Carole King and Gerry Goffin, her husband and writing partner, didn’t singlehandedly compose the soundtrack to my adolescence, but it’s hard to imagine coming of age without “Up on the Roof,” “A Natural Woman,” and “The Loco-Motion.” King, born Carol Klei18n in  Manhattan in 1942, was barely out of adolescence herself when she and Goffin wrote these songs. When she had her first number-one hit, “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” recorded by the Shirelles in 1960, King was only 18. She was also married and a new mother.

If A Natural Woman, King’s new memoir, makes anything clear, it is that Carole King is not an underachiever. Drawn to the piano as soon as she could toddle to the instrument, she was raised by doting parents who told her she could accomplish anything. While she absorbed the prevailing fifties-era view that a woman must first be a wife, mother, and homemaker, she also knew from an early age that she wanted to have a successful career writing music.

King is, first, a musician. She wrote the music and others penned the lyrics for most of her hits. (It may surprise you to learn that hubby Goffin, not King, wrote the words to “Will You Love Me Tomorrow.”) It took her more than a decade to write this memoir, a process she likens to “herding cockroaches.” “Memories scurried out of sight as soon as they came to light,” she writes, “but I persevered.” The words “I persevered” could sum up King’s life. Through any number of problematic relationships, as well as profound shifts in the nature of the music business itself, King kept doing what she did best—not only writing music, but finding collaborators who could express clearly what was in her heart, and, as luck would have it, in ours as well. The heart of A Natural Woman chronicles King’s early years as a hit-maker, including the nuts and bolts of writing and recording songs; her encounters with famous folks like Aretha Franklin, Joni Mitchell, and John Lennon; and the love and support she received from fellow musicians like James Taylor. King’s writing is as straightforward, upbeat, and honest as the artist herself, enlivened by the occasional delightful turn of phrase. (Here’s King’s description of a man she thought of as a bad influence on her spouse: “My husband was inexorably drawn to Aronowitz as a boulder to the bottom of a lake.” )

King never sought stardom, or even a solo career. A collaborator at heart, she ended up creating Tapestry, one of the best-selling albums of all time, on her own, mostly because Goffin had left her, and she didn’t perform as a solo artist until James Taylor insisted. He literally pushed her onstage. Once there, not surprisingly, she found that she loved it, and from then on her solo career flourished. Everything musical came naturally to King.

When it came to romance, however, King made some spectacularly bad choices. While she deserves credit for facing up to and writing about this with candor, that candor occasionally makes A Natural Woman tough to read. We all know how frustrating it is to see a smart, accomplished, and seemingly together woman give her heart to a total loser. None of King’s husbands or boyfriends seem worthy of her. But when she hooks up with a delusional jerk who lives in his van, then takes him home, lets him control every aspect of her life, and not only stays after he abuses her but actually marries the guy, it’s hard to keep reading.

Ultimately, however, King achieves the goal she’s set for herself, which is to “keep writing, recording, and making a good living while enjoying a normal life.” A Natural Woman shows her trying for, and for the most part achieving, this precious balance. She raises four children, moves to Idaho, teaches Yoga, and becomes active politically. This could be the life of any woman of our generation. Except for composing mega-hits, writing for Aretha, and jamming with James Taylor.

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  • Jody Gillen-Worden May 15, 2012 at 10:37 am

    Now I wish I had known about this book before indulging in a really poorly written, but addictive, biography about Carole, Joni Mitchell, and Carly Simon. I may read it yet, but don’t know if I can go through the relationship icks again. Thanks, Roz. Great review.

    Reply
  • Stephanie April 29, 2012 at 2:21 pm

    Great review, Roz! I really want to read this (and order it for the library, too)!

    Reply
  • IB April 28, 2012 at 6:52 pm

    Very interesting to hear what a collaborator she is. Reminds me of you and your writing buddy, Roz!

    Reply
  • Andy Johnson April 28, 2012 at 12:21 pm

    Really interesting insightful review. Liked reading the quotes…cause I’m not sure I’d like reading the book.

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  • Mark Lowe April 28, 2012 at 11:56 am

    Wonderful!

    Reply
  • irene April 28, 2012 at 11:24 am

    Still an extremely moving song and i think not only because of the associations. Sounds like a good biography if you can stomach it.

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  • kate April 28, 2012 at 10:39 am

    Makes me want to go read this book immediately. Thanks Roz!

    Reply
  • Nancy Bea Miller April 28, 2012 at 9:54 am

    Wow, great! Love her! Now even more!

    Reply
  • Ruth nathan April 28, 2012 at 9:08 am

    Wow! Sure took me back. After listening to the linked You Tube, her love life, as Roz said, is hard to fathom.

    Reply