I wrote this song sometime in the early 1990s as part of a project to explore how black and white musicians influenced each other during the formative days of rock ‘n roll. The rest of the project never really happened. All of the events in this story are imagined.
Carole was on her third cigarette and still waiting for Moe to bring her sandwich. What’d it take to smoke three Kools? Maybe 20 minutes? Shit, used to be you could pass that amount of time at Moe’s no problem. The Brill Building used to empty into Moe’s at lunch, lured by fat sandwiches and an atmosphere that always felt like night, no matter how hard the day tried to impose its square cheeriness. Some wiseguy would always be holding forth on something, the Pope of 54th Street.
The place was quiet now, nothing but her own thoughts keeping time waiting for Lenny, her agent, rapping her nails on the table, nervous and bored.
“Hey, Moe, some coffee while you pluck the feathers off that turkey?”
“I tell you what, hon, you have another cup, and by then you’ll be ready for a good pee, and when you come back, you’ll have a turkey club fit for a queen like you.”
You couldn’t rattle Moe. He’d been feeding the hacks, hopheads, and hepcats of Broadway since Ziegfield realized his folly.
“You got an answer for everything Moe.”
“Hon, I had the answers before you were old enough to have the questions. Anyway, your sandwich’s up now.”
Three Kools, two coffee’s, one turkey club. Her foot tapped drums to a tentative piano line. No good—the second syllable in coffee through it off. Three Kools, two drinks, one guy…well, something for the subway ride home. Probably nothing. It felt old anyway, like that novelty song whatshisname did about a lifetime ago about that little car. Beep, beep, honk, honk, something like that. Who the hell could you get to do a song like that in 1966 anyway? Maybe Bobby Rydell could stage his comeback on the Sullivan show with a number like that. Joey Dee could reopen the Peppermint Lounge.
Or maybe Carole could climb out of the Billboard basement, even if it was with some pompadoured creep has-been. She caught a glimpse of her bouffant in Moe’s window and winced. Maybe Lenny had some good news. He was supposed to have been here 15 minutes ago, which meant he’d show up in about ten minutes. The only thing on-time about Lenny was his watch. Always had to have a Swiss watch, one of those beautiful thin Longines. Always fiddling with the stem, resetting it every time he heard the time on the radio. And never less than 25 minutes late for an appointment.
Sure enough, there he was, hurrying down Broadway, narrowly avoiding death by taxi as he ignored the light at 54th. Carole yelled over to Moe to get Lenny’s pastrami ready. Lenny was very predictable once you knew his system: at Moe’s he always ate pastrami. At the Carnegie, he had the corn beef. Lasagna was Mama Leone’s. He didn’t need a menu, he needed a map.
“What’s shakin, doll?”
“Same old same old Lenny. You got any reason I should go back up to my little rat hole office after lunch?”
“Carole, it hurts me to hear you talk like that. You’re an artiste.”
“Yeah, well, even Michaelangelo painted ceilings for a living. How many ways can I write ‘do wop?’”
“A million, babe, and it would still sound good from you. Stick with it: these kids from England can’t last. You wait, the good music always comes back. Look at Gershwin, Porter, Berlin.”
“Lenny, what are you smoking? Go down to Sam Goode’s in Times Square and ask the first teenager you find who George Gershwin is. I’ll give you a fin if he doesn’t think he plays for the Yankees. Anyway, I’m no Gershwin. Berlin maybe. At least I can carry a tune.”
“What’s go you so down? Rock and roll baby, you’ll always be rock and roll, just with that New York twist. You’re the best.”
Carole stared out the window again, looking for redemption on Broadway. It didn’t even feel like home anymore. In 1962 she could sit in this window and watch the people flow by and feel like she knew all the people who really belonged, who made the Brill Building and its little universe of hitmakers. They had a shared secret, this backroom brethren of songwriters who told a hundred and one hormone-struck, vibrating teen idols what to sing and how to sing it. Now most of them were tired repeats, their fire having burned out after just a few 2 minute and thirty-four second singles. And the secret priesthood of rock ‘n roll? They were having trouble remembering the secret themselves.
