The Genius and the Diva: On Carole King and Aretha Franklin

There are many archetypes for creative genius. Almost all of them involve being lonely in some way. How many creative spirits have been frustrated, trapped, or doomed? It’s part of the job to be misunderstood. Living alone with one’s genius: it’s a special kind of hell.

Then there are geniuses who are out there in the world, who have collaborators, whose greatest achievements include working with others. Lennon and McCartney. Scorsese and DeNiro. Key and Peele. That’s a less lonely way to go. Seems like a lot more fun.

And then there’s the special case of a songwriter who has someone else – someone great – perform his or her works. You might be a great singer yourself. You might even make your own song a hit. But Sinatra could make your song a standard.

Just imagine what it must be like to hear your song interpreted by Sinatra, sung in that once-in-a-lifetime voice.* To hear your music, your creative activity, the product of your mind and talent – to hear all that escalated to something beyond perfection.

(*”Yeah,” Bing Crosby reportedly said when someone referred to Sinatra’s voice this way. “But why did it have to be in my lifetime?”)

Dolly Parton – no performing slouch herself – wrote a beautiful little song about a man she was leaving behind.

And in this clip she was singing that to the man she wrote it for, the man who hosted the show she was outgrowing, Porter Wagoner (you see him at the beginning and end of the clip).

Such a beautiful little song. A beautiful little song.

And then…

Good lord. Poor Whitney, such a tragic story. But let’s set that aside and recognize what she did to this song, how her majestic power turned it into something for the ages.

This song as at least three iconic moments. There’s the first one, “If I…” Chilling.

And there’s the part at the 0:50 mark, where she looks to the side, aware at what she’s about to unleash on all of us. The way her voice will give us goosebumps.

And then there’s the most famous of all, the part at 3:20, where she kicks into a higher gear. That’s the part that every singer of this song has to reckon with: are you as good as Whitney? Because we in the audience know what Whitney sounds like, and we will be hearing that even as we listen to you. In some ways that’s the moment in pop music, there is none other quite like it.

It’s like the Nessun Dorma of pop music. (You know what part of Nessun Dorma I mean. But just in case, start paying attention around 2:10:

Look at his face! That is a man in the grip of anxiety and exhaustion. Calling forth all his powers.)

What did Dolly think of Whitney covering her song? Was she upset at being transcended? Not at all! Whitney Houston can sing any song of mine she wants, said Dolly. As a performer, Dolly might have felt a little outshone. But as a songwriter, she recognized that being the writer of the most famous ballad in the universe was not too shabby. (Royalty checks probably didn’t hurt either.)

Okay, so all this brings me to what I really want to talk about, which is Carole King. A great American songwriter, one of our best. She was, in fact, part of a collaboration that Lennon and McCartney admired. (“We want to be the next Goffin and King!” they said, early in their careers.) She wrote a bunch of hits for Motown.

Then, the story goes, the demo record of her singing her own songs got passed around so much in the music industry that someone finally said, Jeez, what are we doing, why don’t we just put this out. And voila, Tapestry was born. Number one album for Ms. King. Now she’s a singer too, a performer, in addition to being a songwriter.

And hey, you might like Carole King singing her own songs. I certainly do, just as I like Dolly singing hers. My guess is I’d like Puccini singing Nessun Dorma, if only there were a recording of it. There’s something lovely about the simple, pure version of the song, in the voice of the person who originally wrote it.

Here’s an example of this, with Carole King singing It’s Too Late.

Cool, smooth, full of heart. An adult song. For adults.

This song went to number one. Try to imagine pop music today with anything like this at the top of the charts. What a great time that was for music.

Don’t get me wrong: I love Carole’s voice, and I love what she does with this song.

But Carole also wrote songs for others. And one of those others was Aretha Franklin.

Aretha! The Queen! That’s a test for any songwriter. If you’re writing a song for Aretha, your song damn well better hold up. If not, Aretha will blow your song away, exposing its shortcomings, just like she blew away all the young divas at the diva contest in 1998. (Sorry, Mariah! Sorry, Celine! The queen is still on her throne.)

But what if your song holds up? What if it’s so good it can inspire the singer to do her best work? That’s what Carole King did for Aretha. Carole volleyed this one over the net to Aretha. And Aretha smashed it back.

We’ve had that song now for almost 50 years. It’s as fresh today as it was then. Aretha owns that song. The rest of us just get to visit.*

*Some of us are more privileged visitors than others.

