Cover Classics takes a closer look at all-cover albums of the past, their genesis, and their legacy.
For a time in the 1970s, Tapestry was the album to have under your arm, especially if you wanted, or needed, to show off some serious and sensitive right-on dude vibes with, um, the ladies. In those far off and distant days, as well as being, for real, a stellar album, transforming the shy Brill Building hit song machine into a credible songwriter of some rather more finesse than had been earlier appreciated, Carole King became, in an instant, a feminist icon, appealing across the range of an increasingly politicized gender awareness. While this may have neither been her aim or intention, the timing was perfect, the world ready and aching for singer-songwriters able to intelligently bare their emotions over some gentle laid back Laurel Canyon arrangements.
But let’s not forget quite how impressive the King legacy had been, prior to Tapestry. She wrote, or co-wrote, often with first husband, Gerry Goffin, 118 Billboard hits, making her the prime successful female songwriter of the latter half of the 20th century. Songs that have become standards, songs with a longevity that have you remembering the words immediately, after decades, prompted by a single note. Songs like “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,” “Take Good Care of My Baby,” “Goin’ Back,” and many many more, with versions aplenty in any genre you might wish to pick, if usually prime pop fodder in their initial iterations, with King herself far from the spotlight. (OK, she had also had a crack at performing, in 1962, with her gauche and affecting “It Might As Well Rain Until September,” which was a hit, but the world then preferred her songs performed by sassy girl groups and tight-shirted medallion men crooners.)
Divorcing Goffin in 1968, and wearying of the world of processing chart hits for others, King moved to L.A., to Laurel Canyon, arriving much the same time as a bevy of like-minded individuals, Her goal: to revive her own career as a performer, having put it on hold earlier thanks to the undoubted success of being a go-to writer. With neighbors like James Taylor and Joni Mitchell, this was to be a fertile breeding ground for King. With an earlier album disappointing the charts, in cahoots with Taylor and much of his backing band, Tapestry slowly came together, coming out in 1971, with one of its songs already a massive hit. James Taylor’s “You’ve Got a Friend” was huge, and Taylor made sure all knew who had written it, many perhaps surprised that it was the same writer of all those 60s chart-toppers. The fact that King chose also to include a couple of those early songs, reworked and reenvisioned, amongst the newer material gave the ideal crossover between her old audience and a massive new audience. Tapestry stormed to the number one slot of the album charts, staying there for upward of three, nearly four, months. The two lead singles each hit the top of their respective chart. Acclaimed by all, and grabbing four Grammys in 1972, it has notched up 25 million sales and counting, remaining on the chart for an astonishing 313 weeks, a record only surpassed by Pink Floyds’s Dark Side of the Moon.
So, then, what of Tapestry Revisited? Coming nearly a quarter of a century later, in 1995, the idea was to recreate Tapestry with a roster of the great and good of the day. However, rather than remembering the idea and the ambience of the original, with its mood of getting it together in the country, here it was if the older and earlier King was being celebrated, as the artists chosen came, largely, from the pool of pop royalty rather than from singer-songwriters plowing any similar farrow at that time. So we get the Bee Gees, Celine Dion, and Rod Stewart, he then at the peak of his satin and sashes ridiculousness. But, fair play, if the job required was to draw a new attention to the songs and their writer, this it would certainly be capable of doing.
Although Tapestry Revisited went gold, it peaked at #53 and few would put it above the original. But it has its moments.
In the same order of songs as the 1971 release, it opens with the now near-forgotten UK R&B duo Eternal, who anodyne clumsily over the groundwork of “I Feel the Earth Move” in a frankly disappointing version, losing the chiming excitement of King’s piano-led rendition, lost in a wash of studio tropes. Sensibly, Rod Stewart elects to keep the basic arrangement of “So Far Away” intact, if still a little overly buffed up. His voice is made for songs like this, with enough longing in his rasping tones to maintain the pretense. I would love to have heard the Faces bluster their way through this, feeling they could have given the song a little more bruised weight still.
Likewise, Amy Grant messes little, if at all, with “It’s Too Late,” and keeps the repetitive dum dum duma dum dumdum of the piano. Indeed, even the guitar solo in the middle eight is too almost exactly as remembered, and the jazzier embellishments that start drifting in at this stage. But overall the song is taken up up a notch, and fits better Grant’s huskier tone. Grant is better known from contemporary Christian music, with some limited crossover success; I was always surprised this version didn’t give her a greater lift.
