Tapestry 50th Anniversary


It was an album for everybody.

That doesn’t happen too often, but when it does, the music business takes a giant leap forward, everybody pays attention, everybody listens, music is talked about, it drives the culture.

Last example? Adele. Her album “21” sold ten times, literally TEN TIMES as much as everything else in the marketplace. It worked for hipsters and as well as casual listeners. It was an alchemy of songs and singing, of passion and precision. “21” was a statement by an artist, not just product to support a system.

Same deal with the Beatles. At first it was a teen phenomenon. Then came “Michelle” and “Yesterday.” No one could deny them as songs. A far cry from today when beats and rhythm rule and a song can have very few changes, if any at all. Anybody could sing “Michelle” and “Yesterday,” and they did, and we did. Never forget that singability is key to ubiquity.

No one was waiting for the new opus of Carole King. She was seen as a has-been…no, a relic. Her biggest successes were pre-Beatles. She was a songwriter with her husband Gerry Goffin when that was still necessary, before the artists wrote their own songs. The paradigm had shifted. What most people did not know is that Carole King had shifted with it.

James Taylor was for everybody. Not that it looked like that at first. His first Apple album was a stiff. Loved by listeners, but there were very few of them. And expectations were not high in the marketplace for “Sweet Baby James,” but word spread and by the fall of 1970 it was a phenomenon. Why was “Sweet Baby James” embraced? It was simple and heartfelt. You really thought it was James in the grooves. Maybe not someone you could completely identify with, but someone you wanted to know. And when “Fire and Rain” crossed over to AM radio…

Carole King was playing piano with James Taylor. She’d gone from songwriter to supporting player. Which was strange, because back in the day, she and her husband were bigger than the artists who recorded their songs. Classic example, “The Loco-Motion.”

I bought the single. This was a different era, if you wanted to hear something repeatedly you had to own it. And records were like drugs. You just couldn’t get enough of them, you had to mainline them. This is what has been lost in the modern era of big bucks when commerce is considered to be everything. Back then it was all about magic. And nearly sixty years later “The Loco-Motion” evidences just as much magic as it did upon initial release. It was the sound. The groove. The changes. You could not listen without moving, even if the only moving was in your mind, a fantasy of a better, more happy life, which is what music represented in that optimistic era. That’s when I first learned of Carole King. She and Goffin’s names were on the label, and those you studied, sometimes the record would spin and you would stare at it.

But this was back before the rock press. You had to be paying attention to know who Carole King was. There was no hype. And “Tapestry” did not blow up as a result of marketing, it was very simple, there was a song on the album, her version of her song James Taylor made famous, “You’ve Got a Friend.”

Not that Carole hadn’t tried before. “Writer” was a complete stiff upon its release in 1970. I did not know a single person who owned it. Then. But after “Tapestry”…people could not get enough, they always went back to the catalog, when there was a catalog and the hit parade was not dominated by barely pubescent youngsters selling fresh-faced sexuality more than talent. You not only have to pay the dues if you want to sing the blues, you’ve got to pay ’em if you want to last. It’s the journey that beefs up your chops, teaches you how to deal with the ups-and-downs, that toughens your skin, gives you confidence.

But James Taylor was a phenomenon. And expectations were high for his 1971 album “Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon.”

You can’t compete with your own legend. Neil Young knew this fifty years ago. It wasn’t worth it to try and top “Harvest,” so he didn’t. He went on the road with an electric band and recorded “Time Fades Away.” Alienating the recent converts and leaving only the core, who wanted to actively go on Neil’s’ hejira with him. As a result, Neil was not boxed in by his legacy, and the audience was ready when he delivered again in 1979, with “Rust Never Sleeps” and “My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue).”

Now in retrospect, the highs on “Mud Slide Slim” are superior to those on “Sweet Baby James,” or at least their equal. “Mud Slide Slim” has “Riding on a Railroad,” “You Can Close Your Eyes” and “Machine Gun Kelly,” comparable, and in my mind superseding, “Sweet Baby James,” “Country Road” and “Fire and Rain.” But “Mud Slide Slim” was six minutes longer than its predecessor. And its opening track, “Love Has Brought Me Around,” although very good, was not a one listen smash. Nor was the opening cut on the second side, the hyped in the media “Hey Mister, That’s Me up on the Jukebox.” “Mud Slide Slim” was long and spotty whereas “Sweet Baby James” was short and compact, complete, easily digestible. And as a result, the buzz on the LP was superseded by “Tapestry.”


