Who Is Paul Simon?
Paul Simon began his legendary music career as half of the duo Simon & Garfunkel, then soared to new musical heights with the release of his groundbreaking Graceland album. He has worked with musicians all over the world, had dozens of hits and continues to release new music to critical acclaim. He was selected as one of the "100 People Who Shaped the World" by Time magazine in 2006.
Paul Simon was born on October 13, 1941, to Jewish-American parents living in New Jersey, and grew up in Forest Hills, New York. As a singer-songwriter known for his cerebral compositions, it seems only fitting that Simon's mother, Belle, was an English teacher and his father, Louis, was both a teacher and a bandleader; the Simon family used to stay up late to catch his appearances on The Jackie Gleason Show and Arthur Godfrey and His Friends.
After moving to Queens, New York, Simon befriended Art Garfunkel, "the most famous singer in the neighborhood." Simon credits Garfunkel's performance in the 4th grade talent show as his inspiration to start singing, especially after he heard a girl tell Garfunkel how good he was.
At Forest Hills High School, Simon and Garfunkel formed a duo called "Tom and Jerry," choosing pseudonyms to avoid sounding too Jewish. They would occasionally perform at school dances, but spent their free time in New York City at the famous Brill Building, pitching Simon as a songwriter and the duo as demo singers, for which they’d get paid $15 a song. In 1957, they pooled together the money to cut a single, "Hey Schoolgirl," and had their first hit at the age of 15. This landed them a spot on American Bandstand, going on right after Jerry Lee Lewis.
Life was pretty good at Forest Hills High School for Simon, with both a hit song, a full album recorded, and a spot on the varsity baseball team (a sport that he’d remain a fan of, and write about, throughout his career). But when none of the other tracks they recorded had any success, Tom and Jerry decided to go their separate ways. Thinking they’d peaked at 16, Garfunkel started studying art history at Columbia University, while Simon headed to Queens College. To make extra money, Simon continued doing demos and offering his services to producers, which is where he learned how to work in the studio, and how to handle the business side of the music industry, both of which would become invaluable. Years later, when John Lennon would ask him how he’d known so much about the industry (while the Beatles had practically given everything they did away), Simon told him it was simple: he grew up in New York.
Simon & Garfunkel and Early Career
A chance encounter a few years later brought Simon and Garfunkel back together as a musical duo, and they used their real names when they released their first album, Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M., as Simon & Garfunkel. It only had five original Simon songs on it, and it wasn’t a hit, but it did feature an early, acoustic version of “The Sound of Silence,” that would eventually be the catalyst for their leap into stardom.
Dismayed by the failure of Simon & Garfunkel's first album, Simon headed to Europe. He busked in France, Spain and England, slept under bridges, and fell in love with his first real muse, Kathy. He released a solo album, The Paul Simon Songbook, in 1965. The album didn’t sell much, but it included tracks like "I Am a Rock" and "Kathy's Song," both of which would one day become fan favorites. The liner notes featured Simon arguing with his alter ego, disparaging his own talent, but the truth is, he was having the time of his life in London. He was meeting other musicians, getting well paid for gigs and was in love.
'Sounds of Silence' and Commercial Success
Back in the United States, producer Tom Wilson, who had worked with Bob Dylan and helped get Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M. recorded, completely reworked "The Sound of Silence" in the studio, then had the record label release it as a single. The song became a #1 hit. Simon returned to the United States and moved back into his parents’ home. He still remembers hanging out with Garfunkel in their neighborhood, smoking a joint and hearing their #1 song on the radio. “That Simon & Garfunkel, they must be having a great time,” he recalls Garfunkel telling him.
Simon & Garfunkel released their second album, Sounds of Silence in 1966. It was a commercial success, with three of the songs making it into the Top 10. Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme followed later that year, then Bookends in 1968. Between the two albums came their contributions to the soundtrack for The Graduate, the iconic film by Mike Nichols starring a new, unknown actor named Dustin Hoffman. The soundtrack was a smash hit, marking Simon & Garfunkel's ascendency to become one of the most popular and influential acts of the era. But even as they reached new musical heights, their partnership was starting to weaken.
Simon & Garfunkel released their last album of new material, Bridge Over Troubled Water, in 1970. With its gospel influences and innovative studio production, the album was a smash and the title song became a cultural anthem for the 1960s generation. But while Simon was ready to move in new musical directions, evident on the track “El Condor Pasa,” a melody Simon heard performed by the South American group Los Incas, Garfunkel was trying his hand at acting, in movies like Catch-22 and Carnal Knowledge. Their careers diverged, and after many years together, they were both ready to move on. They broke up in 1970, after the album won six Grammy Awards.
In 1972, Simon recorded a self-titled solo album. With songs like "Mother and Child Reunion" (named after a dish at a Chinese restaurant) and "Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard," he took a distinct stylistic turn away from his previous work and earned rave reviews from initially skeptical critics. He still doesn’t know exactly what he and Julio were doing down by the schoolyard, but the song became a hit. The hits kept coming throughout the early 1970s, with singles from There Goes Rhymin’ Simon, Live Rhymin’, and Still Crazy After All These Years, which won him Album of the Year at the Grammys.
