Their marriage was turbulent, his struggle with mental illness well-documented, but out of that volatile partnership, Gerry Goffin and Carole King managed to write some of the most beautiful, canonical songs in the gospel of pop music. Their compositions encapsulated what it was like to be young and yearning — for love, adventure or just a quiet place to dream — in New York City in the ’60s. A mix of R&B and Broadway , much of Goffin and King’s music was soul music, as felt and articulated by two Jewish kids. It remains a melting pot of shared passions and experience as enduring as New York City itself.
As Brill Building songwriters, Goffin and King composed many of the hits that shaped the girl group sound. Some listeners might bristle at the pre-feminist sensibilities of Goffin’s lyrics to “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” “Chains” and “One Fine Day,” songs in which girls worried about landing and keeping the boy of their dreams, of standing by him no matter how possessive or unfaithful he may be. But it’s wrong to judge these songs as if they were written today, and dismiss them as sexist. There’s a world of difference between Goffin, who lived in a “Mad Men” culture, writing, “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” and, say, Robin Thicke writing “Blurred Lines” in 2013.
Besides, the trembly uncertainty of a girl losing her virginity in “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” grew into aching poignance when King sang it from the perspective of a wistful and wise liberated woman on Tapestry. And when you’re listening to Aretha Franklin tearing joyfully into “(You Make Me Feel Like a) Natural Woman,” are you really thinking, “Oh, figures, a man wrote a song about a woman made whole by love”? Please say no.
Here are some of Gerry Goffin and Carole King’s greatest hits.
1. “Up on the Roof” (originally recorded by the Drifters, 1963). Urban poetry: “When this old world starts getting me down/ And people are just too much for me to face/ I climb way up to the top of the stairs/ And all my cares just drift right into space …”
2. “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” (originally recorded by the Shirelles, 1961). The sexual frankness (for its time) is breathtaking. “Is this a lasting treasure/ Or just a moment’s pleasure/ Can I believe the magic of your sighs/ Will you still love me tomorrow …”
3. “(You Make Me Feel Like a) Natural Woman” (originally recorded by Aretha Franklin, 1967.) “When my soul was in the lost and found/ You came along to claim it/ I didn’t know what was wrong with me/ Till your kiss helped me name it …”
4. “Goin’ Back” (originally recorded by Dusty Springfield, 1966; version below by Carole King). One of those songs that hits you harder the older you get. “Now there are no games to only pass the time/ No more electric trains, no more trees to climb/ Thinking young and growing older is no sin/ And I can play the game of life to win …”
5. “Pleasant Valley Sunday” (originally recorded by the Monkees, 1966). Concise social commentary in lyrics that propel the melody forward. “The local rock group down the street is trying hard to learn their song/They serenade the weekend squire who just came out to mow his lawn …”
6. “Oh No, Not My Baby” (originally recorded by Maxine Brown, 1964; version below by Merry Clayton was recorded in 1972, with Carole King on piano and backing vocals). Goffin was famously unfaithful; he had a baby with the lead singer of the Cookies while married to King. All of which puts an ironic spin on these lyrics. “When my friends told me you had someone new/ I didn’t believe a single word was true …”
7. “Some Kind of Wonderful” (originally recorded by the Drifters, 1961). Lush romanticism. “When I’m in your embrace/ This world is a happy place/ And something happens to me/ That’s some kind of wonderful …”
8. “Don’t Say Nothin’ Bad About My Baby” (originally recorded by the Cookies, 1962). Tough girls in love. Also, see “Oh No, Not My Baby,” above. “He’s true/ He’s true to me/ So girl, you better shut your mouth …”
9. “One Fine Day” (originally recorded by the Chiffons, 1963). The essence of the girl-group sound and happily-ever-after hopefulness. “One fine day/ We’ll meet once more/ Then you’ll want the love/ You threw away before …”
10. “I’m Into Something Good” (originally recorded by Earl-Jean MacRae of the Cookies, 1964; Herman’s Hermits had the hit, also 1964). The sunny side of “Will You Love Me Tomorrow”: “He walked me home and he held my hand/ I knew it wouldn’t be just a one night stand …”
And a personal favorite that Goffin wrote with Barry Mann, “Something Better” (originally recorded by Marianne Faithfull, 1969).
©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2014