Why Not Me?

Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

I was 15 when I opened a Manhattan phone book to “Record Companies” and wrote down the address of Atlantic Records. Rather than call for an appointment and risk rejection, I thought I would just go there and see if Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler would listen to my songs. The next day, less than ten minutes after the last school bell had rung, I was on an express train from Kings Highway to Manhattan wearing a pink sweater set, a black felt skirt with a pink poodle on it, a ponytail, white bobby socks, and a pair of white sneakers. Someone was going to get her songs recorded. Why not me?

Ahmet and Jerry listened with interest as I played each song. When I had finished playing the last song, I looked at them expectantly.

“You got talent,” Jerry declared.

Ahmet looked at Jerry and then at me.

“Come back and see us when you got more songs.”

The next afternoon, I called ABC-­Paramount, which had just had a chart-topping success with Paul Anka’s “Diana.” I had practically worn out my copy of “Diana.” The secretary who answered the phone said, “I’m sorry, we’re not seeing any new artists.” But even if they weren’t seeing any new artists, surely they’d see me. I kept calling.

I played five songs for Don Costa with no visible reaction or comment from him other than “Do you have another song?” Finally, I ran out of songs and he offered me a recording contract.

As a child I had imagined, erroneously, that Tin Pan Alley was a physical alley next to the Brill Building. Both were symbols of music publishing in the twentieth century, which is probably why so many people think that my husband Gerry Goffin and I wrote in the Brill Building when we worked as songwriters for Aldon Music. But we didn’t. The Brill Building is at 1619 Broadway. The building that housed Aldon Music was 1650 Broadway.

Aldon Music has been described as boot camp for songwriters. That it was. And yes, we did write in cubicles. Each cubicle was barely big enough to contain an upright piano with a bench, a chair for the lyricist, and a small table with enough room for a legal pad, a pen, an ashtray, and a coffee cup. The proximity of each cubicle to the next added an “echo” factor. While I was playing the song on which Gerry and I were working, we heard only our song. As soon as I stopped playing, we could hear the song on which the team in the next cubicle was working. Not surprisingly, with each of us trying to write the follow-up to an artist’s current hit, everyone’s song sounded similar to everyone else’s. But only one would be chosen. It wasn’t only about writing a great song; it was about winning.

In 1960, the hottest girl group was arguably the Shirelles, four teenagers whose then-current hit was “Tonight’s the Night.” Aldon Music wanted that follow-up. Shifting into high gear, Don Kirshner summoned each writer or writing team into his office and addressed that writer or team as if she, he, or they were the only writer or team that could deliver his desired outcome.

A lot of people think I wrote the lyrics for “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” because they express so eloquently the emotions of a teenage girl worried that her boyfriend won’t love her anymore once she gives him her most precious one-time-only prize. Those lyrics were written by Gerry. My contribution to “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” included writing the melody, playing piano in the studio, and arranging the string parts. I had never before composed a string arrangement.

With “There Goes My Baby” as our model, I incorporated Gerry’s ideas and my melodic lines into an arrangement meant to complement the voices of the Shirelles. I tried to make my charts look as professional as the ones I’d seen on the music stands at Don Costa’s sessions by hand-copying the part for each instrument separately on music-staff paper with a steel ruler and India ink. I wish I’d known that an arranger had only to scratch out a score in pencil and a team of copyists would work overnight to make the charts look the way they did on the music stands. After many hours handwriting more than fifteen charts, I was bleary-eyed. I looked at the clock. It was 4:45 a.m.

The alarm rang entirely too soon. I dragged myself out of bed, brought my daughter to my grandmother’s, then took the BMT up to Scepter Records, the Shirelles’ label. Recording the rhythm track took less than an hour. Then the string players arrived. The first time I heard the cellos play the rhythmic figure at the beginning of “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” I was euphoric. Some composers literally hear the sounds in their head as they write; I had to wait until a session to hear what I wrote. As the musicians began to play the parts I had written for “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” I became giddy with excitement.

I was 18.

*This article has been corrected to show that King was from Brooklyn, not Queens.

From A Natural Woman, by Carole King. © 2012 Eugenius, LLC. Reprinted by permission of Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved.

Why Not Me?