I never liked James Taylor’s version of “You’ve Got a Friend.” It was sweet and sappy, in a way James had never been before. But once you heard the original…

That was the buzz. That “You’ve Got a Friend” was written by Carole King, which seemed kind of strange, since Taylor was known for his songwriting, but there it was, in the credits.

Then again, just as “Mud Slide Slim” was released, King released a two-sided single better than almost anything in the marketplace, “It’s Too Late”/”I Feel the Earth Move.”

But this was the heyday of albums, and if you heard something you liked, you usually bought the album, not the single, and when you dropped the needle on “Tapestry”…

I ultimately heard “It’s Too Late” too many times, I still can’t listen to it. That was the song that broke the dam, that made everybody aware of Carole King, it was vastly overplayed. But the first song on the LP, the B-side of that single…

While James Taylor was going softer, Carole King exhibited an edge, she was playing like she meant it, the opening chords of “I Feel the Earth Move” heralded a rocker, not a wimpy AM bombshell. That’s how it is when you hear the right record, the earth moves, and you’ve got to get up and move with it.

And it wasn’t only the piano playing. Carole was nearly shouting the lyrics. She sang like she meant it, AND SHE’D WRITTEN IT!

“I Feel the Earth Move” was funky, in a way James Taylor never was.

And the conclusion was as good as the inception, King slowed down, tumbling down…”I Feel the Earth Move” was a TOUR DE FORCE!

And back in the days before not only streaming, but CD players, when you started one side of a vinyl LP you usually let it play on, and in this case then you discovered “So Far Away.”

“So Far Away” was the album’s sleeper. A track every boomer knows, that mimicked their own coming of age. The truth is no one stayed in one place anymore. They graduated and scattered, took to the road, not the sky, and those highways led them to places where they were essentially disconnected, long distance phone calls were expensive, if you even had anybody’s number.

And then came the single, “It’s Too Late.” Which was a song of empowerment. King was anything but a victim.

And then “Home Again” was personal and unproduced when James Taylor was going in the opposite direction, with more money adding more elements. And with so many miles on her personal highway Carole played the piano confidently, she seemed to channel her brain right into her fingers, to the keys and the strings.

“Snow is cold, rain is wet

Chills my soul right to the marrow”

These lyrics go through my brain when it rains, when it’s quiet and I feel alone. “Home Again” is a minor masterpiece. Carole knew what made a hit song. It had to have changes, hooks. And “Home Again” did.

And side one continued its run with “Beautiful” and “Way Over Yonder.” There were no clunkers, you could drop the needle and let your mind go on a journey, detached from the world, back when you could still do this.

And the second side, back when there still was one, opened with her take on “You’ve Got a Friend.” It was tougher, edgier, and somehow more personal than James’s version. Only the writer could sing this way, these were her words, this is how she felt. And as a result we felt it.

And “Where You Lead” was bouncy, the complete opposite of “You’ve Got a Friend.”

As was “Smackwater Jack.”

Then there were the two covers of her earlier work, made hits by others. “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” was slower, more intimate than the hit Shirelles’ version. Same changes, yet almost a different song.

No one could compete with Aretha’s version of “(You Make Me Feel Like) a Natural Woman,” so King did not. She excised any penumbra, it was just her at the piano, singing directly from her heart to his. In Carole’s version the lyrics superseded the music, which was always stellar, but here it’s just the bed, Carole’s rendition of “(You Make Me Feel Like) a Natural Woman,” was less of a performance and more of a personal statement.

And that was it… WHEW!


This was 1971. Before everybody had an FM receiver in the car. When if you wanted to be big, you still needed to cross over to AM radio. Then again, this was back when FM was still somewhat experimental, when it was a big tent, when it could play so much it ultimately could not.

Today they say everybody listens to a smorgasbord of music. And although in some cases that is true, as years have gone by in the digital age there have become taller and more rigid silos, that many don’t venture out of. But in 1971, you could like Led Zeppelin and Carole King. They all came from the same roots, they were part of the same firmament, it was a continuum, from the Delta blues to now, people found their own tributaries and explored them, and listeners did with the music. And if you struck gold, the vein was very deep, because people owned very little music, and what they possessed they played over and over and knew by heart. And you couldn’t put out an album with one hit single and filler and expect to be a success, if you couldn’t make a statement on two long playing sides, you were not credible, you did not deserve attention, you were fluff.

