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The Time I Cold Called Carole King And Helped Her Write A #1 Hit

Music-industry veteran Tom Sturges learned a big lesson about creativity by watching the brilliant songwriter respond to criticism.

The Time I Cold Called Carole King And Helped Her Write A #1 Hit
[Photo: Flickr user Tricia]

I was two months into my new job at Screen Gems–EMI Music when I happened across a Rolodex in the president’s office that happened to have Carole King’s home phone number on it. It was hard not to notice the orange markings that read EXTREMELY PRIVATE–DO NOT CALL. I immediately wrote the number down, raced back to my office, and called it before I had a chance to convince myself not to do something so crazy.

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Sure enough, the card was right. It turned out to be Carole King’s private number at her house in Idaho where she was living with her husband and two young children. When she answered, I introduced myself and said I was new to the company and was available if she did not have another contact. She told me that she would love to work with somebody at her publishing company, but nobody had called her in almost 10 years. I jumped right in and asked what she was working on at that moment. She told me she was in the middle of writing a song with her original cowriter and now ex-husband, the legendary Gerry Goffin. The song they were writing was called “Time Don’t Run Out on Me.” I knew plenty of people who were looking for great songs and asked her if I could hear it. She sounded a little reluctant but said sure and put the phone down on the piano. After a moment, she started to sing. Just for me, and only for me, a brand-new song still being created, still in process.

Please understand, I knew exactly who Carole King was. I always knew who Carole King was. From my earliest days figuring out who wrote the songs on my beloved Beatles albums, I read C. King/G. Goffin as the cowriters of “Chains” and never forgot. I knew that she also wrote songs for so many different artists, including Aretha Franklin, The Drifters, The Monkees, Little Eve, and Grand Funk Railroad. I knew almost every line of every song from her album Tapestry. I knew practically everything she had written. In a word, I idolized her and her sustaining ability to write hits songs. She was and is one of the greatest songwriters of this generation. So to hear her singing live over the telephone, in a private performance just for me, was more than astonishing. If it was not quite touching the face of the Almighty, it was like hearing one of the angels playing the piano and singing.

Everything was going along perfectly, and I was having one of the greatest days of my life, and then something happened. That something was the bridge of her song. The bridge is supposed to be exactly that–a bridge, a musical idea that is neither the verse nor the chorus but explores the idea of the song in a new way, bringing you the listener back around to the chorus or refrain from a different angle. John Lennon said that you know you’ve heard a good bridge because it’s the first thing you want to hear again when the song is over. Well, not in this case.

The song was remarkable and amazing, but . . . the bridge just was not. It was wrong for the song and I knew it the minute I heard it. When the song ended she picked the phone, slightly out of breath, and said, “So what do you think?” I knew it was one of those moments, a moment I would never have again. I chose my words carefully and said, “Carole, if we are going to work with each other, I have to be able to be completely honest with you about your music and my reaction to it. It is the very least I owe you if you are going to let me in to your world like that.” She said a tentative okay and so I told her what I thought.

I told her that the song was great and that it took me on a wonderful journey, but that the bridge she had written was not perfect for that song, that it did not sound right and possibly belonged in a different song. Then I held my breath. A long and silent pause followed, during which time it occurred to me that these might be my last few minutes in the music business. I had just called one of my new employer’s most important songwriters, having nicked her phone number off the president’s private Rolodex, and then practically insulted her songwriting and creativity. It would have been like getting a job with the Yankees, stumbling into Derek Jeter’s private number and calling him to discuss his bunting in the late innings of close games.

Finally she said, “Okay, I’ll think about it and let you know.” We said good-bye pleasantly enough, but still . . . what had I just done? I raced into the office of the president, Lester Sill, a legend in his own right, and confessed to him everything. Soon his office was filled with executives wagging their fingers at me and asking me just what the hell I was thinking and who did I think I was. I suggested politely that everybody calm down somewhat until she called back, or didn’t call back, and held out the possibility that everything would turn out just fine. I kept saying it, hoping to convince them and me. Maybe it’ll turn out just fine.

