"You've Got a Friend" was written by Carole King during the January 1971 recording sessions for her own album Tapestry, and James Taylor's album Mud Slide Slim. King has stated that "the song was as close to pure inspiration as I've ever experienced. The song wrote itself. It was written by something outside myself, through me." King's album was recorded in an overlap with Taylor's, and King, Danny Kortchmar, and Joni Mitchell perform on both. The song is included on both albums; King said in a 1972 interview that she "didn't write it with James or anybody really specifically in mind. But when James heard it he really liked it and wanted to record it".
According to author James D. Perone, the song's themes include an expression of "a universal, sisterly/brotherly, agape-type love of one human being for another, regardless of gender." The "reassuring" lyrics have long made the song popular with lonely people needing a boost of self-confidence. The song's messages of friendship having no boundaries and a friend being there when you are in need has universal appeal. For Taylor the lyrics had particular resonance due to the depression he had recovered from shortly before hearing King play the song. The music moves between a major and minor key, which according to music critic Maury Dean gives the song a "sympathetic mood."
In his review of Tapestry, Rolling Stone Magazine critic Jon Landau called "You've Got a Friend" Carole King's "most perfect new song." He particularly praised how the melody and lyrics support each other, and the "gorgeous, righteous rock melody" of the ending lyrics.Mojo Magazine considered the song to probably be "the core of Tapestry.Allmusic critic Stewart Mason commented on the "plainspoken intimacy" of King's performance. Mason finds that the "shyness" of King's voice gives her recording of the song a sincerity that he finds Taylor's to lack. Mason also praises the "depth and shading" provided by the string instruments on King's recording.
In his review of Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon, Rolling Stone critic Ben Gerson described "You've Got a Friend" as an "affirmative song," but suggested that James Taylor's version was too similar to Carole King's original version to have been worth including on his album. Music critic Maury Dean describes Taylor's performance style for the song as minimalist and folkish and comments on his "star-spangled sincerity."
French singer Claude François on his 1971 album Il fait beau, il fait bon (title: Un jardin dans mon coeur)
French singer Sylvie Vartan, as "Un jardin dans mon cœur", on her 1971 album Sympathie arranged by her British musicians Micky Jones and Tommy Brown. Vartan also recorded a Spanish version "Tu amigo fiel".
"You've Got a Friend" is also the most covered English pop song ever in Hong Kong pop music history:Agnes Chan (1971, Will The Circle Be Unbroken), Joe Chen (1972, Joe Chen's 1st), Frances Yip (1970s, All I Ever Need Is You), Jenny Tseng (1982, Star On Jenny), Elisa Chan (1994, Impossible), Albert Au (2001, Top Folk), Leslie Cheung (2002, Best of Leslie Cheung's English Collection), Ada To (2003, 人間定格), Chet Lam & Kay Tse (2006, Camping in Hong Kong Live), Mimi Lo (2007, You're My Everything), Susan Wong (2007, Someone Like You), Peter Cheung & Andrew Cheung (2007, Duets), Khalil Fong & Fiona Sit (2007, This Love Live 2007)