So, the audience embraced Carole King. She arrived on James Taylor’s coattails, but her sound was distinct and different. He was a crooner, she was an energetic fireball with emotions, she’d lived life, she knew what she had to say and she was not pulling any punches, she was laying it all on the line, and women had someone to look up to and men had someone to idolize.

And it wasn’t about Carole’s looks, although she was and is attractive, the source of all the adulation was the music. She’d captured lightning in a bottle. You listened to the music to get closer to it, and to her. She was just a little more wise, a little more experienced, she had words of wisdom, which you devoured.

Not that we thought we’d be talking about a fifty year anniversary of “Tapestry.” Let’s not forget, “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” was a phenomenon two years before, becoming the best selling album ever on Atlantic Records, even though Ahmet Ertegun didn’t even want to release it. We expected the hits to keep on coming, we expected to consistently be wowed and amazed. And we were, but no one could ever repeat Carole King’s formula, not even Carole herself.

Like James Taylor, Carole couldn’t equal her breakthrough. “Music” and “Rhymes & Reasons” were good, just not as good as what came before.

James Taylor’s commerciality was falling off. “One Man Dog” was magical, with its second side “Abbey Road”-like suite, but FM radio was becoming harder, and he was no longer new. “Walking Man” did even worse commercially. And then came “Gorilla.” But first came “Wrap Around Joy.”

When nothing works, you’ve got to get out of the rut, stop repeating the formula, which is exactly what Carole did, with “Wrap Around Joy” and “Jazzman.”

“Lift me, won’t you lift me above the old routine”

Carole stopped singing about herself and put the focus on someone else, there was an exuberance and a joy not contained in what had come before. “Jazzman” burst out of radio speakers, and made Tom Scott a household name, at least amongst music fans, he was the special sauce that put the whole number over the top, he can credit almost his entire career to this breakthrough.

James Taylor did the same thing the following spring, he threw off the production, went simple, and rekindled the love of fans with “Mexico,” and the masses with his remake of “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You).” Thus reinvigorated, James Taylor followed up with the same team on “In the Pocket” and then switched labels to Columbia and with something to prove released “JT,” which was a worldwide smash.

But this did not happen with Carole King. Carole kept making records, but she did not seem to need the success, and then she seemed to stop trying, but she was no one hit wonder, she had a string of hits longer than most of the men. And that one gigantic album.


In retrospect it was the right place at the right time. We were looking inward after Kent State and Vietnam, we were licking our wounds. Feminism was breaking out. And like the sixties, anything still went, you could let your freak flag fly, people were still pushing the envelope and surprising us.

And the world at large had no idea how much money these artists and record labels were making. Beyond what the film studios and TV networks were. Music defined the culture. If you wanted to know what was really going on, you listened to music. Sure, the seventies were a heyday of film, but music was always more personal, and made for repeat listening, it wasn’t something you experienced once, but again and again and again, it became part of your life.

So at this point Carole King is seen as an old pro. But unlike so many of her contemporaries, she didn’t O.D., she soldiered on. Long enough to have a victory lap on Broadway, “Beautiful” was a jukebox musical that didn’t want for songs.

Then again, it was always the songs Carole King was interested in. She was bitten by the music, not the business. She wanted to be involved in the sound, not the branding, not the merchandise. She knew the power of a song. And it turned out she could ride with the times, she never lost her power, she could always surprise you.

But now it’s 2021. Back in 1971 we weren’t talking about the hit music of 1921. But the music of fifty years ago was the culture’s defining statement. TV had “All in the Family,” but not much more. It was slim pickings. But music had a cornucopia of offerings, all different, all worth paying attention to. It was a golden era.

Mostly of men.

But Carole King stood right there with them. And ultimately Joni Mitchell too. They were just as good as the men, if not better. And their music was enough, it was all in the grooves, their looks and personal lives didn’t hurt them, but that is not what sold their music, which lasts until today.

I remember the first time I heard “Tapestry.” It was in Hepburn Hall at Middlebury College, my freshman residence. Someone else played it. And then I had to have it. Just had to have it.

And I’m not the only one.

Which is why people always ask what albums you’d take to a desert isle. They don’t ask what movies or TV shows, it’s music that’s repeatable, that continues to pay dividends.

Our lives have been a tapestry of rich and royal hue. They didn’t turn out how we planned. But looking back we see the signposts that informed us in our decisions, gave us our directions. We followed the music. We weren’t sure where we were going. But one thing is for sure, where it led, we followed.

We followed Carole King.

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