There are A-sides picked by record companies, and there are A-sides fans demand to hear. “It’s Too Late” falls into the latter category.

After the February 1971 release of Carole King’s pivotal second album, Tapestry, producer and Ode Records founder Lou Adler selected the LP's rocking opener, "I Feel the Earth Move," as the first single. But a funny thing happened: Radio DJs started flipping the record over and discovered that listeners preferred the moody song on the other side.

Critics hail “It’s Too Late” as one of the great breakup songs, specifically about divorce. So, it's easy to assume King was drawing on her divorce from Gerry Goffin, her first husband and former songwriting partner. The timing certainly works out — the pair split in 1968, and King moved across the country from New York City to Los Angeles to find herself. But the words (along with those on Tapestry's "Where You Lead") were actually written by lyricist Toni Stern.

Stern, a painter and poet, wrote the lyrics to "It's Too Late" after breaking up with James Taylor, though she's never stated the song is about him. It’s one of many ways Taylor’s presence looms over the album: King played piano in his band at the time; it was he who convinced King to move to Laurel Canyon and play her new songs at the Troubadour; his voice was in King’s head when she wrote “You’ve Got a Friend,” which he later recorded and turned into a massive hit; and he sings backup on a couple of Tapestry songs with his girlfriend at the time, Joni Mitchell.

Listen to Carole King's 'It's Too Late'

Stern and King didn't labor over the song. “I wrote ‘It’s Too Late’ in 20 minutes,” Stern told Sound Opinions, explaining that she frequently went to King with a fully crafted set of lyrics laid out on a legal pad. “She would take that pad, put it on the piano stand and within an hour, hour and a half at the most, she would have the melody.” Stern noted that King’s music would often come out as the version heard on the album.

The song became an unexpected double A-side, competing on the charts not long after its release with “I Feel the Earth Move.” It spent five weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, while Tapestry earned 15 weeks at No. 1 and six years on the charts — a feat matched only a few other times since then.

In a 2012 interview with CBS This Morning, King opened up about "It's Too Late"'s legacy, noting that the two most popular stories she hears from fans are about conceiving children to "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman" and how "It's Too Late" got them through a marital split. “Those lyrics are by Ms. Toni Stern," she said. "And her lyrics really do speak for people going through divorces.”

 

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