Broadway near 49th Street).  A couple of blocks away at 1650 Broadway at 51st Street, during the halcyon days of the 1960s, you would have found the home of Aldon Music, and the team of Gerry Goffin and Carole King.  “Aldon Music has been described as boot camp for songwriters.  That it was.  And yes, we did write in cubicles,” King confirms in her recent, acclaimed memoir A Natural Woman.  “The proximity of each cubicle to the next added an ‘echo’ factor.  While I was playing the song on which Gerry and I were working, we heard only our song.  As soon as I stopped playing, we could hear the song on which the team in the next cubicle was working.  Not surprisingly, with each of us trying to write the follow-up to an artist’s career hit, everyone’s song sounded similar to everyone else’s…”  But King doesn’t find this a bad thing at all: “[The] competitive atmosphere fostered by Donnie [Kirshner] spurred each team on to greater effort, which resulted in better songs.”

Hot on the heels of the publication of A Natural Woman, two indispensable new releases are revisiting those days of 1650 Broadway and proving just how right Carole King is.  The music you’ll find on The Legendary Demos (Rockingale/Hear Music HRM-33681-02) and Something Good from the Goffin and King Songbook (Ace CDCHD 1327) amounts to one of the most joyful noises in popular music, and each title addresses a crucial part of the 9-to-5 Brill Building/Aldon Music process.  The former makes available, for the very first time, the demos with which Carole King presented her newest songs to artists like The Monkees, The Everly Brothers and Bobby Vee.  The latter includes Goffin and King’s songs in released versions by those very artists and many more.

The Legendary Demos, of course, starts at the very beginning, but it hasn’t arrived without its share of surprises.  King’s publishing demos were well-known up and down Broadway; as producer Lou Adler accurately observes in the liner notes, “Within her piano, you could hear a string part, or another background part, and she did the background parts!”  These seminal recordings, dating from 1961-1970, have long been requested, but until now have eluded commercial release.  The good news is that all thirteen tracks show King at the absolute peak of her form.  The bad news is that there are only thirteen tracks (compare with the twenty-six on Something Good!) and the album’s total running time is just under forty minutes.  These songs – culled from some 118 hits penned by King – are just the tip of the iceberg.

The most eyebrow-raising aspect of the album may be the presence of five demos from 1971’s Tapestry, meaning that listeners are likely already familiar with King’s renditions of the songs.  (A sixth song from Tapestry, “(You Make Me Feel Like a) Natural Woman,” is heard in a galvanizing demo intended for Aretha Franklin, predating the Tapestry album.)  The biggest thrill of Legendary Demos comes from hearing Carole King sing The Monkees’ “Pleasant Valley Sunday” or The Righteous Brothers’ “Just Once in My Life.”  Good as these demos of “It’s Too Late” and “You’ve Got a Friend” are, one has the nagging wish that they had been saved for a Tapestry: The Demo release, allowing King’s versions of songs written for others to take the spotlight here.

King’s gifts as a vocalist truly come to the fore on these intimate demos.  She never imitated a singer for whom she’s “pitching” a song (in fact, some of those singers ended up imitating King’s demo!) but adopted different tones and phrasing for each title that might recall the artist for whom the song is intended.  More likely, it was just intuition of knowing which artist might be most suited to a particular composition and tailoring that demo to his or her strengths.  Though the approach is non-chronological here, it still traces the journey from staff songwriter to singer/songwriter.  Long before “confessional” songwriting was in vogue, honesty and believability was at the core of the Goffin and King songbook.  Goffin had the knack for verbalizing the emotions of kids his own age; Goffin was just 20 and King 17 when they married in 1959.  Although Legendary Demos also contains songs with lyrics by Howard Greenfield (“Crying in the Rain”), Toni Stern (“It’s Too Late”) and King herself (“You’ve Got a Friend,” “Tapestry,” “Way Over Yonder”), the early songs with Goffin are the heart of this collection.

Hit the jump for much more on both new sets!