Curtis Stigers was still a huge AOR star in the ’90s, ahead of his perhaps more subdued current presence, where he may be better known as a jazz artist. (Although 2012’s Let’s Go Out Tonight, on the Concord Jazz label, is a pleasing multi-genre covers selection encompassing all bases from Dylan to Wilco, by way of the Blue Nile and Richard Thompson, and that perhaps could do a turn under this heading.) Whereas the King original is a simply effective gospel blues, Stigers throws his whole kitchen sink of bluesy moaning at it, with altogether too much egg, and had me thinking how Joe Cocker might have taken it, as there are hints of his sort of phrasing seeping through. By contrast, Richard Marx, applies his trademark yacht-rock froth to “Beautiful,” already one of the lighter tracks on the album, and whips it further up into a pure-pop offering, landing, thankfully, just the right side of sickly.
“Way Over Yonder” is another majestic gospel inflected anthem, with Blessid Union of Souls, an unfamiliar name to me, seeing this as as a blank check to go the full Sister Act, perhaps an influential turning point in their transition from cowpunk to Christian. It’s okay. Maybe needing someone to show them how to better that sort of style, it is to Aretha, no less, that is gifted the best-known song, “You’ve Got a Friend.” Linking up with both BeBe and CeCe Winans, the brother and sister act try valiantly to compete, floundering a little in her wake. It is, I guess, much as you might anticipate, memories of either the King or the Taylor versions a little lost in the melismatic meanderings. It is either very, very good or a travesty, depending, I guess, on where you start from.
A change of mood is definitely needed, and it’s given here by Faith Hill, applying some Mississippi sauce to “Where You Lead.” She peps up the mood no end, swirling organ and steel guitar underpinning her Dolly-esque vocals, and it is the first song to liven the mood for several. Which then dips back into the marmite love it or hate it jar of the Bee Gees. Here, they gild the old warhorse of “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” in layer upon layer of their inimitable glossy pathos. And it works. Much as it chokes me, I love it, especially as Robin wobbles in on the later verses. A song that King had transformed from the almost flippant original she and Goffin penned in 1960 for the Shirelles, into the fearful ode to the morning after, the brothers Gibb completely rework it into an echo drenched manifesto to male angst and self-doubt.
I never understood how “Smackwater Jack,” another older song, made it onto the original Tapestry, it seeming to occupy a whole different universe. The best I can say about Manhattan Transfer is that they tackle it with a sense of humor, and sound swampier than you would imagine them capable of. Dealt the duff card, they accredit themselves in a new light that is certainly preferable to their usual folderol. I could listen to it twice, which is more I can offer the Tapestry rendition.
All 4 One, a multi-racial vocal quartet history has chosen to largely forget, then manage to reverse the favor on the title song, and, by ladling in every dated ’90sR&B meme going, kill “Tapestry” dead. At least King had the excuse of her voice, and of the lyrics being her experience, to get away with the sentimentality inherent therein. These guys have no such excuse, and they saccharine it to a gloomy pulp.
Which makes me all the more happier to be able to report that Celine Dion then soundly and succinctly nails the album closer, “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.” For any singer, to avoid any invidious comparison with the elephant in the room–that is, the Aretha Franklin version rather than King’s own down-home version–must be an insurmountable challenge, not least when you too are being touted amongst the ranks of being a diva of popular song. Sure, not really this writer’s bag, but it is an A-plus effort, even as she tempts fate with having the backing vocals persist with the “awhoop,” so expertly applied by Carolyn and Erma Franklin, in the Aretha-wrought soul template. A terrific and rousing end to a patchy disc, drenched in the times and sounds of its year of conception. Which is quite apart and different from the timeless original, which still, from a further twenty-odd years on, sounds the younger record.
Possibly a no-brainer, wisdom dictates going for the original over this curate’s egg of a cover classic. If you want something a little different, check out Mickey Dolenz’s 2010 King For a Day, where he covers thirteen King classics, including, unsurprisingly, one of the several songs she wrote for his band, the Monkees. (Here’s a taster.)
Tapestry Revisited track listing:
- Eternal – I Feel the Earth Move (Carole King cover)
- Rod Stewart – So Far Away (Carole King cover)
- Amy Stewart – It’s Too Late (Carole King cover)
- Curtis Stigers – Home Again (Carole King cover)
- Richard Marx – Beautiful (Carole King cover)
- Blessid Union of Souls – Way Over Yonder (Carole King cover)
- BeBe & CeCe Winans feat. Aretha Franklin – You’ve Got a Friend (Carole King cover)
- Faith Hill – Where You Lead (Carole King cover)
- Bee Gees – Will You Love Me Tomorrow (Shirelles cover)
- The Manhattan Transfer – Smackwater Jack (Carole King cover)
- All 4 One – Tapestry (Carole King cover)
- Celine Dion – (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman (Carole King cover*)
(* if you count her 1967 version from The Legendary Demos)
Okay, “It is either very, very good or a travesty”: the most perfect characterization of basically every cover ever :)!