Adele may be the current Queen of the Tearjerker, but decades before the British songstress was even born, Carole King was making us feel everything through her earnest and soulful songwriting. To celebrate the Grammy winner’s 80th birthday on February 9, 2022, we’ve compiled a list of her most emotional career highlights, from her melancholy radio hits of the 1970s to her more recent, much-deserved honors from the Kennedy Center and the Library of Congress. Put on your headphones and grab a box of tissues — you’re in for a teary ride!
King cowrites the ultimate breakup anthem “It’s Too Late” — but it’s not even about her breakup! (1971)
“And it’s too late, baby, now it’s too late / Though we really did try to make it,” King sings on her sorrowful breakup song from the 1971 album, Tapestry. “Somethin’ inside has died / And I can’t hide and I just can’t fake it.” Many listeners assumed the song had been written about King’s divorce from her former songwriting partner Gerry Goffin, but in fact, she was responsible only for the music. The lyrics came from Toni Stern, 77, who wrote them in a single day after her breakup with James Taylor, 73. “I was feeling rather blue, looking for love, not being able to find it,” Stern told NPR in 2000. “And the first line came to me and the rest of the song just flowed.”
Types of tears shed: Defeated but wistful.
Watch it: “It’s Too Late” from BBC in Concert
King rerecords “Where You Lead” with her daughter for Gilmore Girls (2000)
When Amy Sherman-Palladino, 56, asked King for her permission to use this song about devotion as the theme for her new mother-daughter dramedy Gilmore Girls, the singer had a brilliant idea: She’d reimagine the dated lyrics and rerecord the tune with her daughter Louise Goffin. “She changed the lyrics because she’d outgrown the stand-by-my-man theme of the original,” Goffin recently told Entertainment Weekly, which had ranked “Where You Lead” the sixth-best TV theme song of the 21st century. “The song had a new life.” You can watch the duo perform it together in the concert film Carole King Tapestry: Live in Hyde Park.
Types of tears shed: Warm and maternal. Go call your mom (or your daughter)!
Don’t miss this: Celebrating Carole King's Tapestry 50 Years Later
Mourners sing “So Far Away” at Amy Winehouse’s funeral (2011)
This ode to longing was sad enough when it appeared on Tapestry, but it reached new emotional depths after the untimely death of Amy Winehouse in 2011. “So Far Away” was the British singer’s favorite song, and those gathered for her funeral in north London closed the ceremony with a tearful rendition of the tune. For an equally moving version, check out King’s performance with James Taylor from a 2013 benefit concert to aid the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing.
Types of tears shed: Mournful.
Watch it: Boston Strong: An Evening of Support and Celebration on YouTube
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King becomes the first woman to win the Gershwin Prize (2013)
Since 2007, the Library of Congress has handed out its Gershwin Prize for Popular Music, and in 2013, King was the first female artist to receive the honor. She performed for a packed (White) House that included the Obamas and Vice President Joe Biden, with special guest performances by Gloria Estefan (64), James Taylor, Trisha Yearwood (57), Billy Joel (72) and Emeli Sandé. “I’m honored to be recognized by the Library of Congress as the fifth recipient and the first woman, as has been stated,” she said in her sweet acceptance speech. “I can’t say it enough. I’m so excited!”
Types of tears shed: Pride and joy.
Watch it: Carole King: The Library of Congress Gershwin Prize in Performance at the White House on YouTube
She introduces Beautiful: The Carole King Musical at the Tony Awards (2014)
In 2013, the jukebox musical Beautiful: The Carole King Musical premiered on Broadway, where it played for 2,478 performances over six years. When King introduced a performance by the actress who portrayed her (beautifully), eventual Tony winner Jessie Mueller, she talked about how weird it is to see your story onstage: “A few years ago, I went to a reading of a new musical about my life called Beautiful. My professional side thought, ‘This is gonna be good.’ But I found some of the most emotional moments of my young life really hard to watch, so I left. I didn’t even go to the opening. But when I finally got up the courage to see it, I loved it.” After performing “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” Mueller was joined onstage by King, and the two dueted on “I Feel the Earth Move.”
Types of tears shed: Nostalgic.
Aretha Franklin honors King at the 2015 Kennedy Center Honors (2015)
Somebody should check on the structural integrity of the Kennedy Center, because the Queen of Soul blew the roof off the place during the 2015 ceremony. After tributes from the cast of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, Sara Bareilles, Janelle Monáe and James Taylor, Franklin emerged in diamonds and a floor-length fur coat, sat at a grand piano and belted out a rafters-shaking rendition of the King-penned “(You Make Me Feel Like) a Natural Woman.” Michelle Obama danced in her seat, Barack wiped a tear from his cheek and King beamed and sang along. When Franklin stood at center stage and dropped her coat to the floor, the audience leapt to their feet and roared in approval at undoubtedly one of the greatest performances in Kennedy Center Honors history.
Types of tears shed: Triumphant. Five out of five hankies.
Watch it: The Kennedy Center Honors, on YouTube
King reminisces about Gerry Goffin in an interview with Gayle King (2019)
To celebrate the fifth anniversary of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical on Broadway, the legendary songwriter took to the stage to play herself, stunning the audience at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre. The next day on CBS Sunday Morning, she discussed the moment with Gayle King, saying that she had originally been hesitant to see the show, because she thought it might be too hard to relive the dissolution of her romantic and professional partnership with Goffin. Much of the musical’s second act is dedicated to Goffin’s breakdown and infidelity, but King remains magnanimous about the man who hurt her all those years ago. “The people who love Gerry who were part of the production made him not a villain, rightly so,” she said. “He always felt bad about having caused me pain, and to the end of his life [said], ‘I’m sorry I caused you so much pain.’ He wasn’t a villain; he had a mental illness.”
Types of tears shed: Forgiving.
Watch it: CBS Sunday Morning on YouTube
King keeps us company during the pandemic (2020–2021)
Throughout the COVID-19 crisis, King has released a series of YouTube videos that feel a bit like FDR’s fireside chats. She speaks directly to the camera, offering words of support and encouragement, singing snippets from her catalog and playing the piano. In her most recent video, she changed the words to one of her most famous tunes: “It’s not too late, baby, it’s not too late / And you really are gonna make it / You’re gonna be so strong and healthy / When it’s your turn, just take it / Don’t be too late, baby / Don’t hesitate.”
Types of tears shed: Affection and support. Ain’t it good to know you’ve got a friend?
Watch it: Carole Messages from Home on YouTube
Nicholas DeRenzo is a contributing writer who covers entertainment and travel. Previously he was executive editor of United Airlines’ Hemispheres magazine and his work has appeared in the New York Times, Conde Nast Traveler, Travel & Leisure, Sunset and New York magazine.