“Yeah, yeah, Lenny. Thanks for the flattery. Now, what am I gonna do to pay the bills?”
“I got something for you. It’s just an idea. You know how you always liked Phil Spector?”
“Sure Lenny. Phil looking for some tunes?”
“Tunes, tunes are a dime a dozen. This is more than that. He’s putting together a show at the Fox with Murray and they need some music to hold it together.”
So it’s come to this, she thought. Doing charts for the house band at a Murray the K show in fucking Brooklyn. She ought to scratch his eyes out, but she already knew she’d say yes. She decided to make him wait, staring out the window again, waiting until her cigarette almost burned her nails.
“Where and when?” She jabbed the butt out for punctuation.
“I know that look, doll. I’m just saying think about it. Phil loves your stuff. Ronnie, Darlene, they’re your kind of chicks. Why don’t you check it out? They’re rehearsing this week. If the show goes on the road, they’ll make you musical director and it’s a steady gig. A nice change from that,” he cocked his head down Broadway toward the Brill.
Lenny was so full of shit. Ronnie and Darlene were gone from the charts and the hearts. Murray the K’s show would hit the road about the same time Liberace got married. Murray was living the same nightmare as her—the Mersey misery. Oh well, misery loves company.
“Do I need shots and a passport to get to Brooklyn?”
“Nah, just a token. Take the GG to Flatbush. On second thought, shots wouldn’t hurt.”
Put Murray Kauffman down blindfolded in the middle of Arabia, he could find a dive in an hour. Brooklyn, ten minutes was all he needed. After 2 hours of listening to Ronnie Spector and Darlene Love catfight, Carole needed a joint. But a drink would do.
“So whaddya think, Carole?”
“I think you’re the greatest Murray, and Phil’s a genius. But Ronnie and Darlene—they’re both the same washed-up, pain-in-the-ass, queen-for-a-day singers. They even wear the same white boots, the same fake wig, the same sequined skirt. If one wasn’t white and one black, I couldn’t tell ‘em apart on the street”
Murray laughed. “But when they open their mouths, it’s all worth it.”
“Really, Murray? I’m not getting that chill anymore. Remember when you used to have Dionne Warwick in your shows, when she first came up, and she would walk to the edge of the stage, and the crowd would get all quiet and goose bumpey? And when she sang that first chorus of ‘Walk On By,’ every kid in the audience who ever had a crush and got dumped connected with that scorn, that hurt. Hell, same thing when Darlene used to sing ‘Uptown.’ That was no different than Elvis, that was the most. Now they sound like they’re doing their nails while their singing. What happened, Murray? Is it them or me?”
Murray eyes stared out under his porkpie hat and over his highball glass. They’d maintained a casual, occasional work relationship over the years. He’d always thought of her as irrepressible. Now she was crying in her Gibson to him.
“Yeah, those were good times. But hey babe, it’s a business now. And a lot of it is an import business from across the Atlantic.”
Murray had tried to ride out the English invasion for awhile, doing his Fifth Beatle act until his station got shot out from under him by a brand new invention, all-news radio. He was a strange cat. If you mixed a beatnik with an appliance salesman, you’d get close to Murray. Somehow, he always turned up hip, though.
“Murray, I lost my virginity on the business angle along time ago. But I’m talking about something more. You know the Beatles did one of my tunes. How come it sounds fresh out of their mouths? Something’s up, Murray. They can sing my old shit and it sounds good. But I can’t write stuff like them. We lost it somewhere, only we can’t let go. When the station went all-news, did you think about doing something different?”
“Like what, sell hats?” Murray said, tipping his trademark porkpie.
“How much you want for that?” she deadpanned.
“Seriously, though, baby, it ain’t just you that’s changed. Don’t forget, when you used to go to those Alan Freed shows, it was a sin to swivel your hips in public. We had to have a secret code. We were putting people on, like me with my submarine race watchers. You had that same cool way of delivering the message so only certain people would get it.”
“Sitting in the back of the Fox tonight, Murray, I wasn’t getting any message.”
“Babe, you ain’t even thirty yet. You’re just hitting a dry spell. Happened to all the greats.”
