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Toni Stern, Who Wrote Songs With Carole King, Dies at 79

Toni Stern, a breezy young Californian who became a trusted lyricist for Carole King, providing the words for the enduring standard “It’s Too Late” and many other songs during Ms. King’s flowering as a chart-topping solo artist, died on Jan. 17 at her home in Santa Ynez, Calif., near Santa Barbara. She was 79.

Her husband and only immediate survivor, Jerry Rounds, confirmed the death. He did not specify the cause.

Ms. Stern, a Los Angeles native, was an aspiring painter and poet living in Laurel Canyon, an enclave popular with the Los Angeles rock elite, in the late 1960s. It was there that she met Ms. King, who had moved west from New Jersey after a painful breakup with her husband and songwriting partner, Gerry Goffin, with whom she had formed one of the decade’s powerhouse hit-making duos.

The two hit it off immediately. “When I moved to California in 1968, she was the epitome of a free-spirited Laurel Canyon woman,” Ms. King wrote in a Facebook post after Ms. Stern’s death. “She lived in a hillside house with her dog, Arf, surrounded by books, record albums, plants and macramé.”

The two would soon share songwriting credits. When Ms. King stepped into the limelight as a solo performer, Ms. Stern provided lyrics to the songs “What Have You Got to Lose” and “Raspberry Jam” on her first solo album, “Writer,” released in 1970.

Their partnership continued on the follow-up, “Tapestry” (1971), a pop music colossus that topped the Billboard 200 for 15 weeks and went on to become one of the best-selling albums of all time. Ms. Stern provided the words for “It’s Too Late,” which was No. 1 on the Billboard singles chart for five weeks, and “Where You Lead.”

The lyrics for “It’s Too Late” captured the wistfulness, but also the clarity, of a love affair that has run its course. They came to Ms. Stern in a flash of inspiration, Mr. Rounds said in a phone interview.

“She sat down one morning with her Smith Corona,” he said, “and the creativity flowed.”

Stayed in bed all mornin’ just to pass the time

There’s somethin’ wrong here, there can be no denyin’

One of us is changin’, or maybe we’ve just stopped tryin’.

For Ms. King, the music flowed just as easily. “I remember sitting down at the piano with the lyrics on the stand and hearing the music come out of me pretty much as you hear it on ‘Tapestry,’” she wrote on Facebook.

The song was hailed as a classic. “If there’s a truer song about breaking up than ‘It’s Too Late,’” the rock critic Robert Christgau wrote, “the world (or at least AM radio) isn’t ready for it.”

Toni Kathrin Stern was born on Nov. 4, 1944, the youngest of two children of Harry Stern, a traveling salesman, and Audrey (Johnson) Stern, an apartment manager.

She graduated from Hollywood High School in 1962, briefly attended Los Angeles City College and later moved to Paris, where she studied painting, before returning to Los Angeles, where she began to envision poetry she been writing as song lyrics.

At 23, she gave a handful of samples to her friend Bert Schneider, a creator of “The Monkees,” the sitcom about a fictional quartet of pop stars that transformed its stars into a real-life recording sensation. He arranged a meeting between her and Ms. King.

“I was a complete unknown,” Ms. Stern said in a 2018 interview with the website Compulsive Reader. “You might say I started at the top. I didn’t even know if the lyrics I created could be fashioned into song.”

The two collaborated on “As We Go Along,” featured in “Head” (1968), the surrealistic film that helped explode the Monkees’ teen-friendly television image. They would continue to work together into the mid-1970s.

Ultimately, Ms. Stern’s husband said, she decided she had no taste for the music industry hustle and returned her focus to poetry. She published several volumes over the years, the most recent of which, “The Wet Clay of My Heart,” came out last year.

Her poetry “explores small everyday pleasures and the unknowable, together in a place of abstraction and clarity, without excess, without heaviness or tension,” her editor, Trish Reynales, wrote in an email.

Her work in music was anything but forgotten, however. “It’s Too Late” and “Where You Lead” were featured in the hit Broadway show “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical,” which opened in 2014. “Where You Lead” also served as the theme song to the critically acclaimed television series “Gilmore Girls.”

“‘Where You Lead’ had a stand-by-your-man theme consistent with our having grown up in the 1950s,” Ms. King wrote in an email. When Amy Sherman-Palladino, the show’s creator, asked to use it as the theme song, she added, “Toni rewrote the lyric to celebrate the relationship between a mother and her daughter — and that is the version I hope will endure.”

As for her “It’s Too Late” lyrics, they were not drawn from personal experience, nor did Ms. Stern ever categorize it as a breakup song. “It is a song of optimism and gratitude,” Mr. Rounds said, adding that “the lyrics subtly but profoundly suggested to the world that in relationships, women could be on equal terms with men.”

“By the way,” he added, “she never stayed in bed all morning.”


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