Paul Simon - Biography
By Scott Feemster
It is rare to say that a particular songwriter has influenced the larger culture as a whole, but in the case of Paul Simon, it would not be an exaggeration to say that he has influenced American culture several different times in a career that has stretched from the late 1950's until today.
Paul Frederic Simon was born in Newark, New Jersey on October 13, 1941 to parents Belle and Louis Simon. Both of his parents were of Hungarian Jew background, his mother an English teacher, his father initially a bass player and band leader who used the stage name “Lee Sims”. His father had some success in the 40's and 50's, and even appeared on such programs as The Arthur Godfrey Show and The Jackie Gleason Show, but eventually gave his music career up and became a college professor. When Paul Simon was a young boy, his parents moved to Kew Gardens Hills, a mostly Jewish middle-class neighborhood in the borough of Queens in New York City. Paul's first passion before music was actually baseball, and he was on several youth and school teams in his neighborhood. Though music was always a presence in the Simon household, young Paul didn't pay much attention to it until hearing the angelic voice of a neighbor at a school event, and then noticing how much attention girls paid to his neighbor afterwards. That neighbor with the strong, high voice was Art Garfunkel. Soon young Paul picked up the guitar to accompany he and Garfunkel's attempts to sing the doo-wop and early rock n' roll they were hearing on the radio. The pair even got an early taste of recording because both of their parents had tape recorders, and the two would lay down a track of vocals and then harmonize another track to see how their voices sounded together. Soon after the duo got together with some other neighborhood friends and formed the acapella doo-wop group The Sparks, soon changed to The Pep-Tones. The group fell apart rather quickly, but Paul and Art continued working together, and would appear at school events and dances. They wrote their first song together, titled “The Girl For Me” in 1955.
While still in junior high, the two singer/songwriters began submitting tapes of their songs to music publishers and promoters. Probably because they were so young, the two weren't taken seriously, so they decided to go and record one of their songs themselves and record it straight to acetate, in other words, in one take, with no overdubs and no tape. The song was “Hey, Schoolgirl”, and it caught the attention of one Sid Prosen, the owner of a small label called Big Records. Seeing the duo as an even younger version of the Everly Brothers, (whom Simon and Garfunkel greatly admired), he signed the pair to a recording contract, with the permission of their parents. Thinking their names sounded too “ethnic”, (read: Jewish), Prosen suggested Garfunkel take the name Tom Graph, and Simon the name Jerry Landis, thus christening the duo Tom & Jerry. Prosen and Big released “Hey, Schoolgirl” in 1957, and the song became a hit first in the New York area, and then eventually climbed to #57 on the national charts, and even earned them an appearance on American Bandstand. The single went on to sell over 100,000 copies. Posen soon got them back in the studio to record more material, including a Paul Simon solo single that (supposedly) Garfunkel didn't know about. Simon released the single “True Or False”, a song written by his father Louis, under the pseudonym True Taylor. The single didn't spark any interest, and neither did three more singles released by Tom & Jerry in 1958. Because of tension between the two, Simon and Garfunkel went their separate ways and didn't work together again until 1961, when they tried again and released the single “Drown My Tears” on the Mercury label, followed by another single “Surrender, Please Surrender” on ABC-Paramount in 1962. Both of those singles also failed to make a dent on the charts.
