The year 1971 brought Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven,” and the Rolling Stones went on its first "farewell" tour.
But it was also the beginning of a dramatic musical revolution to the acoustical era of the singer-songwriter. It was the year “You’ve Got a Friend” won Grammy awards for Carole King (Song of the Year) and James Taylor (Pop Vocal Performance).
Loosely tied to the 40th anniversary of King’s “Tapestry” album, KUED will air the entertaining “Troubadours: Carole King, James Taylor and the Rise of the Singer-Songwriter” on Thursday, March 24, as part of the PBS American Masters series.
The 90-minute documentary, introduced in January at Park City’s Sundance Film Festival, chronicles the friendship and performance legacy that was cemented at Los Angeles' Troubadour nightclub. Filmmaker Morgan Neville gives a glimpse of the exciting new musical era and the Troubadour performers. At the famed venue, King and Taylor played alongside Jackson Browne, Kris Kristofferson, Bonnie Raitt and Elton John, who were also interviewed for the documentary.
Vibrantly full of music, history and anecdotes, “Troubadours” is a privileged look at the early days of these performers’ careers.
Along with these musicians’ recollections are home movies and rich archival performance footage. Viewers are treated to Taylor’s first major appearance, at the 1969 Newport Jazz Festival, and Joni Mitchell playing “California” (in a pink granny dress). These clips, some of which have never before been seen, are mixed with performances from the 2010 Troubadour Reunion Tour. The documentary also includes interviews with journalists and music industry figures who give viewers a sense of the club, the artists and their importance in cultural history.
In this age of overproduction and Auto-Tune, “Troubadours” is a refreshing view of the time when a strong singer playing a single instrument — guitar, piano or, in the case of Joni Mitchell, a dulcimer — could write a great song and become a star overnight.
When she first played “You’ve Got a Friend,” King and Taylor were “outside a little dressing room up on the balcony” of the Troubadour. “I just had to find my guitar and figure out how that song went,” Taylor remembers in an interview not included in the program. “I said: ‘She’s written it. That’s "The Star-Spangled Banner" right there.’ ”
King has said the song "was as close to pure inspiration as I've ever experienced. The song wrote itself. It was written by something outside of myself, through me."
With so little known of their personal stories (Taylor was famously reticent and King so press-shy that she didn’t accept her record-breaking four awards at the Grammy telecast), the segments of their personal lives deepen our appreciation for them. There’s an intimate scene of the 60-something James Taylor hugging with his eyes shut the Gibson J-50 on which he first played “Fire and Rain.”
Early in the film, King explains, “When we sprang out of the box there was just all this generational and cultural turbulence. There was a hunger for the intimacy, the personal thing that we did.”
In their attempt to completely define the era, the filmmakers were overwhelmed by the all the bases they needed to touch, and the result is a fragmented view of the pivotal time in music history. A Joni Mitchell interview would have made the documentary more complete, but she’s just one of the influential performers not profiled.
The documentary can be viewed as a sad and cautionary tale of the excesses as the era ended. Steve Martin, whose comic banjo-playing was first seen at the Troubadour, wisely asks, “How long can free love and pot exist as a cultural foundation? It can’t really.”
With the success of the club and its denizens came “too much money,” David Crosby points out, along with damaging drug use. Taylor succumbed to heroin addiction, Crosby’s excesses increased exponentially and the club’s owner became controlling and unpredictable.
“I don’t remember much about how I wrote those songs,” Taylor says. “You just pretended you could play the guitar and then maybe you could, then you pretended you could write a song and maybe you could.”
Fans of the era’s music will appreciate the rare photos and home movies, along with scenes of the 2007 concert tour that reunited King and Taylor.
For viewers who cannot tolerate PBS pledge breaks, Concord Records has released "Live at the Troubadour" with the documentary on DVD. In addition to the film, the handsome packaging contains a CD of classic tracks from that fertile period of L.A. song. The selections include King’s “It’s Too Late,” Taylor’s “Sweet Baby James,” Bonnie Raitt’s “Love Has No Pride," Elton John’s “Take Me to the Pilot” and Warren Zevon’s “Poor, Poor Pitiful Me.”
- "You’ve Got a Friend” was not a hit for Carole King, since it was never released as a single. (James Taylor's version was a single.)
- The song is included on “Tapestry,” and the album was at the top of the Billboard chart for 15 weeks. It remained on the chart for six years, making it the longest-charting album by any female solo artist.
- To this day, many singer-songwriters cite the album as an influence.
- King penned or co-wrote 118 songs that made it into the Billboard Top 100.
- The album was recorded in two weeks for $15,000, with producer Lou Adler keeping the production at a minimum to get a clean, warm sound.
- “You’ve Got a Friend” has been performed by Michael Jackson, Aretha Franklin, Peter Nero, Barbra Streisand, Vincent Price (on “The Muppet Show”), Andy Williams, Barry Manilow, Erykah Badu, Johnny Mathis, Me First and the Gimme Gimmies, Anne Murray, McFly, Lynn Anderson, Tom Jones, Lucero (in Spanish) and Mina (in Italian).
- As a critical analysis, Jeremy Gilien, a music composition scholar (and Josh Groban’s high school music teacher), wrote: “A feature which is a fairly frequent characteristic of her formal songwriting structure is to begin a song in a minor key and then find her way into a sunnier, major region before returning again to minor. The absence of an orchestra or large string section, and inclusion of finely crafted instrumental solo breaks, lend a sparse intimacy. The quality of her voice did not compare with that of a first-rank R&B or blues singer, but she used her understanding and placement of idiomatic vocal ornamentation to supply the ‘soul’ that her natural limitations had not equipped her with. Her sound was sensitive, unique, endearing and certainly a far cry from what we would think of as a typical voice of a ‘songwriter.’ ”
Blair Howell is a freelance editor and writer.