Jews took center stage at the Library of Congress’ Coolidge Auditorium late last month when Michael Feinstein (Jewish) MCed LOC’s celebration of singer/songwriter Carole King (Jewish) who became the fifth recipient and first woman to receive the prestigious Gershwin (Jewish) Prize for Popular Song.
Just how popular is the 72-year-old King, who just recently completed a sold-out tour with singer James Taylor? Well, Billboard pegs King’s Tapestry album, released in 1972, as one of the best-selling albums of all time. Michael Feinstein’s informal poll the night of the Library of Congress concert (“Put your hands up if you bought the album, I took my sister’s”) got much of the audience holding up whole arms, including a hefty grouping of congressmen, senators, agency heads and the chaplain of the House of Representatives. (This writer bought her vinyl version as one of the very first purchases with her own checking account, when “downloading” was a 10-day event from purchase to turntable.)
Fans of King’s ballad version of her first hit, “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” from Tapestry, might be surprised to learn a few things about the song — King was 17 when she wrote it with her former husband, Gerry Goffin; the version (with a much faster tempo than King’s performance on Tapestry) performed by The Shirelles went to No. 1 on the Billboard charts and was the first No. 1 single by a black girl group, and, according to Feinstein, was banned on some radio stations at the time for some of the song’s suggestive lyrics (“Tonight with words unspoken, you say that I’m the only one. But will my heart be broken, when the night meets the morning sun?”). “If only those were the extent of the lyrics we’re hearing in music these days,” said Feinstein.
Other hits, many in collaboration with other writers including Goffin, were “Take Good Care of My Baby” and “Run to Him” (No. 1 and No. 2 hits for Bobby Vee in 1961); “Crying in the Rain” (The Everly Brothers, No. 6 in 1962); “The Loco-Motion” (Little Eva, No. 1 in 1962); “Up on the Roof” (The Drifters, No. 5 in 1962); “Chains” (The Cookies, No. 17 in 1962, The Beatles in 1963); “One Fine Day” (The Chiffons, No. 5 in 1963); “Hey Girl” ( Freddy Scott, No. 10 in 1963, also Bobby Vee and The Righteous Brothers); “I’m Into Something Good” (Herman’s Hermits, No. 13 in 1964); “Just Once in My Life” (written with Phil Spector for The Righteous Brothers, No. 9 in 1965); and “Don’t Bring Me Down” (The Animals, No. 12 in 1966). “You Make Me Feel like a Natural Woman” (1967), Aretha Franklin’s anthem, went to No. 8.
To date, more than 400 of King’s compositions have been recorded by more than 1,000 artists, resulting in 100 hit singles.
For the Library of Congress concert, and a second concert honoring King’s achievements the next night at the White House, a star-studded roster of performers sang King’s compositions including a gospel choir that achieved bipartisan rhythmic clapping at the Coolidge Auditorium with its rendition of “I Feel the Earth Move.”
“And to think that came from a little Jewish girl from Brooklyn,” quipped Feinstein. Indeed, King was born Carole Klein and raised in Brooklyn. An early collaborator was Paul Simon (Jewish), a previous recipient of the Gershwin Prize, with whom King released demo records of other writers’ songs for $25 each. Singer Neil Sedaka (Jewish) was an early boyfriend, the result of which was a song Sedaka wrote called “Oh, Carol.”
The concert honoring King at the Library of Congress was held the day after the first set of tornadoes hit Oklahoma, killing many and injuring more. When King took the stage toward the end of the concert, she asked the audience to keep the state’s citizens in their prayers. King was the last performer of the night, and introduced a new single “I Believe in Loving you” written with the late Hal David (Jewish).
In interviews, King rarely speaks about her Judaism but the Library of Congress concert was held during Jewish American Heritage Month which was marked by multiple celebrations around the country and a very appropriate time to celebrate the talents of Carole King “The truth is that Jewish heritage, Jewish culture, Jewish values are such an essential part of who we are that it’s fair to say that Jewish heritage is American heritage,” said Vice President Joe Biden during a Heritage month event in New York City. “The Jewish people have contributed greatly to America,” added Biden. “No group has had such an outsized influence per capita.” Which helps explain why Librarian of Congress James Billington, in awarding the Gershwin prize, called Carole King “one of the most influential songwriters of our time.”