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Carole King: Composer of the Soundtrack of Our Lives

Carole King: Composer of the Soundtrack of Our Lives

Carole King at the piano

This month marks the 45th anniversary of the release of singer-songwriter Carole King’s landmark album, Tapestry, which, along with her more than three dozen 1960s hits, is considered by many to be the soundtrack of their lives. With more than 25 million units sold, Tapestry was the bestselling album by a female artist for a quarter century. On February 19, PBS’s American Masters series will mark this milestone with Carole King: Natural Woman.

King’s first big break came after partnering with lyricist Gerry Goffin, the first of her four husbands, whom she married at the age of 17. They scored a hit record with “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,” recorded in 1960 by The Shirelles. It gave the young couple the confidence to quit their day jobs and focus on their musical ambitions. Hit followed hit, among them “Up on the Roof” (The Drifters, 1962) and “Natural Woman” (Aretha Franklin, 1967).

Carole King’s accomplishments have earned her four Grammys, induction into the Songwriters and Rock and Roll Halls of Fame, the Gershwin Prize, topped off with a retrospective hit Broadway musical, Beautiful.

The American Masters portrait touches only briefly on the composer’s Jewish identity, little more than her reflection on playing canasta with her mother’s friends, saying, “Even as a teenager, I was an old Jewish lady.” 

From other sources, though, we know that old Jewish ladies are very close to King’s heart – particularly her immigrant grandparents, who she says endowed her with the courage that “keeps me going.”

In the opening chapter of her 2012 memoir, Carole King: A Natural Woman, she writes:

In the first decade of the twentieth century [my grandparents] undertook to cross a continent and an ocean with little more than a fierce determination to find a better life in America…. Had my grandparents not emigrated when they did, I might have been born Jewish in Eastern Europe during World War II, or I might not have been born at all. Instead, I was born in 1942 in New York. City.

We learn from the PBS show Finding Your Roots that when King’s paternal grandparents, David and Molly Glayman, arrived at Ellis Island in 1904, immigration officials detained them in a lice-infested cell for being unable to demonstrate means of support. The newlyweds had only $2 between them, and neither was able to read. After three days, a stranger named Sam Kline mysteriously appeared at Ellis Island and, claiming to be a cousin, arranged for their release. That’s probably how they entered the United States bearing the surname Klein, a name their granddaughter would re-adopt five decades after having changed her name from Carol Joan Klein to Carole King.

Carole’s father, Sidney (Sid) Klein, met Eugenia Cammer at Brooklyn College, and they were married during the Great Depression. Sid became a New York City firefighter, a rarity for Jews at that time, and Eugenia, who had studied drama, devoted herself to teaching Carole piano. She learned it by age 4, which prepared her for a life on stage.

Sid, a leading member of New York City’s Jewish firefighters’ Ner Tamid Society, helped establish Lake Waubeeka, a Jewish recreational community complete with a small synagogue, in southwestern Connecticut.

Though Sid died in Florida, his funeral was held near Lake Waubeeka at Temple Shearith Israel, in Ridgefield, CT, where he sometimes attended services. Rabbi Jon Haddon, who officiated, recalls Carole King asking him if she could sing a song Sid had taught her. She sang a moving rendition of the Sh’ma.

She offers a prayer for Sid in her memoir, as well: “Yizkor elohim et nishmat avi mori. May God remember the soul of my father, my teacher.”

He and her forebears, she writes, “passed on to me a love of learning and a sense of responsibility to leave the world a better place than I found it…” In that spirit, King has answered the call of social and political activism, from canvassing for civil rights in the 1960s to participating for many years in Paul Newman’s camp in Connecticut for children with health issues to lobbying Congress for passage of the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act.

In the PBS special, Tapestry record producer Lou Adler characterizes King’s music as “a universal language for the human heart.” It’s a characterization that may explain how her songs have become the sound track of our lives.

Aron Hirt-Manheimer is the Union for Reform Judaism's editor-at-large.

Aron Hirt-Manheimer

Published: 2/16/2016

Categories: Jewish Life, Arts & Culture, Music, Family
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