So that’s the backdrop for what happened a few weeks ago. All that history – and with history comes the passage of time, and we know what that means. All things pass. Even the mighty fall. And time is not especially kind to singers. Voices fade and crack. We know this happens, and we know it’s natural. There should be more beauty in this then there is, just as we should enjoy the lines on the foreheads of Hollywood stars more than we do.

So here’s what happened. Carole King was honored by the President for a lifetime achievement award at the Kennedy Center. It’s a great tribute to a worthy candidate. Her body of work is unbelievable, and she seems like a very classy lady and a great presence in the music industry. I don’t know if she’s genuine, but my impression is that she is, and I hope it’s true. I hope she’s not fake, I hope I’m not mistaken. I hope she’s an example of talent that made its way through the showbiz landmines with her integrity intact.

The ceremony continues, wonderful, wonderful.

And then…Aretha comes out. Carole King blows her a kiss, hey thanks for coming. Everyone politely applauds.

And – this seems to be what’s happening in the room – everyone settles in. Not expecting much. Oh, she’s going to sing? That’s nice. Nostalgic. Hopefully it’s not too embarrassing. We’ll clap politely because we’ll remember the days when she was young and could really sing, we’ll remember how good her voice was once upon a time. She deserves to be on that stage, even if she’s no longer quite the person she was…

And then Aretha sits down at the piano and blows everyone away. The Queen. The 73-year-old queen.

The headline was Obama wiping a tear away. That’s his generation: this is the music he grew up with. Aretha sang at his inauguration. Hearing the song in person, live, after it meant so much to you for your lifetime–well, I’m getting to that point in my life too. Tears come out of nowhere sometimes. It’s the past’s way of tapping you on the shoulder. Hey. Remember me? I’m here. I’m part of you. Good times and bad. Deal with me, my friend.

So that’s the headline, because he’s the president. But take a look at Carole King. She has a past too. She has a lifetime of writing songs, of dedication to music. All the years when songs poured out of her, when she knew she was good, but she didn’t know just how good. And then the part of her life when Aretha showed her what her own song could do, when placed in the hands of a fellow artist. A fellow genius, with a voice gifted from the gods.

Look at the surprise and emotion on Carole’s face. She’s excited to see her sit down at the piano. For two seconds, you see nostalgia and appreciation on her face. I love this woman, she’s meant so much to me as an artist and a person.

And then the moment at 0:28, when her face absolutely jumps with excitement – oh my god, she’s singing, and it’s just as awesome as ever.

Fifty years later. A lifetime of hearing her song in this voice. And it’s still continuing.

It’s the gift that Carole gave Aretha, and the gift that Aretha gave back to Carole.

And here’s the great thing about this particular gift exchange: the rest of us were in on it too.


The Tao of the Beatles: “Lady Madonna”

Hail Muse! O ye gods of genius and creativity! Give us a random Beatles song from our randomly chosen random generator… this time we drop an Artemisia stem onto our random Beatles-song selector…and…

Oh boy! Our first real Paul song. Oh, I know, we had “The End,” but this is the first full-blown, get out of the way, a train-of-talent-is-coming-through-and-his-name-is-Paul song.

“Lady Madonna” (Lennon-McCartney, Past Masters Volume Two)

“Lady Madonna” is one of those earwormy tunes that the Beatles cranked out around the time of the Magical Mystery Tour album, that forgotten little period in between the colossal albums Sgt. Pepper and the White Album. Albums are the thing, right? The pinnacle of artistic achievement from, oh, 1965 to whenever iTunes killed them off? A radio hit is great and all, but fans of the artist measure them in terms of albums.

So we critics bounce from Rubber Soul to Revolver to Sgt. Pepper to Magical Mystery Tour (sort of) to the White Album to Yellow Submarine (sort of sort of) and Let It Be and Abbey Road, analyzing and categorizing and comparing…and we forget that in those days, the Beatles released singles too, and that these were not included on the albums. (The idea the Beatles had was that you didn’t want to make your fans pay twice for the same song.)

So as a collector or even just a fan, you have a whole other album’s worth just of songs—songs like “Day Tripper” and “Penny Lane” and and “I Am the Walrus” and “Hey Jude” and “Paperback Writer” and a dozen others. Songs the whole world knows. Not on an album.

Including this one, which is as good as any of them. So much life and energy! Where does all that spirit come from?


Those pounding chords! You picture a man playing for a big concert hall with no microphones. Just a man and the strings and the strength of his hands on the keys. And the joy in his heart that hits those bluesy chords, turning the blues into something uplifting. Someone like this:

Hmmm…Paul played the piano, sure…but did he INVENT that opening riff?

Nope. Not exactly. Check this out: Continue reading