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Somehow, even though I knew very little about the business, I had faith in Carole King. She was a consummate professional in every respect, who came out of the songwriters finishing school that was the famed Brill Building. I knew in my heart somehow that she would be okay with a respectful challenge to her work. She would survive somebody telling her that a song needed to be better. This had been the role of others in her life, including music publishing legend Don Kirshner, who would tell her if he thought something she wrote wasn’t strong enough to be a hit. I trusted in the fact that she would want to know if something did not work for her listener. I suspected that people stopped telling her what they thought once she became a superstar.

A few days later the phone rang and my secretary announced the caller loudly enough so that they could hear her clearly downstairs at the EMI Recording Studio, “Tom, it’s Carole King! On line two! Oh My GOD!” I picked up the phone and it was Carole. She said, “I thought about our conversation. I wrote a new bridge and I want to play it for you.” She was very serious about the whole process, so serious it was almost solemn. And why shouldn’t it be? We were treading on her most sacred ground–her creativity.

I was under strict orders to let everyone know if she called me back, so by this time my tiny office was stuffed with executives. All of them had heard about her, of course, being that she was the company’s most successful writer, but none of them had ever actually gotten quite this close to her or her incredible art before. As soon as she put the phone down on the piano, back where it had been a few nights before, I put her on the speakerphone. And when she started to play and sing, nobody moved and nobody breathed. It was that kind of a moment. There in my little office on Sunset Boulevard across from Hollywood High School, the world stopped spinning for a couple of minutes. The opening verses and choruses were just as beautiful as they had been the first time. And as the song progressed, all the execs were gesturing that I must be deaf or nuts or both to have sent her back to do some more work on this song. But for me it was all about the bridge.

So the song got to the bridge and I crossed my fingers. I hoped that I would love what she had done with it, and fortunately I did. She had taken out the fifties-inspired doo-wop bridge of the original and replaced it with a gorgeous and surprising emotional reflection that circled around and brought the song back to the first verse. It was much more honest and heartfelt and made the song basically perfect. At the end, Carole got on the phone and asked, “What do you think this time?” I shoo’d all the troublemakers out of my space and back to their own and told her how much I loved it, really loved it. And this was no lie, I did love it. I told her I would do everything I could to get the song covered and fortunately, thanks to another executive, Judy Stakee, it did find a great home. The song was a #1 country single for Anne Murray about a year later. And check out the amazing bridge!

Carole King accepted the creative challenge that had been presented to her by my comments–namely that the song might not be quite finished yet. She rose up to the challenge and rolled right over it, even though the opinion was only coming from some kid at her publishing company. I had no credentials per se, no long trail of hits. I had achieved almost nothing and had nothing to base my opinion on but the fact that it was my opinion. But I had done something right. I had an honest reaction and was not afraid to share it. That in itself was what made the response real and the challenge genuine and obviously worth her responding to.

Just to be clear, Carole King did not need me or my opinions to finish her song. Would she have discovered the weaknesses in her bridge without me? Maybe, maybe not. Would she have taken the time to find the right words and music for that spot had I not said anything or called her that day? More than likely yes, but who knows? She was and is and always will be one of the greatest songwriters ever. My role that day was just to hasten her process in some small way.

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Every Idea Is a Good Idea Book Cover

When creating, be open to all creative input, to another point of view, to the reaction of your audience, even if it’s only an audience of one. Enjoy a candid response to your creative efforts, an honest reaction to your song or story or artwork, a truthful reply to the question “So what did you think?” If you are unwilling or unable to welcome all the comments and suggestions that will arise, both positive and negative, you will miss out on several of the opinions and reactions that your creativity will inspire. The reactions are why you create in the first place. Adopt this step into your creative process and you can be much less precious about your art and ideas and much more open to the honest assessments that you will hear.

Tom Sturges spent more than 25 years as a senior executive in the music industry, serving as President of Chrysalis Music, EVP and Head of Creative for Universal Music publishing, and VP/GM of Shaquille O’Neal’s imprint TWIsM Records. This piece was excerpted from his forthcoming book, Every Idea Is a Good Idea: Be Creative Anytime, Anywhere. Copyright © 2014 by Tom Sturges. Jeremy P. Tarcher; Penguin Group USA – A Penguin Random House Company.

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