Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend” may not be the most covered pop song of the second half of the 20th century, (that title is often said to belong to McCartney’s “Yesterday”), but it may be the most successfully covered. I say this because despite Carole King having written and initially recorded it, the most famous version remains James Taylor’s. In addition, countless other versions exist from artists who have since made it staples of their own. The wide array of interpretations help show that besides being a superbly written song, it is remarkably flexible. Taylor’s version is, true to form, very low-key, with little more than guitar, percussion, and beautifully sung backup-vocals (courtesy of Joni Mitchell); quite different than the original. But, as we will see, the song has the ability to convey all types of emotions and styles.
Despite it being composed and often performed by Carole King, many have not heard her original version. In comparison to where it would eventually go, this is a rather tame take. Take note of the short introductory tag, which is only otherwise utilized by James Taylor. The form is unusually long, and we can either see it as a an ABABCB form or AABBAABBCBB, because the verses and choruses turn around on themselves without really reaching a cadence. The style and tempo falls somewhere between a ballad and a medium soul tune, both of which we will see fully realized later. In addition to the heavy soul inflections provided by King, there is a strongly implied backbeat that never manifests itself. It can be assumed that King certainly approached this song as a ballad, but others, such as Donny Hathaway, took it into a more driving, soulful direction.
There were many soul artists of the 70’s who covered “You’ve Got a Friend,” including Al Green and Aretha Franklin. It was even included on an expanded reissue of Dusty Springfield’s Dusty in Memphis. But of all of them, the Donny Hathaway and Roberta Flack duet version was probably the most well known. While this recording of Donny Hathaway performing the song live does not include Flack, it is based on the same arrangement and features an incredible performance by Hathaway. Hearing this song live shows how powerful Hathaway was able to make the song, this time including a heavy backbeat and lots of soulful melismas and crowd-participation. It is in this version that we see the song as more of a crowd pleasing soul standard as opposed to a ballad, and the effect is significant. It’s hard to believe that this song wasn’t written specifically for Hathway; it fits his voice and style perfectly, and this still stands as one of his best recorded performances.
Like its utilization in the soul community, there are many jazz musicians who have interpreted “You’ve Got a Friend.” Some were recorded as early as its release, including a version by Ella Fitzgerald with the Count Basie Orchestra. It has actually become more increasingly popular in recent years, especially with pianists. Kevin Hays, for one, recorded it for his album of the same name, which featured other newly interpreted modern standards.
Jacky Terrasson’s recent solo version is especially interesting. Going more in the ballad direction, the french pianist mixes classical flourishes with beautiful harmonies to create a genuinely emotional version of this classic. The length of the form is certainly felt in his slower take, but without much cost. The verses and choruses are performed with such tasteful refrain that when the bridge finally does arrive (over 4 minutes into the song) it is all the more powerful. Terrasson’s interpretation is of particular interest because, surely as a testament to the song’s quality and longevity, for the most part very few have taken it very far from its initial harmonic form. Still, much of the form remains the same, but Terrasson adds new and vibrant harmonic colors to the climax of the chorus as well as the intro and outro.
These three versions of “You’ve Got a Friend”, with the addition of the probably too-often heard James Taylor version, clearly illustrate a song that has rightfully earned a place in the library of “modern standards.” It has still been under 50 years since its initial recording, but the obvious power and distinction this song holds show it will continue to be covered for a long time.