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How Carole King Transformed Pop With ‘It’s Too Late’

On this week’s episode of Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs, the songwriting legend herself joins hosts Rob Sheffield and Brittany Spanos to tell the story of her confessional classic — and a lot more

Carole King

Jim McCrary/Redferns

There are all other songwriters, and then there is Carole King. Nobody’s ever had an epic career quite like the Brooklyn girl who spent the Sixties writing classic hits for other artists—then spent the Seventies writing her own. With her 1971 solo classic Tapestry, she set the standards that all young singer-songwriters still aspire to reach. She’s always gone her own way as a performer, a composer, an environmental activist. When Taylor Swift inducted King into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2023, she simply called her “the greatest songwriter of all time.”

On Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Songs, King has three tracks, showing three different sides of her music. The Shirelles’ 1960 girl-group classic “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” comes in at #151, Aretha Franklin with the soul ballad “You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman” at #92, and her own “It’s Too Late” at #345.

King was still a teenager when she started writing hits, with her lyricist and husband Gerry Goffin. They ruled the radio with a string of pop gems like “Up on the Roof” (The Drifters), “One Fine Day” (The Chiffons), “What a Sweet Thing That Was” (The Shirelles), “The Locomotion” (for their babysitter Little Eva), “Porpoise Song” (The Monkees), so many more. But “It’s Too Late” was King on her own, after the marriage fell apart. It was a tough-minded divorce song, co-written with Toni Stern, a Number One hit in 1971. After so many teen romances, it was a shock to hear Carole King singing in her own voice, speaking for her generation of women as they came of age and built their own lives.

On this week’s special episode of Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs, hosts Brittany Spanos and Rob Sheffield discuss King’s legend, why they idolize her, and how she changed all the rules of pop with Tapestry and “It’s Too Late.” They’re joined by the queen herself: Carole King. She tells the story of how she got started in songwriting, how she fell in love with making music, and how her artistry changed over the years as her life did.

King talks with Brittany and Rob about her early days in New York, writing hits like “Will You Love Me Tomorrow.” The Goffin-King team defined the Brill Building style of pop hitcraft, working in a crowded office full of other songwriting teams, cranking out pop hits around the clock. They worked side by side with other legendary duos like Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry, or Barry Mann and Cynthia Weill. The Beatles learned songwriting from her, always going through Liverpool record stores looking for the “Goffin-King” credit on the label. As John Lennon told Rolling Stone in his famous 1970 “Lennon Remembers” interview, “First of all, Paul and I wanted to be the Goffin and King of England.”

But that was just the beginning for Carole King. She moved on to define the Laurel Canyon singer-songwriter scene in the 1970s, with classics like “You’ve Got a Friend,” “Sweet Seasons,” “So Far Away,” and “I Feel The Earth Move.” As she tells Brittany and Rob, she never planned to be a performer—she felt too shy for the spotlight, preferring to write behind the scenes. But she got pulled into it. One night, playing piano for her friend James Taylor, he surprised her by telling the crowd she was the woman who wrote the classic “Up on the Roof”—and goaded her into singing it on the spot. She brought down the house. As she recalls now, “To me, there was a barrier between me and an audience…[but] I learned from James that there is no barrier.”

Tapestry became a whole new kind of pop blockbuster, a confessional statement that hit a nerve with fans, staying on the charts year after year. “It’s Too Late” was incredibly blunt and unsentimental about divorce, by 1971 standards. “Toni Stern wrote the lyric to ‘It’s Too Late’—she handed it to me,” King says. “The music just came out of me. ‘Stayed in bed all morning just to pass the time/There’s something wrong here, there can be no denying.’ You can almost hear the music, or I could certainly, just by saying it. As I’m playing the piano, the music just came, and that song got written.”

These songs still home, because their raw honesty never gets dated. At the Rock Hall last year, Swift said, “Her persona on Tapestry feels like listening to a close friend intimately sharing the truths of her life, so that you can discover the truths of your own.”

King has always lived up to that independent spirit, but not just in her music. Ever since she moved to Idaho in 1977, she has devoted herself to environmental activism, working to protect the wilderness and ecodiversity near her home. She has spent years advocating for the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act. The toughness you hear in her voice carries over into everything she does.

In 2004, Rolling Stone launched its 500 Greatest Songs of All Time list. Tabulated from a massive vote that had artists, industry figures, and critics weighing in, the list has been a source of conversation, inspiration, and controversy for two decades. It’s one of the most popular, influential, and argued-over features the magazine has ever done.

So we set out to make it even bigger, better, and fresher. In 2021, we completely overhauled our 500 Songs list, with a whole new batch of voters from all over the music map. Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs takes a closer look at the entries on our list. Made in partnership with iHeart, Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs finds Brittany and Rob discussing a new song each week, delving into its history and impact with the help of a special guest — including fellow RS colleagues, producers, and the artists themselves. It’s our celebration of the greatest songs ever made — and a breakdown of what makes them so great.

Check out the latest episode above, on iHeart, or wherever you get your podcasts, and look for new episodes every Wednesday.

From Rolling Stone US