Regular readers of this blog know I created it to honor the influence that music has on me. I write about songs and singers that were there at life’s pivotal moments, and when I listen to them now, they seem like an audio roadmap of my journey. Today’s blog, however, is about a music maker who has given me much more than a few memorable landmarks. Her name is Carole King and thanks to her, I’m an optimist.
Can music really make a person more hopeful? I asked myself that question as I pondered the origins of my optimism. I certainly didn’t grow up on the sunny side of life, having been born and raised in Central New York, better known as the cloud-covered capital of the world. With about 55 percent of our days sun-deprived—that’s over half of our lives—it was hard to see my glass as half full in all that dreariness.
Maybe it was to escape those cloudy conditions or maybe it was to retreat from a world I didn’t fit into, but I ended up spending a lot of time in my childhood bedroom, playing records. I listened to all kinds of music, but when I think about the songs that have stuck with me they’ve been those about finding hope in a not-so-promising life. And at the top of that list are the inspiring songs of Carole King.
I first heard Carole like many of us did, on her landmark album Tapestry. Granted, her radio hits from that collection weren’t exactly uplifting; “It’s Too Late” mourns a dying love and “So Far Away” aches for a long-distance lover. But after hundreds of listenings, it’s the other songs on Tapestry that remain my favorites: the pledge of “You’ve Got a Friend,” the celebratory “I Feel the Earth Move,” the colorful “Tapestry,” and this encouraging advice from “Beautiful”:
You've got to get up every morning with a smile on your face
and show the world all the love in your heart
Then people gonna treat you better
You're gonna find, yes you will
that you're beautiful as you feel…
The Broadway producers who turned Carole’s life into a musical were wise to use “Beautiful” as its title. What a great theme for the show’s story of her long and successful career as a singer-songwriter, starting when she was fifteen. Carole wasn’t much older than that when she met her first husband, Gerry Goffin, and the two co-wrote dozens of classic pop songs. Gerry was in charge of lyrics and here’s a few lines from of one of his optimistic musings, Herman’s Hermits’ “I’m Into Something Good.”
“Woke up this mornin' feelin' fine
There's somethin' special on my mind
Last night I met a new girl in the neighborhood
Somethin' tells me I'm into something good…”
Gerry’s words are promising, but all these years later, the song wouldn’t still feel so good to sing without Carole’s bounding melody. Take a listen: “I’m Into Something Good.”
After I fell in love with Tapestry, I wanted to hear every song Carole had written, finding hope in many of the classics she and Gerry wrote: “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” “Some Kind of Wonderful,” “Take Good Care of My Baby”—all of them singable, hummable. Even the wistful “Up on the Roof” can chase away my blues and one listen to their “Locomotion” sends me to the dancefloor.
Carole learned a lot from her husband’s lyric writing and after their marriage broke up, she sometimes worked with a lyricist and other times came up with the words to match her bright melodies. Each of her albums had several songs that seem to lift right off my turntable; too many to mention here, but check out my list at the end of this blog. The joy radiating from Carole’s songs may have come from her piano chord progressions or the swelling of strings she’d added, or the yearning in her voice. Or maybe it was her inspiring words, like this aptly-titled song, “Brighter” :
We've been knowing each other
for many a year, it's true,
and I can't think of anyone else
can make me feel as good as you.
Yeah, you…you make my day
a little bit brighter in every way…
The connection between Carole’s music and my optimism began to make sense after I bought a book of her songs for piano. I wish I had a better understanding of music theory and anatomy so I can explain how one affects the other, but let me say this: when my hands recreate Carole’s stirring songs, I feel a surge run through my body. Science aside, I call it magic.
When I learned that Carole had written her autobiography, A Natural Woman, I couldn’t wait to read the stories behind her optimistic songs. The book offers a few examples—she wrote “Beautiful” after observing commuters on a crowded subway—but Carole revealed something else about her life that makes her heartening music mean even more.
After ending her relationship with Goffin, Carole married three more times. There was trouble in those marriages, including one to an abusive husband. She describes the control he had over her life, his selfishness and, yes, his physical abuse. I was shocked and saddened for Carole. How was she able to continue to thrive amid such pain?
The will to live through troubled times is often a mystery, but I’d like to think that, for Carole, it has a lot to do with her music. In fact, I think she wrote about it in a song she simply called “Music.” When I first heard the song’s flowing melody and optimistic words, I imagined she was referring to her happy life. But now, after learning about Carole King’s challenges, and after living through mine, I think she was composing hope.
Ah, it's not always easy
but the music keeps playing
and won't let the world get me down…
Here are just a few Carole King songs that make my day brighter:
A Quiet Place to Live
Been to Canaan
Believe in Humanity
Bitter With the Sweet
Carry Your Load
Child of Mine
Color of Your Dreams
Daughter of Light
I Think I Can Hear You
It’s Gonna Take Some Time
It’s Gonna Work Out Fine
Lay Down My Life
Love Makes the World
Now and Forever
Only Love Is Real
So Many Ways
Stand Behind Me
Way Over Yonder
What Have You Got to Lose
Wrap Around Joy
You Light Up My Life