Both Simon and Garfunkel enrolled in college, Garfunkel at Columbia University studying mathematics, Simon at Queens University studying English, but where Garfunkel concentrated on his studies almost exclusively, Simon kept his foot in the music world and soon met up with another young songwriter named Carol Klein, who would later find fame as Carol King. Simon and Klein wrote songs together, as did Simon with his brother Eddie, and tried to pitch them to teen-age singers of the day with various degrees of success. At the same time, Simon carried on a solo career under the name Jerry Landis, and scored a minor hit in 1962 with the single “The Lone Teen Ranger”, a parody on the Lone Ranger television series. Simon also joined together with a local group called The Crew Cuts, and recorded the song “Motorcycle” under the name Tico & The Triumphs, which also became a minor hit. The band, with Simon, only stayed together a short time before breaking up. By 1963, influenced by the emerging folk revival, Simon switched gears from writing teen anthems to concentrating his songwriting on more serious themes. He began to show up in clubs in and around Greenwich Village, then one of the epicenters of the folk scene, playing his new songs and folk standards with just his guitar as accompaniment. In the summer of 1963, Simon took off for Paris, France, where he lived the bohemian life for a few months, supporting himself by busking in the streets. During his stay in Paris, he met English promoter Dave McCausland, who invited Simon to come to England and play the folk circuit there. Before he could do that, though, he needed to return to New York and graduate from college. After graduating with a BA in English, Simon even tried law school for a short time, (reportedly to please his parents), but soon dropped out. Also after returning to the States, Simon reunited briefly with Garfunkel, and the two started playing shows as Jerry Landis & Tom Graph. London was calling, however, and Simon flew to England in 1964. Once there, he played the English folk circuit and stayed at the flat of Judith Piepe, a woman deeply involved in the folk scene and a kind of den mother for musicians traveling through London. While staying at her flat, he met other like-minded English and American folk musicians like Davy Graham, Bert Jansch, Jackson C. Frank and Al Stewart. His time in England was especially fruitful, and during this time he wrote much of the material that would appear on the first three Simon & Garfunkel albums. While there, Simon recorded one of his songs, “Carlos Dominguez”, and released it under the name Jerry Landis, but it did nothing. It was later released in the U.S. under the pseudonym Paul Kane. By the summer of 1964, Garfunkel flew to England, and the two played shows together finally using their given names. They quickly built up a strong reputation, and upon returning to the U.S. later in 1964, were signed by producer Tom Wilson to Columbia Records.
The pair quickly entered the studio and recorded their debut album Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M. (Columbia), released in October of 1964. The album was a mix of traditional folk songs, a couple of covers and a few Simon originals, and pretty much flopped right away. Discouraged, Simon packed his bags again and returned to England. Staying with Piepe again, she got him a job backing her on a religious program she did for the BBC. When people started calling in asking about the background music, word got back to the English arm of CBS Records, (whom Simon was still under contract with), and they had him enter the studio to record his solo debut, The Paul Simon Songbook (CBS), released in the spring of 1965 only in Great Britain. The album was a spare, stripped-down affair, with most songs just featuring voice and guitar, and though it gained some favorable reviews, it never really took off to any great degree. Meanwhile, back in the States, a radio station in Boston was playing a track off of Wednesday Morning... called “The Sound Of Silence”, and was getting many requests asking who the song was by. Word got back to Columbia Records in New York and Tom Wilson, who, without telling either Simon or Garfunkel, added drums, bass and electric guitar to the song and re-released it as a single. The song fit in perfectly with the folk-rock sound that was emerging at the time, and became a huge hit, eventually reaching #2 in the pop charts in January of 1966. Once the single started climbing up the charts, Columbia flew Simon back over from England and reunited him with Garfunkel, and the two started playing shows to promote the single and the re-released Wednesday Morning... Columbia quickly got the duo back in the studio, and their follow-up, Sounds Of Silence (Columbia), was released in early 1966. The album included the re-worked version of “The Sound Of Silence”, along with other Simon originals, most notably, “I Am A Rock”.
Simon and Garfunkel were now off and running on a popular partnership that would be relatively short, but very fruitful. After the success of Sounds Of Silence, the duo again quickly re-entered the studio and released their next album Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme (Columbia) later in 1966. The album was another pop/folk album, but was much deeper in subject material and arrangement than their earlier albums, and even included a sly protest against the Vietnam War in the song “7 O'Clock News/Silent Night”. The album eventually reached #4 on the album charts and included such songs as the title cut, “Scarborough Fair/Canticle”, “Homeward Bound”, “The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin' Groovy)” and “For Emily, Whenever I May Find Her”. The duo toured extensively in both the U.S. and in Europe, and became a major concert draw wherever they went. In 1967, the pair were asked by director Mike Nichols to contribute songs to a comedy he was filming. That movie, The Graduate, made it's lead actor, Dustin Hoffman, a star, and forever cemented Simon & Garfunkel's music, and especially the single from the movie, “Mrs. Robinson”, in the publics consciousness. The pair also played at, (and helped organize), the Monterey Pop Festival, and their appearance at the groundbreaking festival was hailed for years to come as one of their best. Simon and Garfunkel followed up that success with the more ambitious 1968 album Bookends (Columbia), which delved deeper into more weighty themes, and included such classic songs as “America”, “Old Friends” and “A Hazy Shade Of Winter”. The album was a huge success, and went on to hold the #1 spot on the album charts for seven weeks and sold over 1 million copies. After touring to promote the album, the pair were set to start work on a new album, but Garfunkel wanted to start his on-again off-again acting career by starring in Mike Nichol's film of Catch 22. This raised the ever-bubbling tension level between the two, and Simon ended up recording much of the record by himself, with Garfunkel popping in when his schedule allowed to record his vocal parts. Tensions boiled over when Garfunkel refused to add parts to Simon's pointedly political song “Cuba Si, Nixon No”, and Simon in return refused a version of “Feuilles Oh” that Garfunkel wanted to record. Though the album Bridge Over Troubled Water (Columbia), released at the beginning of 1970, would be their biggest selling and most popular record, it was not enough to keep them together as a duo. After touring to promote the album through the summer of 1970, the pair didn't announce they were splitting as much as they just stopped working together. Garfunkel wanted to concentrate on acting, and Simon wanted to pursue his own muse. The two, of course, did work together in later years, collaborating on the 1975 single “My Little Town”, and then later playing the famous concert in Central Park in 1981, followed by a world tour that year. The duo reunited again in 2003 for their Old Friends tour, which took them across the U.S. and around the world. At around the same time, Simon fell in love with the wife of his manager, a woman named Peggy Harper, and the two were soon married. The couple later had a son, Harper James Simon, in 1972.
