Composer or cowriter of melodic skyscrapers including "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman," "You've Got a Friend," "So Far Away" and dozens more, Carole King was feted on Friday as part of MusiCares' annual gala, which each year during Grammy weekend honors a musician's legacy.
Those shining light on King's ubiquitous, beautiful hits were, among others, Alicia Keys, Pink, Lady Gaga, Kacey Musgraves (in duet with R&B singer Miguel), Sara Bareilles, Zac Brown, James Taylor and, in the night's highlight, the singers featured in the documentary "20 Feet from Stardom," who delivered a spectacular rendition of "Way Over Yonder."
Held at the Los Angeles Convention Center, the black-tie event brought a few thousand monied donors who could afford tickets costing more than $1,500 to wine, dine and support a charity whose mission is to help debilitated musicians with bills.
An endangered profession hit hard by the technology shifts that have transformed the business, your average full-time musician is seldom invited to these kinds of tuxedoed nights of star-studded schmoozing, which began with Steven Tyler and LeAnn Rimes teaming for "Hi De Ho," a hit for King with her longtime collaborator (and ex-husband) Gerry Goffin made popular by Blood, Sweat & Tears.
Early on, Pink claimed King's minor key ballad "So Far Away" as her own, offering it with the calm assurance of someone intimately familiar with the song's emotion. The singer didn't descend from a wire onto the stage (as is often her wont), nor did she over-sing with unnecessary gymnastics. Rather, she stood elegantly beside a grand piano to offer King's song of longing with purity and perfect tone, personalizing the song's message of a world in transition: "You're so far away / Doesn't anybody stay in one place anymore?"
Like the Grammys, MusiCares is a stage where curious collaborations are the norm, and few seemed stranger on paper than Miguel and Musgraves. The former is a young San Pedro-born singer and producer who has gradually become a grand R&B romancer; the latter a country singer-songwriter nominated in this year's best new artist category. They sang "I'll Do My Crying in the Rain," which was made famous by the Everly Brothers in 1962. In harmony, they didn't rise to Phil and Don's level, but when Miguel delivered solo lines, an audible gasp went through the crowd, and a similar wave hit when Musgraves answered.
Nostalgic applause arrived when Neil Portnow, president of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, held up his original copy of "Tapestry," King's classic 1971 album that's one of the cornerstones of American pop music. Four-plus decades later the melodies and lyrical ideas that she planted have grown to occupy huge acreage in our imagination. Women run popular music in 2014, and that's due in part to King's artistic and commercial success.
Lady Gaga offered honest thanks from a stage in the middle of the room. Dressed in white, she performed a soulful, piano-driven version of "You've Got a Friend," pushing King's ode to devotion in ways both fresh and classic. Another of King's musical offspring, Alicia Keys, brought similar truth of "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman," no small feat given that few records are as singular as Aretha Franklin's original. Country singers Jennifer Nettles, Miranda Lambert and Martina McBride teamed with pop vocalist Amy Grant and moved easily through some of King's early hits.
Less assured was the performance by producer and Black Eyed Peas cofounder Will.i.am, who seemed to use the charity event to promote his new "protege," a British singer named Leah McFall. From a marketing perspective, it was savvy: many heavy hitters in attendance had open ears and empty wine glasses at the tables in the crowd. But the maneuver, and the performance, felt off key, as though Will.i.am had hijacked charity in service of promotion.
A few songs later the misstep was rendered moot by a thrilling version of "Way Over Yonder." Performed by singers Darlene Love, Judith Hill, Merry Clayton and Lisa Fisher -- all featured in the documentary about professional back-up singers "20 Feet from Stardom" -- they embodied the spirit of a song so perfectly imagined that that it felt centuries old.
King closed the evening with longtime collaborator James Taylor and a typically adventurous reinvention. After telling a story about meeting an Egyptian music student in Boston, she brought the player, Ahmad El Haggan, out to the stage for a rhythmic, Middle Eastern-textured take on "Home Again," from "Tapestry."
Such radical interpretation isn't necessarily King's first instinct. She thrives within well-tested structures. But as she offered lines from the song, its universality prevailed. "I won't be happy til I see you alone again," she sang, longing to return to her love. "Til I'm home again and feeling right."
This same universality will sustain the lives of these songs for years to come.