The album embodied King’s musical genius, capturing her optimism and perseverance, which enabled her to make it in a man’s world and has given the album great longevity and appeal to fans of all types of music.
Carol Klein was born in Brooklyn in 1942 to supportive parents who encouraged her creative and professional drive. She had mastered the piano by age 4, and at 15 pitched songs to New York record executives who offered her a contract with ABC Paramount. She added an ‘E’ to her first name, Anglicized her last name and voilà! Carole King, the hitmaking machine, was born.
She met her first husband and writing partner Gerry Goffin, a chemistry major while they were students at Queens College. King had her first child at 18 and her first number one hit (“Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow”). She and Goffin established a successful career as a Brill Building songwriting duo in New York. Together, they wrote hits for Little Eva (“Locomotion”), Bobby Vee (“Take Good Care of My Baby”) and the Shirelles (“Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow”) among others.
This remarkable string of hits was even greater considering the odds facing King: The plausibility of a successful female songwriter in the music industry machine in the 1950s and ’60s was slim to none. Like King, the other few female songwriters in the Brill Building era were one half of male/female songwriting teams. While these ‘duos’ were organic pairings, it is doubtful the young Jewish King would have been granted access into the boys club without Goffin. King acknowledged often being the only woman in the room but was so confident in her profession and abilities that it never occurred to her that she didn’t belong, a familiar narrative for women of her generation who were able to break barriers and make a name for themselves.
In 1967, Aretha Franklin recorded King’s “A Natural Woman,” and brought the song to life as it existed in King’s head, but in a manner she was unequipped to perform on her own. She described the performance as the height of all of her dreams and expectations.
A year later, however, King and Goffin divorced, and she packed up her two children and traveled west to California, where she met James Taylor. The duo formed a band and lifelong friendship. King credits Taylor with encouraging her to sing and forcing her to perform lead vocals on “Up on the Roof” at a Queens College concert. He recorded King’s “You’ve Got a Friend,” his first No. 1 hit, and she went on to include the song on “Tapestry” — along with her version of two other previously recorded hits (“Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” and “A Natural Woman”).
Out of the hippie free love, sex drugs rock-and-roll counterculture of the 1960s, in the midst of the Vietnam War, after a decade of violence, tumult, rights movements and women’s liberation, the now 29-year-old King embarked on her second act with the release of “Tapestry” in 1971 — a quietly feminist statement in its production, musicality and lyricism.
Sincere, earnest and personal, “Tapestry” embodied the emerging political argument, ‘the personal is political.’ This phrase became a defining characteristic of second wave feminism at a time when women and others challenged the institutions of marriage, the nuclear family and its values and state control of women’s reproductive rights. King’s depiction on the cover, in jeans and bare feet, showed a marked departure from the slick production associated with her girl-group hits.
King personified connections between the private experiences of women and larger social and political structures. The song “It’s Too Late” dealt with the dissolution of a romantic relationship in the midst of climbing divorce rates. “So Far Away” and “Home Again” dealt with ubiquitous, romantic themes of longing and devotion but King complicates an otherwise tragic narrative by introducing acceptance and independence as the antidote to despair.
“Tapestry” also provided a salve for turbulent times. The peace and love generation had come to a grinding halt in 1969: In August, followers of Charles Manson had murdered actress Sharon Tate, who was nearly nine months pregnant, and four of her friends. In December, the Rolling Stones organized the Altamont Free Concert, envisioning a ‘Woodstock West.’ Instead the infamous concert became notable for its violence, including the stabbing death of an attendee by the Hells Angels who were purportedly serving as security. During a time of hopelessness and disappointment — when the hippie ideology succumbed to drugs, misperception and violence — King emerged as a solo artist, presenting a wholly original cultural document that begged listeners not to lose faith.
“Tapestry” was No. 1 on the Billboard charts for 15 weeks and King was the first woman (ever) to win song of the year. This was a monumental, pathbreaking achievement at a time when men continued to control the music industry. Women remained relegated to anomalous, feminized, supplemental categories and remained forgotten in broader narratives of popular music.
King had been designated a singer-writer — at the time, a new category emerging out of the folk movement — and “Tapestry” was considered a ‘soft rock,’ ‘easy listening’ album, two categories that often served to delegitimize female artists in particular. “Tapestry’s” commercial success and lasting influence in the realm of popular music exceeded gendered barriers.
King’s career embodied the gains — and the limitations — of women in the recording industry. She recorded 16 subsequent albums (several of which reached platinum and gold status) but none reached the lofty heights of “Tapestry.” Yet, King remained a master creator, and a significant inspiration to musicians across genre lines — especially women.
Beginning in 2013, the Broadway show, “Beautiful,” brought King’s story and her music to a new generation. “Beautiful” followed her trajectory from Brill Building songwriter to writer and performer, culminating in the release of “Tapestry.” In 2014, King was honored as the MusiCares Person of the Year. Performers feting her included young female pop stars like Lady Gaga, Pink and Alicia Keys. But the performer list also included Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler, country artists Jennifer Nettles and Martina McBride and legendary performers James Taylor, Darlene Love and Merry Clayton.
Even on this grand stage, the hurdles that women had to surmount remained present: Then Recording Academy President Neil Portnow, who stepped down under fire in 2019 for suggesting women were to blame for their lack of recognition in the music business, presented King with the award. And while women have accounted for a larger percentage of “Best New Artist” nominees since 2013, they still make up less than 10 percent of the nominations for Record of the Year, Album of the Year and Producer of the Year.
The #MeToo movement has seemingly succeeded in breaking down some of the same barriers King overcame: In 2021, for the first time, nominees for the historically male-dominated category Best Rock Song, are all women.
They follow in the footsteps of “Tapestry,” which won awards in the male-dominated categories of Song of the Year and Album of the Year. The album continues to attract audiences as a seminal blueprint of pop music perfection. The songs still resonate decades after their creation in part because King is the antithesis of how we typically understand musical genius — think of artists whose lives were tragically cut short like Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix or Janis Joplin. Her genius lies in rebuking darkness, in maintaining light and in giving breath to hope; to synthesizing that hope, lyrically, down to its bare essentials. She urges listeners to “get up every morning” with a smile on their face. To exude love and receive beauty.
This light, optimism and perseverance not only captures audiences in 2021, but reflects how King — and other women in the music industry — have generated success since “Tapestry” first greeted the world in 1971. Yet, for all her talent, King exudes humility in the face of the popular music machine which seems determined to delegitimize female performers.
In a world that elevates vacuous celebrity and commodification above hard truths and substance, King and “Tapestry” remain a continued reminder of our humanity, love, resilience and human connection in the present.