X-Ray Spex Vol. 3: The Man Behind the [Natural] Woman…

gerry-goffin…Wherein the Blogger indulges his penchant for obsessive examinations of a single songwriter’s body of work, sometimes focusing on a single song out of that body of work…because geekery.

Carole King is justifiably revered as one of the greatest American songwriters. It’s impossible to be alive in the 21st century and be unfamiliar with her work, even if you don’t realize it’s hers. From “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” to “You’ve Got A Friend” to “Fire and Rain” to “One Fine Day;” King is definitely Queen.

What even her most fervent fans don’t always realize is that King didn’t [usually] write those amazing songs alone. Most of her iconic songs were collaborations with the equally brilliant lyricist, [and King’s first husband] Gerry Goffin. Much like Hal David to Burt Bacharach, Goffin’s literate, painterly lyrics melt into King’s gorgeous, elemental melodies, making songs that are timeless yet totally of the moment, standing tall among the last flowering of the Great American Songbook.

Born in Brooklyn and raised in Queens, Gerry Goffin was a 20-year-old chemistry student when he met 17-year-old Carol Klein. Their writing career started with the rather dodgy novelty single “Oh Neil” [written in response to “Oh Carol” by King’s school friend Neil Sedaka, which landed the couple a writing contract with Don Kirschner’s fabled Aldon music. Goffin collaborated with other staffers at first, but he and King made their mark as a team early with the #1 smash “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” [think hard now: what were you doing when you were 17?]. There would be many, many, many more hits to come.

Goffin’s original ambition was to write musicals and it shows in his sense of story, pretense-free wordplay and ability to take adult themes and translate them into pop poetry we can all understand and relate to [not nearly easy as it sounds]. “Tomorrow” is a prime example of Goffin’s knack for loading what seems like a simple love lyric with darker, complicated subtext. What sounds like a girlish plea for a lover to stay true after the first blush of passion reveals deeper questions. What does “Tomorrow” really mean? After the baby comes? When we’re older? When we’re not as passionate/beautiful/fashionable? Every time Shirley Ellis repeats the question, we’re less sure we want to know the answer:

What amazes some about Goffin’s lyrics is how well he writes for the opposite sex. Once upon a time, this was considered a common songwriting skill, but has become something of a lost art. Goffin never resorts to cliches or ciphers, revelling in his ability to paint a complete world for female characters to inhabit. While these two songs for Maxine Brown probably started off as an attempt to follow up a hit, they fascinate by allowing Brown to play both roles in a romantic adventure, with the similarity in melody and structure highlighting the duality we all feel in matters of the heart.

While Goffin’s stage ambitions are evident in his writing, he never lets his lyrics become stilted or hackneyed. Even at his most impressionistic, his universe feels like a real live place, warm and inviting:

Much like Brill Building contemporary Hal David or even Ira Gershwin, Goffin’s talent is something of a curse: His ability to “become” whoever he’s writing for makes him invisible to all but the most attentive eyes. Even in his crowning achievement with King, Goffin recedes into the background. Written in 1967 “[You Make Me Feel Like A] Natural Woman” made Aretha Franklin a star for good. Atlantic Records producer Jerry Wexler gave Goffin and King a thematic assist [for which they duo granted him a writing credit] but the actual song is Pure King/Goffin magic: Carole’s melody seems to grow from the roots up; each verse reaching for the light like sunflowers as Goffin’s lyric tells us about a woman who can bear any burden, climb any height, part seas and grey skies with ease, because she knows the one she loves will be there. It’s tempting to think this is the same woman who asked “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” with such trepidation not so long ago:

Franklin’s version of the song remains the gold standard, though many ambitious vocalists have covered it, with varying degrees of artistic and commercial success. The only close rival around here is the song’s mother, Ms. Carole King:

It’s proof of Goffin’s genius and a supreme irony that his greatest work is a song that feels so personal, most people are [still] surprised to learn he wrote it and not Carole [or Aretha for that matter]. Next time you hear it somewhere, ask the person next to you if they’ve ever heard Gerry Goffin. When they say “no” make sure they know they have.

NEXT:  Influence Peddling…


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