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It was released in the same year as the first oral contraceptive pill, and few songs have captured the bittersweetness of a cultural revolution more perfectly than “Will You Love Me Tomorrow”, which Carole King and Gerry Goffin wrote for The Shirelles in 1960.
King and Goffin had hastily married in 1958 after King became pregnant aged 17, and Goffin was still working at a chemical company when the Brill Building’s “Man with the Golden Ear”, Don Kirshner, commissioned the ambitious duo to write something for the up-and-coming New Jersey doo-whoppers. One of the few girl groups to compose their own material, The Shirelles needed a follow-up to their minor 1960 hit “Tonight’s the Night”, which saw lead vocalist Shirley Owens torn over a lover’s offer to “turn the lights down low” and make her “feel all aglow/ Well I don’t know . . . You might break my heart.”
Goffin and King were so excited they simply continued the narrative. King bashed out the melody in an afternoon (with their infant daughter in a playpen beside the piano), then dashed out to play mah-jong with a friend, leaving a note for her husband near the tape recorder reading: “Please write.”
“I listened to it a few times,” Goffin told King’s biographer, Sheila Weller, “then I put myself in the place of a woman — yes, it was sort of autobiographical. I thought: what would a girl sing to a guy if they made love that night?”
In just a few simple lines, Goffin nailed the insecurities of a new generation of sexually liberated women. He wrote for a voice that was confident and vulnerable in equal measure: “So tell me now and I won’t ask again/ Will you still love me tomorrow?” The Shirelles originally thought the song sounded “too country” for their urban, R & B style, but were won over by the addition of a dramatic string section.
Owens’s voice struck out deep and direct across the peppy beat of ambidextrous session drummer Gary Chester and brisk sha-la-las of her former classmates. The single became the first US number one for a black female group.
Although it was covered by The Four Seasons, Linda Ronstadt and Roberta Flack over the next decade, it was King’s own 1971 recording that really moved the song on. One of only two old Goffin/King numbers to appear on her best-selling Tapestry album (which King will perform live, in its entirety, for the first time in Hyde Park on July 3), it was stripped of its youthful uncertainty and delivered from the wearier, wiser lips of a woman who had been burnt before. The studio lights were turned down low as fellow singer-songwriters Joni Mitchell and James Taylor sang backing vocals.
The song is now a classic of the female singer-songwriter canon: you can throw a heartbroken howl at it like Amy Winehouse (whose 2004 recording for the soundtrack of Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason was vandalised by cheesy production including beach-bar bongos, and mercifully reproduced by Mark Ronson in 2011), whisper it like Norah Jones in 2009 or sob it (with menace) into your piano as Swedish indie-pop star Lykke Li did for the soundtrack of Kimberly Peirce’s 2013 Carrie remake.
Although it had been covered by men before, Bryan Ferry gave the song its most searching gender flip in 1993, his melancholy sighs floating over lonesome splashes of synth, an echoing guitar and ghostly atmospherics.
Then in 2010, as scientists at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University claimed to have developed the first male contraceptive pill, Kanye West lamented a world in which women could now use men as they had once been used.
“How she gon’ wake up and not love me no more?/ I thought I was the asshole, I guess it’s rubbing off,” rapped Kanye on “Devil in a New Dress” against a slickly seductive Smokey Robinson sample from 1973. What was Smokey singing? “Will You Love Me Tomorrow”.
For more in the series, and podcasts with clips of the songs, ft.com/life-of-a-song
Photograph: Gilles Petard/Redferns