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Music Memories: Happy Birthday, Paul Simon!

Keith Chaffee, Librarian, Collection Development,
 Paul Simon wins album-of-the year Grammy for "Graceland" [1987]
Paul Simon wins for "Graceland" [1987]. Photo credit: Javier Mendoza, Los Angeles Herald Examiner Photo Collection

On October 13, 1941, Paul Simon was born. Simon has been a critically acclaimed pop singer and songwriter for more than 60 years, both as a solo act and as part of the duo Simon & Garfunkel. Today, we’re focusing primarily on Simon as a soloist.

Of course, we can’t entirely skip over his work with Art Garfunkel. They met in elementary school, and performed together in a 6th-grade class play; they began singing as a duo when they were 13. Within their first year together, Simon had written his first song for the team. In 1957, while still teenagers, they had their first minor hit; recording as “Tom and Jerry,” they reached #49 on the charts with “Hey, Schoolgirl.”

While continuing to perform with Garfunkel over the next several years, Simon also wrote for other acts and recorded until a variety of pseudonyms. He made it onto the pop charts twice in 1962, just barely in both cases: as Jerry Landis, he reached #99 with the novelty hit “The Lone Teen Ranger,” and as lead singer for Tico and the Triumphs, he got to #97 with “Motorcycle.”

In the early 1960s, he visited England several times, and co-wrote some songs with Bruce Woodley, a member of The Seekers; the most successful product of that collaboration was “Red Rubber Ball,” a #2 hit for The Cyrkle in 1966.

Simon & Garfunkel, now recording under their own names, were among the major artists of the late 1960s, recording five studio albums, all included in this box set, and contributing songs to the soundtrack of The Graduate. During their time together, Simon recorded his first solo album, The Paul Simon Songbook, which was released in the UK in 1965; because he was under contract to a different American label with Garfunkel, this album wasn’t released here until 1981. All twelve of its songs were eventually recorded by Simon & Garfunkel.

The Graduate
Simon & Garfunkel

After Simon & Garfunkel broke up, Simon’s success continued with his first proper American solo album in 1972. Paul Simon was a stylistically diverse album, with the influence of Latin music on “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard” and reggae on the #4 hit “Mother and Child Reunion.”

The next year, There Goes Rhymin’ Simon generated a pair of #2 hit singles, “Kodachrome” and the gospel-flavored “Loves Me Like a Rock,” which featured the Dixie Hummingbirds as backup vocalists.

1975’s Still Crazy After All These Years was a darker album, written during and after Simon’s divorce. It featured his only solo #1 record, “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover,” along with duets with Phoebe Snow (“Gone at Last” and Garfunkel (“My Little Town,” credited on its single release as by Simon & Garfunkel). The album received the Grammy Award for Album of the Year.

Still Crazy After All These Years
Paul Simon

In 1980, Simon wrote and starred in the movie One Trick Pony, about a has-been pop star. The album of the same name wasn’t quite a soundtrack; it shared some songs with the movie, but often in different versions.

Simon and Garfunkel got together for a reunion concert in Central Park in 1981. Their cover of the Everly Brothers’ “Wake Up Little Susie” was their last hit together; the Everlys had been one of the major influences on their singing.

The reunion concert was such a success that the two began working together on a new album. Garfunkel left the project midway through recording, and Simon deleted his vocals, reworking those songs into solos for 1983’s Hearts and Bones. The album was a critical success, and two of its songs—“The Late Great Johnny Ace” and “Rene and Georgette Magritte with Their Dog After the War”—were praised as some of Simon’s finest work. But radio didn’t respond well to the album, and it was a commercial disappointment.

Simon was in a creative downturn after that failure. His relationship with Garfunkel had soured, and his second marriage (to Carrie Fisher) had ended in divorce. He found new inspiration when a friend gave him a cassette tape of South African music. Inspired by the rhythms and melodies he heard, he went to Johannesburg to record much of his next album, 1986’s Graceland.

Paul Simon

A variety of South African artists appeared on the album with him and co-wrote some of the songs. This generated some controversy; South Africa was at the time under an international cultural boycott because of its apartheid policy. The United Nations Anti-Apartheid Committee supported Simon, saying that he’d provided work for South African musicians, and paid them well, without providing support for the government or its policies. The African National Congress disagreed, and briefly added Simon to its artistic blacklist.

The album was an enormous success. Simon won his second Album of the Year Grammy. “You Can Call Me Al” and “The Boy in the Bubble” were radio hits, and the title song won the Grammy for Record of the Year. The Library of Congress added Graceland to its National Recording Registry in 2006.

The 1990 album The Rhythm of the Saints was a sort of sequel, but instead of South African music, the influences this time were Brazilian and Latin American. The legendary Brazilian singer Milton Nascimento co-wrote the song “Spirit Voices,” and the album is dominated by Latin rhythms. “The Obvious Child” was the biggest radio hit, reaching #21 on the Rock chart.

Simon’s next project was a major departure: He wrote a musical for Broadway. The Capeman was based on the life of Salvador Agron, who became a writer in prison after being convicted of two murders in the late 1950s. The lyrics were co-written by Saint Lucian poet Derek Wolcott, and the collaboration was reportedly a difficult one. Simon’s music was a charming mix of Caribbean styles, doo-wop, and early rock’n’roll. The musical was not well-reviewed by critics and closed after only two months. No cast album was recorded, but Simon recorded his own versions of the songs on Songs from The Capeman.

Simon continued exploring popular music from around the world on 2000’s You’re the One, this time fusing North African influences and traditional folk-rock sounds. The album was nominated for Album of the Year, making Simon the first artist to be nominated for that award in 5 separate decades, from the 60s to the 00s.

For 2006’s Surprise, Simon recruited Brian Eno as his primary collaborator. He took his inspiration from having recently turned 60, and from exploring new digital music technologies; Eno was credited for providing “sonic landscape” for the album.

Paul Simon: The Life
Hilburn, Robert

Since Graceland, Simon’s songwriting process had begun with rhythmic inspirations. For his 2011 album So Beautiful or So What, he chose to return to focusing first on harmony and melody, beginning the writing process at the guitar. He called the album “the best work I’ve done in twenty years,” and said that its influences were “West African blues, Indian drumming, old Hollywood strings, and bluegrass harmony.” The album’s themes were strongly spiritual, with enough religious symbolism that one critic, only somewhat joking, called it the year’s best Christian music album.

The 2016 album Stranger to Stranger found Simon getting experimental. He used some of the custom-built instruments made by avant-garde composer Harry Partch, and collaborated on several tracks with Italian DJ Clap! Clap! For his most recent album, 2018’s In the Blue Light, Simon returned to some of his favorite songs from earlier albums, usually not the biggest hits, and presented them in new arrangements created with the chamber sextet Music.

Paul Simon has twice been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, in 1990 as part of Simon and Garfunkel, and in 2001 as a solo artist. He received the Kennedy Center Honors in 2002, and in 2007, was the first recipient of the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song. In 2012, he was awarded the Polar Music Prize, a Swedish award that is sometimes referred to as the “Nobel of music.”

Robert Hilburn’s biography is called Paul Simon: The Life; Peter Ames Carlin is the author of Homeward Bound.