She labored for two weeks trying to put something into the charts, some spark. In the end, she did what she knew would work, what she’d done before. The show opened to a half-packed house of housewives and construction workers from Queens. Darlene and Ronnie were polished, professional. After 10 days, the show closed, never to leave Brooklyn.
Used to be getting laid was a sure ticket to a good night’s sleep. Not tonight. Carole left Alan’s skinny body looking like a ghost under the sheets, wrapped her old chenille robe around her and went out to the piano in the living room. No rest for the wicked.
Guys like Alan were haunting her life now. Maybe if she had someone dependable she could see herself through all this. Meanwhile, she had her Alans to scratch the itch until something better came along. What was that old line? The darkest hour was just before the dawn…
She found herself playing some old bar blues, then laughing at herself. Darkest hour. She wanted to know when the brightest hour was. Was there some dawn ahead? Her fingers kept playing the blues.
A pink rose broke the horizon outside the big picture window in the living room. Even with all Carole’s restless nights, it had been awhile since she’d seen the dawn. A line came to her. “Looking out at the morning sun, I used to feel so inspired.” Often when she wrote, she heard a real voice singing a song. This time it was Shirley Ellis from the Shirelles. Her fingers moved into some Shirelles-type chords, she strained to hear Shirley sing it. It was all wrong. She couldn’t make the words fit the chord progression.
She sat in the big armchair in her bedroom, looking at Alan the Ghost. What had she been thinking? A man playing the sax always sounded like a man you wanted to make love to. With the horn back in the case, the vibrations weren’t always there. She didn’t even feel like sleeping in the same bed with him anymore. The chair would do.
Hours later, Alan gone and the day fading, Carole was still hanging around the house in a fog. Even Eva, her housekeeper and friend, had been keeping her distance. Finally, she sat down across from her, staring her right in the face.
“Girl, what were you playing last night?”
“Sorry, Eva, did I wake you up?”
“Not for long. Where’d you learn the blues, girl?”
They laughed, trying to picture Carole in her pedal pushers and teased up hair uptown with the symphony crowd.
“Must be, ‘cause I never heard you playing that before. You all right?”
“Sure, I’m OK. I haven’t had a hit since Kennedy was killed, I ain’t had a good man since…shit, when was the last time I had a good man? Sure, everything’s just peachy.”
“Well alright then, I obviously didn’t need to ask. Somehow I got the mistaken impression something was bothering you. But don’t let me interrupt your wonderful life, child, with any of my silly questions.”
“Nah, you got me, Eva. I don’t know what it is, exactly. Seems like when someone good sang one of my songs, it used to be a thrill. Just hearing my little creation come to life, to hear those thrilling harmonies…”
“You still got it, girl.”
“Thanks, Eva, but the world just doesn’t seem to agree anymore. And when I’m not crying in my beer about it, I’m wasting my time with no-count guys like Alan.”
“You ain’t gettin it at home and you ain’t gettin it at work.”
“You need to come to church with me.”
“Eva, you have truly lost your mind. A nice Jewish girl like me?”
“No, no, I ain’t going all religious on y’all. When I get like that, I go to this one church uptown. They always have the best choir, the best singers. When they’re done with you, you’ll see GAWD. And if you don’t, a look at that fine Reverend Townsend will do.”
“Now I know why you’re going. But you’re not trying to get me baptized here, are you?”
“Carole, you can wear one of them yamulkas, for all I care. When you get the blues, you got to take care of the soul. Trust me.”
Sunday morning they went uptown together. All her life, Carole had trafficked in the ghetto, moving in and out of clubs all night without a second thought. In the quiet bustle of Sunday, she felt so obviously out of place surrounded by this other side of Harlem. It was a new feeling too, to do something like this with Eva.
Eva and Carole had a complicated relationship. Ten years ago, Eva had been a knocked-up high school girl. Her aunt was a backup singer in one of the many girl groups that did Carole’s songs. When Carole’s first husband and writing partner had taken flight, leaving her alone with her newborn daughter, she took in Eva, and their kids had been growing up together since.
