Gerry Goffin, lyricist who co-wrote seminal ’60s hits, dies at 75


Carole King and Gerry Goffin in 1987 at their induction ceremony into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in New York City. (Sam Teicher Collection For Songwriters Hall Of Fame /Via European Pressphoto Agency)
June 20

Gerry Goffin, a lyricist who composed some of the seminal pop-rock hits of the 1960s with his then-wife, Carole King, before his affairs, prodigious drug use and mental breakdown derailed their relationship, died June 19 at his home in Los Angeles. He was 75.

His wife, Michele Goffin, announced the death but did not disclose the cause.

With a style known as “uptown rhythm and blues,” Mr. Goffin and King formed one of the most prolific and successful musical teams of the 1960s. Their first hit, written for the Shirelles in 1960, was “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?,” which expresses with frankness a woman’s fears of the day after sexual intimacy.

Is this a lasting treasure

Or just a moment’s pleasure?

Can I believe the magic in your sighs

Will you still love me tomorrow?

King, who composed the music for which Mr. Goffin supplied the lyrics, once said his “understanding of human nature transcended gender.” That quality of empathy explained not only the tender lyrics of the Shirelles’ song but also the sexually unbridled words of “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” a bespoke composition for Aretha Franklin in 1967.

The Goffin-King duo also wrote “The Loco-Motion” for their then-babysitter Little Eva, “Up on the Roof” for the Drifters, “One Fine Day” for the Chiffons, “Take Good Care of My Baby” for Bobby Vee, “Go Away Little Girl” for crooner Steve Lawrence, “Pleasant Valley Sunday” for the Monkees, “I’m Into Something Good” for Herman’s Hermits and “Don’t Bring Me Down” for the Animals.

In 1963, John Lennon said he and Paul McCartney wished to be “the Goffin-King of England” and used their song “Chains” on one of the Beatles’ early albums.

The marriage imploded in the late 1960s, and King reinvented herself as a singer-songwriter with her 1971 album, “Tapestry.” With songs such as “So Far Away,” “I Feel the Earth Move” and “You Have a Friend,” “Tapestry” sold more than 13 million records over the decades and became a critical influence on artists such as Tori Amos and Reba McEntire.

“It was completely original, and Carole really showed me up as a lyricist,” Mr. Goffin later told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “When we were together, she never contributed one line, so I had no indication that she could do it.”

Mr. Goffin released two solo albums that did not sell well, but he teamed fruitfully with songwriter Michael Masser to write for others. With Masser, he earned an Academy Award nomination for “Theme From Mahogany (Do You Know Where You’re Going To?)” for a 1975 Diana Ross movie.

They also wrote the romantic ballad “Tonight, I Celebrate My Love” (1983), which became a well-played duet by Peabo Bryson and Roberta Flack. Mr. Goffin and Masser’s pop R&B ballad “Saving All My Love for You” (1985) became singer Whitney Houston’s first No. 1 hit and earned her a Grammy Award.

Mr. Goffin and King were inducted together into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990, with a citation that noted their individual accomplishments but mostly highlighted “a string of classic hits and cherished album tracks” from the 1960s.

Overall, King became a household name as a solo star while Mr. Goffin receded into the background.

“The fact is, however, that many of King’s greatest songs were written with Goffin,” rock music historian Anthony DeCurtis wrote in an e-mail. “And, not to be harsh, but how many great songs did King write after ‘Tapestry’? They were their own best collaborators.”

Of Mr. Goffin’s strengths, DeCurtis added, “His lyrics are both elegant and plainspoken, moving without succumbing to sentimentality. He set a standard for literacy without ever being a show-off about it.”

Gerald Goffin, a salesman’s son, was born in Brooklyn on Feb. 11, 1939, and grew up in Queens. He aspired to be a playwright but majored in chemistry at Queens College. There, he fell in with a group of promising songwriters that included King.

Within a year of their meeting in 1958, King became pregnant with the first of their two daughters. They wed the next year and Mr. Goffin worked at a chemical company in Brooklyn as he helped King churn out dozens of songs in the hope they could achieve a musical breakthrough.

Through King’s childhood friend, songwriter Neil Sedaka, they became part of a stable of songwriters working for music publishing impresario Don Kirshner, whose company Aldon was around the corner from the Brill Building in Manhattan.

Aldon’s roster included Howard Greenfield, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, whose songs such as “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do” and “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” married the craftsmanship of Tin Pan Alley with the marketability of teen heartache and yearning.

At first, Mr. Goffin maintained his day job at the chemical company. He came home one night to find a note from King on his tape recorder: “Went to play mah-jongg. Donny needs a lyric for the Shirelles by tomorrow. Please write.”

“So I turn on the tape machine and I listen to the melody, and it was something new, something different — it really sounded good,” he later told Vanity Fair. “And the lyric came out so easy.”

The result, “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” became a smash for the Shirelles and, as hit after hit followed, Mr. Goffin and King vaulted to the top of the Kirshner music empire.

Mr. Goffin’s “will and temper,” which initially lent discipline to their songwriting partnership, began to strain their marriage, author Sheila Weller wrote in “Girls Like Us,” a joint biography of King, Joni Mitchell and Carly Simon. Mr. Goffin sought companionship elsewhere and had a daughter with Jeanie McCrea Reavis, a singer with the girl group, the Cookies.

Mr. Goffin told Vanity Fair that he embraced the counterculture early. “I wanted to be a hippie — grew my hair long — and Carole did it modestly,” he said. “She never wanted to go overboard. And then I started taking LSD and mescaline. And Carole and I began to grow apart because she felt that she had to say things herself. She had to be her own lyricist.”

Mr. Goffin’s heavy drug use exacerbated his fragile mental health. He eventually was hospitalized and diagnosed with manic depression, Weller wrote.

Besides his wife, Michele, survivors include five children, a brother and six grandchildren.

The Goffin-King marriage is a central component of “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical,” which opened this year on Broadway.

Mr. Goffin was “a good man with a dynamic force, whose words and creative influence will resonate for generations to come,” King said in a statement. “His words expressed what so many people were feeling but didn’t know how to say.”

Adam Bernstein has spent his career putting the "post" in Washington Post, first as an obituary writer and then as editor. The American Society of Newspaper Editors recognized Bernstein’s ability to exhume “the small details and anecdotes that get at the essence of the person” and to write stories that are “complex yet stylish.”
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