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This interview was originally broadcast on April 11, 2012.
Carole King initially found it extremely difficult to navigate the social hierarchies of high school. The Grammy Award-winning songwriter was a few years younger than her fellow classmates and was often dismissed as being "cute."
"And it was like, no, I don't want to be cute, I want to be beautiful and smart," she tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "And that wasn't happening, and then I connected through music. So music became a way of identifying my particular niche. How lucky for me."
King, a member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame, has written for everyone from Little Eva to Aretha Franklin to James Taylor. Her 1971 solo album Tapestry spent 15 weeks at the top of the charts, and stayed on the charts for more than six years.
But King was just 15 when she and three classmates formed a vocal quartet called the Co-Sines at James Madison High School. At night, she attended disc jockey Alan Freed's concerts — a veritable "who's who" of rock 'n' roll performers — and later set up a meeting with Freed, an internationally known rock promoter she thought could help her break into the songwriting business. Freed told her to look up the names of record companies in the phone book.
She recounts the story in her memoir, A Natural Woman, explaining that she called Atlantic Records and arranged a meeting. Soon after, she wrote her first big hit — the Shirelles number, "Will You Love Me Tomorrow?" — with Gerry Goffin, who would later become her husband.
She met Goffin at Queens College, where she also met Paul Simon, Art Garfunkel and Neil Sedaka. Simon and King helped record demos for other bands but never wrote together. Instead, King collaborated with Goffin. It was a partnership that worked instantaneously, she says.
"What made him so extraordinary as a lyricist was his ability, in really simple words, big ideas, big feelings, big thoughts," she says. "He had the ability — he's a straight man — to get inside a woman's head and say the things a woman was thinking."
Goffin and King wrote a series of hits, including "Take Good Care of my Baby," "The Loco-Motion" and "One Fine Day." But in the late 1960s, as the music scene was changing and the counterculture scene exploded, they stopped collaborating together — both professionally and personally. King moved from New York City to Los Angeles, where other singer-songwriters like James Taylor were also trying to get their big break.
It was in Los Angeles where King wrote "You've Got a Friend," one of Taylor's greatest hits.
"That song, pure and simple, came through me," she says. "I sat at the piano; the song came through me. People say, 'Did you write it for James Taylor?' No, no I didn't."
The track "You've Got a Friend" is included on the new album The Legendary Demos, which features the original recordings of many of her greatest hits. Many of those came from her 1971 album Tapestry, which was released while she was playing piano with Taylor's band.
"I think 'So Far Away' and 'You've Got a Friend' were written with just [Taylor's] voice in my brain," she says. "I wasn't writing for him, because God knows he didn't need other people's songs. But his voice was in my brain, and he had such a profound influence on my writing."
On how the counterculture influenced her relationship with Gerry Goffin
"A lot of my contemporaries at that time — maybe each person or couple thinking that they were alone in feeling these things. You have a couple where one member of the marriage or relationship was drawn to the counterculture and the other was like, 'But wait. What's happening? We were a couple and now you want to do all these things that the '60s invited.' "
On writing about her third husband, Rick Evers, who abused her
"I did leave it in [the book], and the reason I left it in was because there are women — and some men — who experience domestic abuse who feel ashamed, who think it's their fault, who think they don't deserve to be safe or don't remember what it's like to be safe. And I thought, 'If women and men read this and say, 'Wow, she was successful. She had financial independence. She had it so together and she could be in a relationship like that ... maybe I'm not so bad, maybe it's not my fault.' And that's why I wrote it, to send that message out."
On the first time she heard one of her records on the radio
"It was 'Will You Love Me Tomorrow?' And Gerry and I were in his, and what became our, '56 Mercury. And we're listening to this come out of the tinny speakers. And we're like, 'Oh, my God, I can't believe this.' We were just through the roof and to the moon. It was just such a thrill. But that doesn't go away. I made an album called Love Makes the World. The first time I heard the single "Love Makes the World" — which I wrote with two guys in New York — I thought, 'Wow, it's out there. It's on the radio.' "