Now as a big music star but without his partner, Paul Simon set out again on his solo career and began to further explore different musical avenues that interested him. His (technically) second solo album, simply titled Paul Simon (Columbia/Warner Bros.), was released in 1972, and featured Simon exploring various threads of world music that interested him. The single “Mother And Child Reunion” was a reggae song, (one of the first performed by a white artist), while “Duncan” further explored the South American influence started on “El Condor Pasa” off of Bridge Over Troubled Water. Another single from the album, “Me And Julio Down By The Schoolyard”, had a definite Latin feel to it's arrangement. The album featured noted musicians from the jazz, folk, reggae and rock worlds, and though it wasn't as big a success as Bridge Over Troubled Water, it set the template for much of Simon's subsequent career. Simon continued going down different musical paths on his next album, There Goes Rhymin' Simon (Columbia/Warner Bros.)(1973), which dipped it's toes into such styles as dixieland jazz, (“Take Me To The Mardi Gras”), and gospel, (“Loves Me Like A Rock”), as well as such Simon classics as “Kodachrome” and “American Tune”. It seemed Simon was not only continuing his success, but having fun with music and exploring the many styles he could write in. Simon launched a tour to support the album with his backing group, Brazilian group Urubamba, and the gospel group the Jessy Dixon Singers, and released a live document, Live Rhymin' (Columbia/Warner Bros.) in 1974. By the time of Simon's next album, 1975's Still Crazy After All These Years (Columbia/Warner Bros.), he was suffering through a painful divorce from his wife Peggy, and the lyrics on the album mirrored his conflicted state of mind. The album also marked a step back from the wild eclecticism of his earlier solo albums, concentrating more on a jazz-rock style. Still Crazy... was a major success, containing the hit singles “Gone At Last”, “My Little Town” (with Art Garfunkel), “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover”, and the title track. The album went on to win Album of the Year at the Grammy Awards in 1976. Also in 1976, Simon made the first of many appearances he would make on the then-new late night comedy show Saturday Night Live, even performing a few numbers with Garfunkel. Later he would appear again on the show with former Beatle George Harrison, and the two played together on each other's songs.