Later, Eva hit big with Carole’s “Locomotion” and moved out to her own place. Eventually, the train slowed down and Eva was broke again. The second time around, she went to work for Carole, getting real money to look after the house and the kids. She was part maid, part friend, part sister.
Carole had been expecting a sweaty little storefront, but the Mt. Carmel Abyssinian Church, A.M.E. was a good sized brick church with maybe 300 people in it, all spiffed up and in a good mood. She watched Eva for when to open the book, when to stand, when to sit, and after awhile it started to feel less strange.
Eva was right. Reverend Townsend was a looker: he had those Billy Eckstine smooth pencil brows, and piercing eyes. He had a voice that reached right inside you. The choir was good, and she tried to let herself sway into it, to let go. But she felt the same disquiet as with her own music. If she couldn’t get off on Little Richard anymore, why was the gospel version gonna do the trick?
Just before the sermon, the Reverend brought up a guest soloist, a young black woman with straightened hair and something about her eyes. She hummed a bit with the choir through the first chorus, and then opened up in the second.
Carole was stunned. The girl hit her right between the eyes, just reached down into her guts and grabbed them. Carole barely heard the words, just feeling the way the syllables slipped in between the beats, the way her voice soared unexpectedly, the way she snapped your head back with the richness, the sensuality of her singing. It was like sitting listening to her daughter’s school orchestra, and all of a sudden Charlie Parker’s playing. She looked over at Eva, who had been sitting watching Carole and almost laughing.
“Now you know why I brought you,” she whispered.
It turned out that Eva knew the girl. Afterwards they went out for coffee.
“Carole, this is Aretha Franklin. Aretha, this is the songwriter lady I told you about.”
“Nice to meet you, m’am.”
“Pleasure’s all mine, Aretha. I really enjoyed you’re singing. How long have you been doing this?”
“Oh, since I was kneehigh. My daddy’s a pastor in Detroit and my sisters and I always sang in the choir.”
“Are you thinking about turning professional?”
Aretha gave her a cool look.
Eva laughed. “Carole’s pretty hip for a white chick, Aretha, but she don’t know nothing about gospel. Carole, Aretha’s been on the road since she was 12. She’s something of a star on the gospel circuit.”
Carole blushed. “Well, I’m glad. I’d hate to think anyone was singing that well for free.”
“Well, the way they pay gospel singers, might as well be. Anyway, I’m thinking about getting a new groove. Mr. John Hammond, over at Columbia, he signed me up, thinks I’m the next Billie Holiday. Truth is, I could never lay back like she could. I like to hit the beat harder, I like to shout now and then. I’m more Lady Night than Lady Day, if you get my drift. Atlantic Records, they did right by Ray Charles, and Mr. Ahmet Ertegun, I think I can work with him.”
Carole didn’t impress easy, but anyone who had impressed both John Hammond and Ahmet Ertegun had her attention.
“You should talk to Carole, Aretha. She been around the block a lot of times.”
“Nice of you to say, Eva, but I don’t think I have much advice to offer. Honey, just sing. Nothing I could tell you is going to help you as much as that.”
Later, Eva said that Aretha was born the same year as Carole. Their lives had gone in parallel for awhile, both singing as teens, then Carole retiring from the stage to write, Aretha going on the road. Somewhere along the line, Carole had lost it, and Aretha had found it. That “it” was in her singing, the same kind of force that Carole and Murray cried about missing over their beers, that was missing from everything she touched these days. She knew she would never write gospel, but if she could tap into that force, it would transform her music, lead to something new.
She had been heading somewhere new, anyway. How else to explain sitting up all night playing the blues? She never played the real old time blues, just that sped up new kind that they renamed rock ‘n roll. Now her fingers were taking her new places, all on their own.
She decided that Alan was a bad dream, that writing that one line of bluesy music had been like waking up from a bad dream. Trying to make a Shirelles song out of it was her big mistake. Stick with her first instinct.