It’s often revelatory to hear the lyrics in a stripped-down, unadorned setting, and these raw performances, with King on emotive vocals and propulsive piano, pack a powerful punch.  The singer sounds impossibly youthful on “Take Good Care of My Baby” and “Crying in the Rain,” from 1961 and 1962, respectively.  “Pleasant Valley Sunday” (1966) has a somewhat more languid groove and a very different arrangement than The Monkees’ harder-rocking hit version, but there’s great bite when King declares, “I don’t ever want to see another Pleasant Valley Sunday” in the song’s scathing indictment of suburbia.  That lyric wasn’t even sung by the Monkees!  (King: “Gerry did not enjoy living in the suburbs, an opinion he vigorously documented [in the song].”)  King’s multi-tracked vocals are ubiquitous on these demos, further demonstrating her versatility as a vocalist.  She passionately and believably evokes both Righteous Brothers on the thunderous “Just Once in My Life,” the duo’s 1965 follow-up to “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’,” which had been penned by Aldon’s other husband-and-wife stars, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil.

The lesser-known songs get a chance to shine alongside the big hits.  “So Goes Love” was also recorded by The Monkees, but is even more haunting in King’s original.  “Like Little Children” (1966) was apparently never placed with an artist; the demo was first aired on the soundtrack to the 1999 film Crazy in Alabama.  (“Why should two grown people have to act like little children?”)  It’s the most fully-produced of the songs here, complete with a horn part.  The dramatic “Yours Until Tomorrow” (also 1966) could have been a hit by Gene Pitney or Cher or Dee Dee Warwick, and listening to King’s treatment, you’ll wonder how it missed.

It’s hard to believe that King herself didn’t write the lyric to “Natural Woman,” another track with key variations not only from the hit version (Aretha Franklin’s) but from King’s own take on Tapestry.  Though the fidelity of the track here isn’t great, the performance is sensual, spontaneous and completely galvanizing.  As for the other Tapestry songs, they’re not as dramatically different as many of the other songs here, but King’s voice is up-front, the groove even more casual and immediately inviting.  After all, live solo piano versions of the album’s songs have been released in the past.  The best of them might be “It’s Too Late,” with a lot of vocalizing from the singer, and some particularly thrilling playing.

David Browne, author of the fine tome, Fire and Rain: The Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, James Taylor, CSNY and the Lost Story of 1970, offers a solid four-page essay, although he erroneously credits the lyric to “Crying in the Rain” to Gerry Goffin rather than Howard Greenfield.  Nathaniel Kunkel has restored the tracks from the original tapes, and the splendid mastering is by Doug Sax and Robert Hadley.  Make no mistake, the songs on this thoughtfully-sequenced disc, by a young, talented and driven composer and singer, lives up to every expectation.  If only The Legendary Demos released more of them.

There are no such qualms with Ace’s new anthology.  The cover photo of an immaculately-coiffed woman alongside her intense-looking husband on Something Good from the Goffin and King Songbook doesn’t much resemble the free-spirited, denim-clad, long-haired lady of the canyon on the cover of The Legendary Demos.  But Goffin and King’s teenage symphonies on both discs bear the same hallmarks of craft and emotion.  And so deep is the team’s catalogue that Something Good (Ace’s third such collection of the duo’s songs) makes the case that the series could continue indefinitely without ever having to resort to anything remotely considered third-tier.

Of the smash hits, Something Good includes The Chiffons’ delightful “One Fine Day.”  With its iconic piano introduction intact, it’s no surprise that the vocals were actually recorded over King’s original demo track!  Freddie Scott’s original of the stunningly mature “Hey Girl,” with a Garry Sherman arrangement, is here, and it’s still hard to believe the song was released as early as 1963, sounding at least a couple of years ahead of its time.  The excellent liner notes from Mick Patrick and Tony Rounce also reveal a crucial detail about Phil Spector’s uncredited involvement in the song’s production by Gerry Goffin!  The Cookies were the Aldon Music in-house singers, and their take on “Don’t Say Nothin’ Bad (About My Baby)” remains memorably insouciant.

