Gerry Goffin

Remembering the Legacy of Gerry Goffin

Wayne Robins

By Wayne Robins

on 06.20.14 in Features

There may be no better farewell for lyricist Gerry Goffin, who died Thursday at age 75, then this appreciation offered in an interview last year by Frankie Valli, back in the spotlight with Jersey Boys.

Valli was in a Manhattan diner talking with me about the enduring appeal of songs from the early 1960s. Songs that were released on 45 rpm records, purchased by teenagers (most of them girls), expected to be forgotten the moment they fell from the charts. Yet many of them have turned out to be classics, unexpected contributions to the Great American Songbook. The one that towered over all was the 1960 recording of “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” sung by the Shirelles, written by an up-and-coming young married couple in the midtown-Manhattan song factory known as the Brill Building: Gerry Goffin (lyrics) and Carole King (music).

Valli recited Goffin’s lyric, mesmerized by its nuance, its clarity, even its subversiveness at a most prudish time in American culture. “‘Is this a lasting treasure/ Or just a moment’s pleasure?/ Can I believe the magic of your sighs?/ Will you still love me tomorrow?’ ”

‘Goffin’s most remarkable gift was capturing, in just a few brief phrases, the mood of a young nation.’

The song is about what used to be called “going all the way,” a rendering of love, sex and hormones written with such subtle eloquence that the moral guardians of America’s youth — and they were everywhere at the time — never noticed. “It was not offensive,” Valli noted. “That’s the beauty.”

Perhaps part of the beauty came from Goffin and King’s own experience. They married in 1959 — King was 17, Goffin 20 — after King became pregnant with their daughter Louise from such a moment’s pleasure.

Before the Beatles changed the rules of pop music by composing their own hits (but not until mastering covers of these early standards, including Goffin and King’s “Chains”) singers sang, writers wrote and producers ran the sessions. Like peers Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry, and Neil Sedaka and Howard Greenfield, Gerry Goffin grew up as part of the fecund hothouse of largely Jewish immigrant ambition that was Brooklyn in the early and mid 20th century. Born in Jamaica, Queens, on February 11, 1939, Goffin was a math and science geek who attended the still elite high school Brooklyn Tech. However, he had one quirk that went beyond the numbers. According to Ken Emerson’s definitive book about these writers and their era, Always Magic in the Air, Goffin had been making up songs in his head from the time he was eight years old, words he’d put to an “inane melody” in his head.

Goffin met King at Queens College. Their chemistry developed quickly. Goffin had written the lyric for a musical but needed someone to write the music. King didn’t like musicals; she liked rock ‘n’ roll. King was driven; Goffin went along.

To capitalize on the Twist and other dance fads, Goffin and King wrote “The Loco-Motion.” Their young babysitter, Eva Narcissus Boyd, sang on the demo, which was released with minimal production and became a No. 1 record in 1962 credited to Little Eva. (It was later covered by Grand Funk Railroad.) Though they wrote hits for Bobby Vee, such as “Take Good Care of My Baby,” and even the Monkees (“Pleasant Valley Sunday”), Goffin’s most remarkable gift was capturing, in just a few brief phrases, the mood of a young nation.

“Up On the Roof,” by the Drifters featuring lead singer Rudy Lewis, was one of those records, “teenage tunes with Latin syncopation,” according to Jerry Wexler in his autobiography with David Ritz, The Rhythm and the Blues. Wexler credits the song with carrying Atlantic Records in the early 1960s. But Goffin’s masterpiece was his lyric to a song that Wexler wanted Aretha Franklin to sing. The song was “Natural Woman,” and it wasn’t even a song – just an idea for a song. Wexler had only those two words: no melody, no verse, chorus or bridge. Blessed with the gift for writing words for women’s voices, Goffin’s lyric to King’s music became one of Aretha’s signature tunes, “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.” “The song has become part of Aretha’s own persona, a product of her own soul,” Wexler said.

That gift would outlast the Goffin-King marriage and partnership. Though King, of course, embodied the reflective, singer-songwriter era with her solo 1971 mega-seller Tapestry, Goffin continued to write blockbuster tunes for some of the greatest female singers of popular music: “Do You Know Where You’re Going To” by Diana Ross and “Saving All My Love for You” by Whitney Houston, both featuring music by Michael Masser.

But for many, “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” will never be surpassed. Frankie Valli, who collects antique furniture, compares Goffin’s lyric to a great piece of handmade furniture. “I have a 16th-century country French armoire that I will never get rid of,” he says. “I look at it sometimes and I’m amazed. The whole thing comes apart and there is not one nail in the whole thing.” Gerry Goffin’s craft was like that: Handmade, created in the moment, so beautiful yet sturdy that it is not hard to imagine his songs lasting 500 years.

Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images