After the success of Still Crazy..., Simon seemed to step back and take stock of where he was at in his career, and took more time and care in making his next move. After releasing one last album with Columbia, 1977's Greatest Hits, Etc., which included the new hit single “Slip Slidin' Away”, Simon signed a deal with Warner Bros. Records which gave him more artistic control over his projects in the future. He also began his dabbling with acting, appearing in friend Woody Allen's acclaimed 1978 romantic comedy Annie Hall as record company executive Tony Lacey. Simon also did a guest turn with Garfunkel and James Taylor on a cover of the old Sam Cooke song “What A Wonderful World”, which became a hit for all three. Simon's next project would combine both his acting and songwriting skills. 1980's One Trick Pony (Warner Bros.), was both an album and a theatrically-released movie based on a story of a once-popular singer/songwriter trying to make his way back in a time dominated by punk and new-wave. The main character was loosely based on Simon himself, drawing on instances from both his personal and professional life. Though the movie was generally panned, the album sold decently enough and spawned the single “Late In The Evening”. At around the same time, Simon started a relationship with actress Carrie Fisher, whom he would eventually marry in 1983. Simon also mended his relationship with Art Garfunkel, so that when Simon was invited to play a concert in New York's Central Park in September of 1981, he asked Garfunkel to join him and make it a full-fledged reunion. The concert was a huge success, and a live recording of the concert was released in 1982. The concert was such a success, that the two decided to hit the road and do a world tour together and even made plans to record another album together, (provisionally titled Think Too Much). During the last leg of the tour, however, bad feelings erupted again between the two, and when it came time to record a new album, at first Garfunkel laid down vocal tracks, but Simon went back and erased them and let Garfunkel know that the album would proceed as another solo Simon album. The album was also full of much personal material that had to do with Simon's rocky relationship with Fisher, and Simon didn't feel that the participation of Garfunkel was needed. (Simon would divorce Fisher in 1984). Simon's new album, Hearts And Bones (Warner Bros.), was released in 1983. Even though it garnered some good reviews, the album stalled and failed to sell well. This was the first real lull in Simon's popularity since his early career, and after participating in the all-star “We Are The World” single in 1985, he looked to his new-found fondness for South African township jive music to show him the way to proceed. Simon journeyed to South Africa and enlisted the talents of the vocal group Ladysmith Black Mambazo as well as various black South African musicians to craft the bulk of what would become Simon's 1986 album Graceland (Warner Bros.), an album that would be one of the most successful of his career. It was a chart topper around the world, and eventually won both Album of the Year and Record of the Year, (for the title track), at that year's Grammy Awards. Simon embarked on extensive tours with his African band, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, and such noted South African musicians as Hugh Masakela and Miriam Makeba for the better part of the end of the 1980's.
Simon continued his exploration of world music with his next album, The Rhythm Of The Saints (Warner Bros.)(1990), this time exploring the music styles of Brazil. The formula was another success and in 1991, Simon staged another concert in Central Park, this time by himself fronting both South African and Brazilian ensembles. The concert was filmed and recorded and was released in both VHS and album as Concert In The Park (Warner Bros.)(1991). At around the same time, Simon met and fell in love with singer Edie Brickell, and the two married in 1992 and eventually had three children together. Simon's newfound domestic happiness shifted his priorities, and in the next few years the pace of his musical output slowed down considerably. In 1993, Warner Bros. issued a 3-CD retrospective of his work Paul Simon 1964-1993, and Simon celebrated by staging a series of concerts at New York's Paramount Theater, the first part of the show singing with Garfunkel, the second part by himself with his band and Ladysmith Black Mambazo. After that, Simon started work on what was to become his first musical, The Capeman, based on a 50's era murder case of two white students who were murdered by a young Puerto Rican gang member. The musical took almost eight years to write, prepare and produce, and when it opened on Broadway in 1999, was slammed by critics and only played 68 shows before closing a few months after it's premiere. Simon's accompanying album, Songs From The Capeman (Warner Bros.)(1997), also failed to sell well. Though stung by the critics and public's reaction to all his years of hard work, Simon returned in 2000 to what he does best, that is, record and release another album, You're The One (Warner Bros.). The album was much more low-key than any of his recent albums, and showed a return to his singer/songwriter days, though it continued using world-music flavorings in its musical arrangements. The album was critically hailed and sold decently, and seemed to re-establish Simon in the public's mind after the drubbing he took for Capeman.
Since 2000, Simon has toured with Brian Wilson and Bob Dylan, played countless benefit concerts, and, of course, reunited with Garfunkel again. After the two received a lifetime achievement award from the Grammys in 2003, they announced they would tour again as a duo and launched their Old Friends Tour, which took in North America and later Europe. The tour spawned the live album Old Friends: Live On Stage (Warner Bros.)(2004), and even included a new song titled “Citizen Of The World”. Simon took his time with his next album, and eventually released Surprise (Warner Bros.) in 2006, produced by himself with Brian Eno acting as the provider of the “sonic landscape”. Though it was still definitely a Paul Simon album, the participation of Eno pushed Simon's envelope a bit to include some different sounding influences and sounds. The album was greeted warmly by critics and the public alike, and Simon toured to support the album through the end of 2006. Simon is now comfortably in a place as one of the elder statesmen of American singer/songwriters and has justly been hailed as such over the past ten years. It will be interesting to see where he takes his wide-ranging career next.