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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Kassel

"You've Got a Friend": Simple and heartfelt, as it should be

Sometimes it's best to say things as we feel them, because that's when they sound the most real and impactful.

In the aftermath of the numerous stressors and thoughts which preoccupied me over the past couple days, it’s a very nice change of pace for my biggest question of the day to be which version of a song I choose to place in my Senior Year Soundtrack. I decided on the song early in the day, but I only write this post now in the evening because it was spectacularly recorded by two great artists.

"You've Got a Friend," one of the most heartfelt songs of the 20th century, was written by Carole King, who first released the song on her landmark 1971 album Tapestry. At the same time as that version was recorded, James Taylor was having his go at the song — in fact, the two recordings featured the same musicians, as King and Taylor were recording in the same studio, and King gave Taylor the okay to release his version. The two singer/songwriters became fast friends the year prior, after collaborating and then performing together at Los Angeles' famed Troubadour club.

In fact, King and Taylor's friendship influenced the song itself. According to Taylor, "You've Got a Friend" was written in response to a line from the chorus of his song "Fire and Rain," in which he sings, "I've seen lonely times when I could not find a friend." If that's true, what a response and what a friend King made through penning and arranging her track, because the lyrics feel so honest in their simplicity.

Torn between the two artists' takes on the track, I alternated listens to both versions throughout the day, as I went between classes and took breaks from doing coursework. By the early evening, I realized that Carole King's version was the one that stuck with me more. To me, King's version sounds warmer and evokes more of the feeling I wanted to embody in today's post.

I also want to preface my placement of the video in this post by saying that, unlike pretty much every other track I've covered to this point in my Senior Year Soundtrack, there really isn't anything to parse or uncover in King's lyrics. Rather, they tell the complete story on their own, without any need for Benjamin or anyone else's Genius-esque notes. Just have a listen and enjoy the beauty of it all:

As is the standard for Tapestry, King's piano opens the track. The playing is nothing too flashy, but nothing about the song (or the album) is or needs to be. Carole King's material always has an air of calmness to it, even in her more rock-like tracks like "Smackwater Jack" or in danceable numbers like Tapestry opener "I Feel the Earth Move." With "You've Got a Friend" being a low-key song in the first place, all the instruments stay in their assigned place, and that's more than enough when all the parts become a whole. Aside from King's contributions, those parts include Charlie Larkey's string bass mimicking King's low line on the piano, bowed violins and violas, Danny Kortchmar on congas, the aforementioned James Taylor on guitar, and (to my surprise as I found the personnel listing) Joni Mitchell on backing vocals in addition to King herself. Kortchmar and Mitchell also reprised their roles on Taylor's recording.

I love how King's opening lines take her into the lowest part of her register. Starting so low makes the delivery of those first words more intimate, and it also makes it all the more powerful when she soon climbs into her more comfortable middle range, which she utilizes in the song's melodic and dynamic peaks. I also realized that one of those opening lines is different between King and Taylor's versions of the track: Taylor changed the second line from "And you need some loving care" to "And you need a helping hand." I'm not quite sure which one I'd go with, because I hear pros in choosing both versions: "a helping hand" is a bit more specific, but I feel like "some loving care" is a more warming remark. Other minute lyrical differences exist, but none stand out to me as much as the change to the second line.

When the chorus hits and the lower-harmony backing vocals begin, the song takes on an even warmer hue than it had in the verses. Depending on my mood or how actively I'm listening, I hear the backing lines as one of two things. Firstly, it can be King's narrator doubling down on their support for their friend. This reading is probably the more apparent of the two, given its more literal context. The other reading I have is a slight bit more nuanced, as I can also hear the harmonies as being the friend to which the narrator is singing. With "You've Got a Friend" carrying such a caring message, I want to hear the love that the narrator has for their friend as being mutual and willingly reciprocated. In a world where, as King puts is in the bridge, "people can be so cold," being able to so reliably depend on someone — knowing they'll look out and care for you like you will for them — is nothing short of a treasure, and one which will continually reap riches for both parties.

"You Got a Friend" came to me as my song for the day early in the morning, as I read and talked with friends who reached out to me after I shared my "Dark Necessities" article and some relate thoughts on private social feeds last night. As I talked and caught up with various people who are in various places across the United States, I felt so grateful that they were moved to drop me a line, despite me not asking for or expecting that response. In taking the time to chat with those friends, I remember how they've dependably been there for me when I've needed them (which, I'll admit, has been pretty often considering my frequent emotional and mental instability), and how I hopefully have been and will continue to be there for them. When I tell them to message me whenever they need anything, or just to vent, I mean it; just as Carole King wrote and sang: "You just call out my name..."

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