Music Memories: Happy Birthday, Carly Simon!

Keith Chaffee, Librarian, Collection Development,
Singer-songwriter Carly Simon on her “musical memoir” album, Songs from the Trees
Singer-songwriter Carly Simon on her “musical memoir” album, Songs from the Trees

On Jun 25, 1945, Carly Simon was born. Simon was one of the most popular singer-songwriters of the 1970s and followed that success by venturing into a wide variety of different musical forms and styles.

Her career began in the mid-1960s when she and her sister Lucy performed as The Simon Sisters. They were a folk duo who released three albums between 1964 and 1969. Lucy left the group to marry, though she did release some solo albums in the 1970s, and was a Tony nominee for writing the score to the Broadway musical The Secret Garden in 1991.

Book cover for The Secret Garden (Original Broadway Cast Recording)
The Secret Garden (Original Broadway Cast Recording)

The self-titled Carly Simon was released in 1971, and featured the top ten hit “That’s the Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be.” Simon won the Grammy Award for Best New Artist that year, then released her second album, Anticipation. The title song from that album was another hit. Simon had written the song in 15 minutes while waiting for Cat Stevens, today known as Yusuf Islam, to pick her up for a date. For much of the 1970s, “Anticipation” was used in a series of ketchup commercials, the idea being that the ketchup was so tasty that it was worth waiting for it to come out of the bottle.

The 1972 album No Secrets brought Simon her biggest hit yet, and given the album’s title, it’s amusing that “You’re So Vain” became known precisely for its secrets; the song is a stinging critique of a self-absorbed former boyfriend, and almost as soon as it was released, everyone wanted to know who it was really about. The mystery helped drive the song to #1 on the charts, where it stayed for five weeks.

Book cover for No Secrets
No Secrets
Simon, Carly

Simon refused to answer the question for decades. In 2003, she auctioned off the answer for charity, with the condition that the winning bidder was not allowed to reveal the identity of the song’s subject to anyone; television executive Dick Ebersol won the auction and has kept the secret. In 2015, Simon revealed the three verses of the song were about three different men, and that the second verse was about Warren Beatty.

Simon married singer James Taylor in 1972. They recorded together occasionally during their decade of marriage, scoring their biggest joint success in 1974 with “Mockingbird.”

In 1977, Simon joined the small group of singers asked to perform a Bond movie theme song. “Nobody Does It Better,” from The Spy Who Loved Me, was another big hit, kept from the top of the charts only by Debby Boone’s “You Light Up My Love,” which was in the middle of a ten-week run at #1, a record at the time.

With the 1980 album Come Upstairs, Simon shifted towards a harder rock sound. Where acoustic guitars and pianos had dominated her earlier work, the new album was heavy on electric guitars and synthesizers. The exception was the album’s hit single, “Jesse,” which sounded more like the Simon that audiences were used to.

She took an even wider departure in 1981 with Torch, an album of classic torch songs recorded during the breakup of her marriage to Taylor. It was one of the first ventures by a modern pop singer into the standards known as the Great American Songbook. While it was never likely that pop radio was going to respond well to a collection of songs by writers like Hoagy Carmichael and Stephen Sondheim, the critics praised the album, and Simon has released several more albums of such standards.

During the 1980s, in addition to her own albums, Simon contributed songs to several movie soundtracks. That culminated in 1989, when “Let the River Run” from Working Girl, won the Grammy, the Golden Globe, and the Oscar for best song from a movie, one of only a few songs to win all three awards. She followed that success with her only full film score, for 1992’s This Is My Life.

Simon’s 1994 album Letters Never Sent was an accurate title; Simon had found a box of old letters that she’d never mailed for various reasons, and wrote songs based on several of them.

Book cover for Letters Never Sent
Letters Never Sent
Simon, Carly

In 2001, Simon returned to the top forty for the first time in 15 years, as a featured vocalist (along with Missy Elliott) on Janet Jackson’s song “Son of a Gun (I Betcha Think This Song Is About You),” which was built around samples from “You’re So Vain.”

Simon returned to writing songs for films in the 2000s, contributing a dozen songs to a pair of Disney movies about the Winnie-the-Pooh characters. Her most recent album, 2009’s Never Been Gone, is mostly made up of acoustic versions of some of her most popular songs.

In 2015, Simon published an autobiography, Boys in the Trees, and released a companion “musical memoir” album, Songs from the Trees. She released another volume of memoir in 2019; Touched by the Sun focused specifically on her friendship with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

The solo albums from the first half of Simon’s career, through 1983, are available for streaming at hoopla, and much of her work from 1985 to present is available at Freegal.

Sheila Weller’s Girls Like Us is a joint biography of Simon, Carole King, and Joni Mitchell, and their importance to the singer-songwriter movement of the 1970s. Stephen Davis’s biography of Simon is There’s More Room in a Broken Heart.