Toni Stern, poet who wrote the lyrics for some of Carole King’s best-known songs – obituary

Toni Stern
Toni Stern - Sherry Rayn Barnett/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Toni Stern, who has died aged 79, was a lyricist who supplied the words of some of Carole King’s best known songs, most notably It’s Too Late, the biggest hit from her multi-million-selling album Tapestry.

Chronicling the break-up of Toni Stern’s love affair with the singer-songwriter James Taylor, the song aptly also mirrored the end of Carole King’s marriage to her songwriting partner, Gerry Goffin.

Though Toni Stern usually agonised over songs, she wrote the lyric in 20 minutes, she recalled: “I was feeling rather blue, looking for love, not being able to find it. And the first line came to me [‘Stayed in bed all mornin’ just to pass the time’] and the rest of the song just flowed. There was hardly a rewrite in it that I can recall.”

The single spent five weeks at No 1 in the US until it was knocked off top spot by another song from Tapestry – James Taylor’s version of You’ve Got a Friend (which was written solely by Carole King). It won a Grammy for Record of the Year.

Toni Kathrin Stern was born on November 4 1944; her father Harry Stern was a travelling salesman, while her mother Audrey, née Johnson, managed an apartment block. Toni attended Hollywood High School, then after a short stay at Los Angeles City College she studied painting in Paris.

Returning to LA, she began to think about repurposing some of the poetry she had been writing as lyrics, a handful of which she gave to Bert Schneider, co-creator with Bob Rafelson of the Monkees. He showed them to Carole King, and the two women wrote As We Go Along, which featured in Head (1968), the surreal film which shattered the Monkees’ image as lovable goofballs.

Toni Stern, seated, with Carole King and the producer Lou Adler in Adler's office in 1971
Toni Stern, seated, with Carole King and the producer Lou Adler in Adler's office in 1971 - Jim McCrary/Redferns

Carole King credited her new songwriting with helping her leave Gerry Goffin behind: “Toni was wonderful help with the transition from writing with Gerry to writing songs on my own,’’ she recalled. “I didn’t have the courage initially.”

Toni Stern also worked with Carole King on the Tapestry track Where You Lead (“I always wanted a real home with flowers on the window sill/ But if you wanna live in New York City, honey, you know I will.”

“I’m sure there was a California quality in me that appealed to Carole,” she said. “She was moving from a familial, middle-class lifestyle to Laurel Canyon, where she started to let her hair down, literally and figuratively. We worked off our contrasts.”

For Carole King, who was used to working in an office in the Brill Building, the transition to west-coast life was stark. Toni Stern recalled visiting her new songwriting partner’s house: “I remember her – this is her third baby – just picking up that baby’s bottom and slapping some olive oil on his bottom and just, like, writing songs with one hand and dressing up a baby with the next. She was, like, playing the piano with her left hand and diapering a baby with her right.”

The pair wrote three songs together for Music (1971), the follow-up to Tapestry, including It’s Going to Take Some Time This Time, which became a hit for the Carpenters; the album itself went gold a few days after its release. Rhymes & Reasons (1972), which went to No 2 in the US, contained five more collaborations, taking up most of the first side of the album.

Where You Lead got a new lease of life when the producers of the comedy-drama TV series The Gilmore Girls (2000-07) wanted to use an updated version as its theme song. “That song came out in the 1970s when women didn’t need to follow their man,” said Carole King. “So, I asked Toni if she would change the lyrics to make them work for a mother and daughter.”

After working with Carole King, Toni Stern decided to get out of the music industry and concentrate on her poetry; her most recent collection was The Wet Clay of My Heart, published last year. “I write, not in order to understand myself, rather to abide more peacefully in the certainty that I never shall,” she said.

Toni Stern is survived by her husband, Jerry Rounds.

Toni Stern, born November 4 1944, died January 17 2024