Carole King ‘The Legendary Demos' (Hear Music/Concord)
Before her breakthrough solo album “Tapestry” made her a superstar of the burgeoning singer-songwriter genre in 1971, Carole King had been writing No. 1 hits for other artists for nearly 12 years. Her 1960s songs — many written with then-husband and lyricist Gerry Goffin — were made famous by the likes of Aretha Franklin, the Shirelles, the Drifters and the Monkees. Even the Beatles covered one of her tunes — “Chains” — on their debut album.
But before those tunes became smashes for others, they first came to life on demos — short for “demonstration records” — which were used to pitch those songs to other artists. “The Legendary Demos” collects 13 of King's early demo recordings of her own work, all previously unreleased, and some even better than the versions that topped the '60s charts.
“Take Good Care of My Baby,” written when Goffin and King were staff songwriters at Aldon Music, a New York song publishing house owned by Don Kirshner and Al Nevins, became a fully orchestrated No. 1 hit for teen idol Bobby Vee in 1961. Here, it's just 19-year-old King accompanying herself on a piano, yet the genuine adolescent anguish and heartbreak shine through in her youthful voice, creating a far more engaging and warmly intimate rendition than the one that whined through radio speakers.
She harmonizes beautifully with herself on the multiple vocal tracks of “Crying in the Rain,” a tear-jerking ballad tailor-made for the Everly Brothers to turn it into a Top 10 seller in 1962. The high drama and passion of “Just Once in My Life” was perfectly crafted to fit the big sound of the Phil Spector-produced Righteous Brothers, bringing that duo a No. 9 hit in 1965. Here again, King telegraphs emotional power with only a piano and multi-tracked vocals, no formal production polish needed.
The acoustic guitar-driven suburban satire of “Pleasant Valley Sunday” is far more ear-pleasing than the hit the Monkees made out of it, and the Sunday morning piano and soulful vocals of “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” apparently made for an easy sell to Aretha in 1967.
The album also includes early, stripped-to-the-basics versions of “It's Too Late” and “You've Got a Friend,” the latter becoming one of James Taylor's biggest radio successes. And it's easy to conclude from this rare glimpse into King's early songwriting processes that her own long-delayed success was hard-earned and richly deserved.
— Gene Triplett