Inspired by his appearance in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, Simon set out to make a movie himself. In 1980, he wrote and starred in One-Trick Pony, along with recording a soundtrack of all-new material. The movie bombed, but the soundtrack yielded the hit single “Late in the Evening.” It was just one single, however, and his career hit a slump.
In 1981, he reunited with Garfunkel for a free concert in New York’s Central Park, drawing in 500,000 people, a new record at the time. (Simon surpassed that total with his solo Central Park concert in 1991, with 750,000 in attendance.) The concert album was released in 1982, and was so successful that the duo went on tour, but their plans to record new material together brought up old scars, ended in disagreement and led to many years of estrangement. The album that would have marked their reunion, Hearts and Bones, became a Simon solo album, and despite strong material, was a commercial flop.
'Graceland' and Subsequent Projects
In the 1980s, Simon became fascinated by African and Brazilian music. His interests took him to South Africa in 1985, where he began recording the revolutionary Graceland album. Combining elements of rock, zydeco, Tex-Mex, Zulu choral singing and mbaqanga, or "township jive," the album captured a sound that wasn't quite like anything anyone had heard before. Going to South Africa to record with local musicians meant violating a cultural boycott, but Simon wanted to bring those sounds and voices to the rest of the world, and he succeeded.
A groundbreaking and risky departure from Simon's earlier projects, and a controversial choice given the political situation, Graceland proved to be one of the unlikeliest hits of the 1980s. It won Album of the Year at the Grammys and helped put South African music on the world stage, as well as restored Simon to superstardom. It also marked the beginning of his lifelong friendship and collaboration with the South African group Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Graceland’s place in musical history was cemented even more firmly in 2012. In honor of its 25th anniversary, the documentary Under African Skies premiered at Sundance, featuring footage from the recording sessions and interviews with Simon, Harry Belafonte, Quincy Jones and the musicians who were part of the original recording sessions.
Simon followed up Graceland with the Latin American-influenced The Rhythm of the Saints in 1990. It didn’t do as well as its predecessor, but it was still a commercial success and was nominated for two Grammy Awards.
Simon took his talents to Broadway in 1997, writing and producing The Capeman. It closed to bad reviews after 68 performances, but still scored three Tony Award nominations.
He followed up with strong Grammy-nominated studio albums that were commercial successes: You’re The One in 2000, Surprise in 2006 and So Beautiful or So What in 2011. In the midst of that, he received his first Oscar nomination in 2003 for “Father and Daughter,” his contribution to The Wild Thornberrys Movie soundtrack. The song was written for his daughter Lulu and featured his son Adrian on backing vocals.
Simon continued to tour, performing with Garfunkel again as well as numerous other collaborators. In 2014, he embarked on a yearlong world tour with Sting, with whom he’d become friends after living in the same New York City apartment building in the late 1980s. Two years later, he wrote and performed the theme song for Louis C.K.'s show Horace and Pete, and appeared in the final episode.
Simon also has a longtime association with the TV show Saturday Night Live and its creator-producer Lorne Michaels, having appeared on the show as either a host or musical guest (or both) 15 times, once appearing alongside Illinois Senator Paul Simon.
A frequent contributor to and fundraiser for charities both local and global, he has raised millions for causes like amfAR, The Nature Conservancy, The Fund for Imprisoned Children in South Africa, The Joe Torre Safe At Home Foundation and Autism Speaks. In 1987, he co-founded the Children’s Health Fund, launching a mobile medical clinic to bring healthcare to homeless children. The organization now has a fleet of 50 medical, dental and mental health clinics on wheels, which were the primary health care source for communities ravaged by Hurricanes Andrew and Katrina.
Simon was awarded the 2014 Service to America Leadership Award for his long-term commitment to providing healthcare to underserved children across the country.
Simon’s first marriage, to Peggy Harper, ended in divorce but gave them a son, Harper, who is now a musician himself. Second wife, actress/writer Carrie Fisher, was the inspiration for many of the songs on both Hearts and Bones and Graceland, but they divorced in 1984 after a few failed attempts at reconciliation. He married singer Edie Brickell in 1992, and they have three children, splitting their time between New York and Connecticut. When he’s not recording, Simon coaches his son’s baseball team, still a devoted fan. His latest album, Stranger to Stranger, came out in June 2016, entering the Billboard 200 at number 3—his highest debut ever—and topping the UK Albums Chart. The cover image is from a painting of Simon by artist Chuck Close.
To date, Simon has won 13 regular Grammys, plus a Lifetime Achievement Award and a Grammy Hall of Fame Award. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001 and in 2007, became the first-ever recipient of the Library of Congress's Gershwin Prize for Popular Song.
In 2016, he gave NPR his thoughts about giving up songwriting, "I really wonder what would happen to my creative impulses, which seem to come on a regular basis; every three, four years they manifest themselves. And by habit, they manifest themselves as songs. But this is really the decision of a 13-year-old. Me, who said, at 13, 'No, I want to write songs.' So I'm doing it 60 years later. This 13-year-old is still telling me what to do.”
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