Every time she brought him home, she waited for him to fall asleep. Then she sat down at the piano and thought about everything they weren’t together, everything she wanted and slowly, the words emerged, like a polished oak splinter slowly being pulled from her fingers. She changed the opening line to “Looking out at the morning rain, I used to feel so uninspired,” to keep her away from the relentless teen upbeatness that always pulled at pop music. She savored that slowness, that pleasant pain that made her forget ten years of automatic cliches, of facile rhymes. Her left hand felt like a blacksmith’s hammer, beating the slow bluesy rhythm of the words into finished shape, her right hand like glowing embers flying off hot metal with each strike of the hammer.
After three months, she had a song. If she had to fuck Alan one more time, she’d scream. But she had a song. A real godamm song , a Carole fucking King song, not a Brill Building hack job.
“Eva, you know that friend of yours, Aretha Franklin? You hear from her at all?”
“Yeah, she doing OK. They got her a new producer at Atlantic, supposed to be more modern and shit.”
Carole knew all the people at Atlantic. She pulled a few strings and showed the song to Aretha’s new producer. He was impressed. Aretha was going to be in New York next month, they should get together. But Carole couldn’t wait.
She arrived at Reverend Franklin’s church in Detroit the next Sunday. She hardly noticed the stares, the service, the sermon. She knew she had done the right thing when the Franklin sisters came on. They sang all different songs than Aretha had sung in Harlem, but they had that same undeniable feel. Afterwards, she rushed up to Aretha.
“Hi. I hope you don’t mind my coming. I wanted to ask you something and it’s important.”
“Sure. Just wait a minute and you can come home with me.”
They drove to a prosperous looking area in a Black section of Detroit. The rest of the family was still at church, but Aretha sat Carole down on the sofa in the front room. It was an old-fashioned parlor, with dark wallpaper and glass-paneled wood doors and a baby grand piano. Aretha sat across from her in an old-stuffed armchair, her face betraying no emotions.
“You said you had something important to ask me, Miss King.”
“Not ask you exactly. You know I write songs. I often write songs for people, but they’re not really for people. Just sort of with them in mind. But after hearing you sing, I wanted to write a very different kind of song. I had a lot things on my mind…” Aretha’s face was impassive. She was intensely self-conscious, hearing hearself ramble on. “Well, that’s a long story. Anyway, you said you’re looking for a change of style, and the Atlantic people thought this song might work for you. But you’re too good to let some A&R man hand you a song and then you don’t feel it. So, I’m asking you personally if you’d consider recording my song.”
Aretha nodded. “I’d like to hear it.”
Carole sat at the piano with her chart, more nervous than she’d been since Jerry Mortenstein asked her to the Junior Prom. She played the intro, calming her nerves, opened her mouth and sang.
Lookin out on the morning rain
I used to feel so uninspired
And when I knew I had to face another day
Lord, it made me feel so tired
Before the day I met you
Life was so unkind
You’re the key to my peace of mind
Cause you made me feel
Like a natural woman
You make me feel
Like a natural woman
When my soul was in the lost and found
You came along to claim it
I didn’t know
Just what was wrong with me
Until your kiss helped me name it
Now I’m no longer doubtful
Of what I’m living for
And if I make you happy I don’t need to do more
Cause you make me feel
Like a natural woman
You make me feel
Like a natural woman
Aretha was smiling. “Eva was right. You are alright for a white lady. That’s a beautiful song. But I don’t know if it’s for me. See, when I’m not doing gospel, I’m a soul singer. I don’t do the blues.”
Carole was crushed. “Funny thing is, I don’t do the blues either. I’m a rock ‘n roller. But I needed another way to write this.”
“Miss King, you’re a nice person. I guess you had a dry spell. Man trouble, maybe you ain’t got the touch you used to. Do I have that right?”
“Is it that obvious?”
“Ain’t nothing wrong with obvious. You think you need to be all deep and shit, and you think the blues is like that. But the blues isn’t about being deep. The blues is what you sing about when you’re hurting and you can’t do nothing about it. What I mean is, the blues is all you can do about it.”
“Right, I think that’s why I’m attracted to it now. My whole world’s turned upside down, I don’t know what’s up. I guess I could do something about it, if I knew what it was.”
