No other singer-songwriter to emerge from the folk music scene of the 60s has had a sustained level of multi-genre success (as a pop, rock and hybrid world music artist) as Paul Simon has. An eclectic musician, gifted composer and musical risk-taker, Simon is the definition of a legend.
Born in 1941 in New Jersey, USA, Paul Simon’s father was a teacher who moonlighted with a jazz group, so a love and abiding awareness of music was instilled in Paul from birth. The family moved to New York City in the early 1950s where young Paul developed a passion for R&B, jazz, and then-nascent rock and roll. Early pop music influences include Elvis, the Everly Brothers, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis.
At age 11, Simon met Art Garfunkel who shared his fanaticism for singing and music. The two quickly forged a singing duo influenced by the harmonies of the Everly Brothers. By the time they reached high school, they’d named themselves Tom & Jerry. In 1957, they cut Simon’s composition ‘Hey, School Girl’ which rose to number 52 on the Billboard singles charts, and garnered them attention on US TV. After that initial success, the duo split up both pursuing higher education. In 1964, they reformed and began performing at coffeehouses in New York’s famed Greenwich Village. They soon signed with Columbia Records and changed their name to Simon & Garfunkel. Their first album Wednesday Morning, 3 AM included some Dylan covers and several of Simon’s originals.
Simon travelled to England where he performed on the British folk circuit and composed a slew of material that would later surface. In 1965, US radio began playing one of the album’s original songs, ‘The Sound of Silence’. Columbia added electric instrumentation and drums to the acoustic single and released it. With its smooth blend of folk and rock and quirky-yet catchy melody, it became one of the biggest hits of the year, selling more than two million copies and bringing Art and Paul back together. They re-released the single on an album Sounds Of Silence, which spurned more traction with the hits ‘I Am A Rock’ and ‘Kathy’s Song’.
By 1968, Paul and Art were massive throughout the record-buying world, but despite their resounding popularity, they were about to explode even bigger later that year with two albums: Bookends and the soundtrack to the film The Graduate. