Carole King,
A Natural Woman: A Memoir
(Grand Central, 2012)

We music fans often feel as if we know our favorite musicians. After all, they've given us the gift of their music, and we've given them our love and admiration in return. It seems like the melody = the individual, and that we are therefore entitled to be on intimate terms with these people. We can recite their lyrics by heart. It follows that we should know the singers' hearts as well. Sometimes, we really don't.

Music icon Carole King spent 10 years penning this well-crafted autobiography. As she turns 70 this year (!), she shows that she can aptly use her voice in a different way and through a different medium. Her style is both casual and honest as she narrates the story of how Carol Joan Klein became Carole King. She chronicles the ups and downs, the triumphs and tragedies of both her personal and professional times. We follow her from childhood to adulthood; through four marriages and the births of four children; and through moves from New York to New Jersey, to California and Idaho.

And that's not even adding her music to the mix. It can be a startling revelation to realize that celebrities are often as human and as down-to-earth as we are. They even lead real lives whenever they move away from the stage and the studio.

Carole's musical prowess surfaced early, as she was growing up in Brooklyn in the 1940s and '50s. By her teenage years, she was writing tunes on the piano and heading her own band. She got advice from Alan Freed and landed a contract with a record company.

Readers may be familiar with the story of her beginning collaborations with lyricist Gerry Goffin. The songwriting duo hit it big in 1961 when the Shirelles took "Will You Love Me Tomorrow" to the charts. Success led to writing "A Natural Woman" specifically for Aretha Franklin in 1967. At the same time, the two were also creating songs for the new TV-show group, the Monkees. Carole's musical star has been rising ever since.

And yet, not everything has been perfect and wonderful. It's odd to think that someone could be co-writing hit songs and could still struggle as a young mother attempting to manage a suburban New Jersey household. If there's a recurring theme to Carole's life, it's her attempt to balance her musical career with her family obligations. During her marriages (to Gerry Goffin, Charlie Larkey, Rick Evers and Rick Sorenson), she was unfortunate enough to witness her share of drug abuse and domestic violence. Again, it seems unthinkable that such bad things could happen to someone who crafts such beautiful music. Carole reveals enough personal details for us to understand her original pain. But she also weaves her stories from a point of calm maturity, fully blessed with the wisdom that passing years and hindsight can provide. Her memoir is a far cry from a "poor, poor me" rant. She makes it easy to admire her even more.

Some readers may have lost touch with Carole King after her album Tapestry was released in 1971. Yes, our lives have gone on since then, and so has hers. We follow her through the years and through advancing stages of life. Eventually she's living off the grid in Idaho, in a very admirable and very non-celebrity manner. She's forthcoming about the legal battles over a road right-of-way that led to the case of Custer County v. Carole King Evers. We feel her distress when a hiking accident and a stage fall both incapacitate her. She relates her involvement in favorite causes, like supporting Gary Hart's 1984 presidential campaign, and interacting with challenged kids in Paul Newman's Hole in the Wall Gang Camp. Personal and music-related b&w photos are included.

It's the music that makes the rest of her life possible. Carole King's story is really the history of popular music in the 1950s, '60s and '70s. While she approaches the subject from her own viewpoint, she also notes the occurrence of major events from the times in order to provide reference. This technique results in a well-rounded history of the day that merely centers around one terrifically talented woman. Here we can watch Carole develop and grow from being merely a melody maker to becoming a full songwriter and all-round performer. She shares stories of creativity: of her writing process in general, and of her collaborations with lyricists Gerry Goffin and Toni Stern. She tells us how certain songs came about. (But she never dwells on "You've Got a Friend," which is an interesting omission. There must be something to withhold on that one.) We learn in-depth details about the Tapestry recording sessions, including the fact that the album cover brought fame to her photogenic kitty, Telemachus.

Carole has to date released a total of 25 solo albums and has branched out to act in movies and on Broadway. One of my favorite movie scores of hers is the one for Murphy's Romance.

And then there are the musicians. Yes, she's met and known a ton of them. No, she does not "dish" unnecessarily. And she doesn't name-drop just for effect. But she does tell of her professional encounters with John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Brian Wilson and others, in a matter-of-fact manner, because that's just the way it happened. The most fortuitous meeting, of course, was with James Taylor in 1967. When Carole was part of his band on a 1970 tour, James forced her to sing "Up on the Roof" by herself to the audience. She'd written the song, so why shouldn't she be able to sing it? James gave her the opportunity to find and establish her performing niche. No wonder they've remained friends ever since.

One impressive feature about Carole's book is that she does not rely just on her memories alone. In many instances, she has gone back and tracked down the other individuals involved in the events (if they are still with us) and has asked them for their perspectives. Naturally, she can't ask us fans what we remember about where we were and what we were doing when we first heard the music. We have to fill in those blanks for ourselves. Surely the melodies and lyrics hold different meanings for us than they do for the creators or performers. That reality is never more obvious than within the pages of this book. Carole gives us the chance to finally be backstage with her, but also to honor our own remembrances.

A Natural Woman is a terrific read for any Baby Boomer, male or female; and for anyone who wants to learn more about the history of American music. (Another perspective on the same time and characters can be found in Sheila Weller's Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon, & the Journey of a Generation. Readers of both books will be able to hold that third-person approach against Carole's own memories and research. Taken together, they make for an insightful comparison.

I was fortunate enough to see Carole King and James Taylor in concert in Boston during their 40th anniversary Troubadour tour in 2010. (You can read my review, if you wish..) At the end of A Natural Woman, Carole apologizes that she doesn't have space or time to write about that wonderful year. She teases us by saying that the experience is "a subsequent tale that I want very much to tell." What great news, Carole! When you're ready, we'll be happy to sit back and listen.

[ visit the author's website ]

book review by
Corinne H. Smith

4 August 2012

Agree? Disagree?
Send us your opinions!

what's new