“See that’s the difference between the deep blues and what you got—not being able to say and not knowing what to say. My daddy’s people, they lived in a world of hurt, but they couldn’t really tell it like it was. Nobody tells me what I can and can’t say, and nobody’s going to tell me that I might as well just sing the blues because nothing’s ever going to change. Sam Cooke said it: a change is gonna come. When you got soul, you can feel that same hurt, but you’re going to beat it. So now, what is it got you that you can’t beat?”
“I don’t know exactly.”
“That’s right, you don’t, because you don’t really have the blues. You’re singing ‘You make me feel like a natural woman’ and you’re playing the blues. How’s that? Even a white girl has to feel good about that.”
That was right, she thought, I do have to feel good about this. That’s why I wrote this, because somewhere inside, I still feel that way. Damm, this was getting harder by the minute. “Maybe I should try and rewrite this as a soul song.”
“Rewrite it? It ain’t about that. It’s not the notes, it’s the attitude, it’s the way you play it. You see an old man shuffling down the street, all beat from life—that’s the blues. You see a young brother, strutting his stuff—that’s soul. They’re both picking up the same two feet and putting ‘em down. You got soul, you just put ‘em down a different way.”
Carole suddenly had the feeling that she was about to learn something very important. “OK, so how would you ‘put ‘em down?’ How would you sing this song?”
“Oh no, I ain’t gonna sing it, not just yet. See, it’s your song, you got to find you own soul in it. But I’ll tell you what, I’ll play the piano like I would play it, get that old bluesy feeling out, and you sing along. See how it feels to you.”
Aretha was as big a surprise at the piano as at the mike. She took Carole’s bluesy chart and gave it a staccato majesty that was overpowering. Suddenly Carole was swimming in a fast, twisty river, scared of the rocks, but exhilirated by the ride. She felt transformed. Was that her song? She laughed, thinking about Eva saying she’d find GAWD in this music.
“Wow. I think you know what I was really trying to say better than I do.”
“I don’t have no idea what you were trying to say. But I know what you did say in these words and I like the feel you put into it. It’s got some soul. One thing though, when I was playing it, I noticed. It’s just got one speed, one groove. I can feel there’s this war going on in the notes, one minute it’s all major, the next minute you want to just go off into this discord,” and she rattled off a seventh chord. “You got to put that other feeling into it more. Rock and roll, you can go straight ahead. This song, you need a bridge or some kind of B part that rides that other feeling.”
Aretha hadn’t said yes or no about singing it, only that she’d think about it. Carole was haunted by her comment about the bridge. She knew exactly what she meant, exactly what the other feeling was—the feeling of coming alive. She started with that—“You make me feel so alive”—sitting night after night at the piano, hearing Aretha’s piano in her head, tightening and tuning the words and the timing, letting that feeling of a new day, a new life, shape the phrasing and the notes. She went to Atlantic and cut a demo tape of the reworked version. She didn’t have the nerve to watch Aretha listen to it, so she left it with the producer, telling him “I don’t even want to know.”
Three months later, she was sitting in her living room in her chenille bathrobe, three in the morning, just staring out the window. Alan was long gone, his replacement, a trumpet player named Gil, snoring in her bed. She had the radio on low, listening to a little Black station from Newark. She sat bolt upright. It was Aretha, singing her song.
Oh baby, what you done to me
You made me feel so good inside
And I just want to be
Close to you
You make me feel so alive
You make me feel
Like a natural woman
She rocked in her chair, tears streaming down her face. It was the most beautiful song she had ever written.
“I got soul!” She yelled to anyone who was listening “I got soul!”
She called Lenny up and yelled into the phone “I quit! I’m not writing another half-assed do-wop song! Burn my office at the Brill Building! I got soul!”
She called Murray and told him to get some soul.
She ran into the bedroom, yanked the covers off Gil. “Get up, get up. Get out of here now!”
“What, what,” he mumbled. “What I’d do?”
“Nothing, you lousy fuck. Get out of here. I got soul, you hear. I got soul! Find some other washed-up, has-been, dish rag to clean your pipes, you third-rate imitation of Miles Davis, son of a bitch. Because I ain’t doing it anymore. I got soul! I got life!”
And she and Eva and the girls sang her song over and over, until the sun came up.