“I’m Into Something Good” is best-known in its version by Herman’s Hermits, but Patrick and Rounce have selected Earl-Jean’s original.  The Cash Box review reprinted in the booklet notes the song’s “haunting sound” arranged and played by Carole King; the Hermits version changed a couple of gender pronouns, and brought out the song’s ebullience and joy.  The Drifters, who introduced Goffin and King’s “Up on the Roof,” are represented with “At the Club” in its single mix which featured, yes, more cowbell.  It’s clear that the group could entice listeners whether to the roof or the club!  In the Shoulda-Been-a-Hit department is Lenny Welch’s 1967 “The Right to Cry,” a big ballad in the “Hey Girl” style that would have been ideally suited to The Righteous Brothers.  (Sandie Shaw also covered the song.)  The compilation shows how effectively Goffin and King adapted to the rock idiom, as well.  “Goin’ Back,” more associated in the U.K. with Dusty Springfield, is heard in the Byrds’ countrified rendition, and The Monkees go country/rock on the Mike Nesmith-produced “Sweet Young Thing.”

The rarest track here is undoubtedly Bobby Goldsboro’s “The Time For Us.”  There are no other known recordings of this sweet, laconic ballad enhanced with gentle strings (“Let me hold you in my arms/Our chance won’t slip away if we don’t let it/Don’t be afraid, you won’t regret it/This is the time for us”).  Okay, not every song is a lost treasure: Big Dee Irwin’s “Soul Waltzin’” (“Come on, baby, it’s a groove/It’s a really modern way to move/It’s a dance you can’t improve!”)  is not quite “The Loco Motion,” but then again, it can’t be easy to write a soul tune in three-quarter time!  (Its flip was another Goffin/King song entitled “Happy Being Fat.”)  Dee Dee Sharp does “The Loco-Motion” itself.  Popularized by original demo vocalist Little Eva, the song was actually written for Dee Dee, and her eventual performance on Cameo-Parkway sticks closely to the blueprint of the original.

The American Breed’s “I Don’t Think You Know Me” is another rarity; the song was also covered by The Monkees.  Philadelphia’s Bunny Sigler turned “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” into a dancefloor track with a Motown beat in this Jimmy Wisner-produced single from 1966, and Tony Orlando’s “Talkin’ About You” is an atypical, clattering, call-and-response number.  Nashville’s Skeeter Davis wasn’t always as downbeat as on her timeless “The End of the World.”  Skeeter proves herself quite adaptable to the girl group sound with “Easy to Love (So Hard to Get).”  Dion DiMucci is heard on “Take Good Care of My Baby,” a chart-topper for Bobby Vee, and Vee himself is represented here with “It Might As Well Rain Till September.”  Dion’s version of “Take Good Care” was not a cover, however.  Lacking the familiar verse of the hit single, Dion’s version was in the can before Bobby’s was ever recorded, though it was issued shortly after Vee’s.

Savoring the 26 tracks and 22-page booklet of Something Good, it’s easy to wish that The Legendary Demos had been compiled in as comprehensive a fashion.  But both releases do a remarkable job in proving the immortality of these songs composed by the natural woman with the almost supernatural talent.  The Legendary Demos and Something Good are, simply, some kind of wonderful.

Written by Joe Marchese

April 24, 2012 at 10:02

3 Responses

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  1. I’m assuming that the King demos are going to be spread out over several discs in the future with as few tracks as possible on each disc for maximizing sales (that seems to be what they decided to do with the new collection of George Harrison demos, also a remarkably brief collection). 10-12 tracks seems to be the ideal number and would have been for a vinyl product, just like back in the 60s. Then an eventual box will appear with even more unreleased tracks. Oh well.

    BTW, is the “Crying in the Rain” demo the same version that was used in Rhino’s girl group (hat)box set?

    William Keats

    April 24, 2012 at 11:25

  2. A recording of “the Right to Cry” by Sandie Shaw? I have all her ’60’s emi reissues and I’m not aware of it…..

    Eric Anderson

    April 24, 2012 at 13:19

    • Hi Eric, I believe you’ll find “The Right to Cry” on Sandie’s 1968 Pye album entitled THE SANDIE SHAW SUPPLEMENT.

      Joe Marchese

      April 24, 2012 at 13:36

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