Music is playing inside my head,
Over and over and over again.
My friend, there’s no end
To the music.
So wrote Carole King in “Music,” a song aptly named for the talent that has always come effortlessly to her. “I guess it’s my native tongue,” says the performer making her Broadway debut as Mrs. Johnstone in Willy Russell’s Blood Brothers at the Music Box. “Acting is my second language, and music is my native tongue. It is very definitely a gift, and I’ve tried to use it well. I enjoy the effect it has people.”
An understatement to be sure. Think of “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” “Up on the Roof,” “Natural Woman,” “It’s Too Late” or “You’ve Got a Friend” and you have a song catalog that for over 30 years has not only had an impact but has served as the soundtrack of a generation.
King’s natural songwriting ability carved out a unique place in a world of rock music in the '60s, as she and former writing partner and husband, Gerry Goffin turned out hit after No. 1 hit that plumbed the depths of the teenage soul- all with a good beat that you could dance to.
Goffin and King perfected their craft as one of the writing teams employed by legendary record producer Don Kirshner. Kirshner kept his writers on their toes. If a group like the Shirelles had a hit, King remembers, he’d say, “I want you to write the follow-up. And so all the teams of writers would go into their little cubicles and each would be writing that hit song upside down, backwards and sideways. And he’d get three versions of that song. It was a formula that seemed to work.
Another understatement. Their music has been recorded by artists as diverse as the Chiffons and the Beatles, and although she is loathe to pick a favorite version, King admits to having a special feeling when she heard Aretha Franklin’s rendition of “Natural Woman”: There are no words . . . I never dreamed that it would be possible for anybody to sing a song i wrote like that.” The writing duo even inspired a young John Lennon to express the hope that the Beatles could be the Goffin and King of England: “I guess they were ,” laughs King, “and then some.”
The '70s shot King into the stratosphere with Tapestry, her signature album of 1971. The recording was the first ever to garner a female artist Grammy Awards for Best Song, Record, Album and Female Vocalist, and at 22 million copies sold still holds the record for best-selling female solo album of all time.
Since then, King has recorded numerous albums [the most recent being Carole King: In concert]. She’s been inducted into the songwriters and Rock & Roll Halls of Fame, toured the world in concert, written for movies [“Now and Forever” from A League of Their Own] and even took some time to hone that second language of hers, acting in film [I’ll Do Anything], TV [“The Trials of Rosie O’Neill,” for which she also wrote the theme] and now on Broadway with Blood Brothers.
Not bad for a kid from Brooklyn. But Carol King is an artist constantly seeking
new challenges. Broadway was one of the few mountains she had yet to climb, and music, not so coincidentally, played a part in getting her there: “Bill Kenwright, the producer, brought me to Blood Brothers,” says King in her dressing room before a performance. “He had every confidence that I could do it based on having seen me at the Royal Albert Hall in concert.”
Although she was unfamiliar with the musical at the time, King read the script and the score and came to see the show: “After the first act, I said, ‘I’m in.’ I used to come to Broadway all the time. My mom used to bring me to shows. But I never dreamed that I would be on the marquee.”
Blood Brothers is the tale of the twin brothers Johnstone, born into poverty in a Liverpool slum and separated at birth by a mother who, deserted by her husband and already overburdened with five mouths to feed, gives one of the boys away to her wealthy employer to assure at least one of them a chance for a better life. The boys meet as children and become lifelong friends, neither suspecting the circumstances of their birth. But those circumstances are inescapable and bring them, finally to a tragic end. A story of class, superstition and perseverance in the face of tragedy, the musical, in its second year on Broadway is a welcome addition to King’s list of acting credits. It’s a challenge, says King to “be this poor woman who every time she pulls herself up, something knocks her down. But even after the death of her sons, she is still trying to rise above it and find some good in it.
“Blood Brothers is a show about basic human nature,” she continues. “Not everyone’s been a mother, but everyone’s been a kid. And you can relate to everything that the boys go through. People just love it. It’s touching. It’s heartwarming. And even though it’s a tragedy, at the very end Mrs. Johnstone and the entire company are singing ‘Tell Me It’s Not True’ in a manner that’s like reaching out. My last gesture in the show is a physical reaching out to the audience.” And reach them she does, as The New York Times said recently, with “disarming directness and simplicity.”
“I love the show,” says King. “Willy [Russell], as a writer, is so talented. He’s so gifted because as soon as you get one place emotionally, he takes you to the new place. And you’re just swept along. And that is so much fun to do.” And, she continues, paying Russell, who also wrote the score, the ultimate compliment, “The melodies are very comfortable for me to sing because they’re very much like the ones I would write.”
When she’s not on Broadway or on the road, King spends her time in Idaho, where she moved in 1977. It was there she became passionately involved in the preservation of the wilderness in the Northern Rockies, and she has testified before Congress in support of the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act. “It’s important,” she says, “because industry has already taken way too much of everything all over the world. And everybody than can needs to stand up and say, ‘You’ve got most of it already; here’s the line.’ They’re still wheeling and dealing and the line won’t be where I hope it will be, but I’m gonna fight for every inch of that line until the fight’s won.”
For now, King’s work in this area is on hold while she stars in Blood Brothers. “This is my life now. It’s not only my work, it’s my life. That’s very challenging.” And when asked where she sees herself in the future, King laughs: “Alive! I hope.” And hopefully for her fans, still making music.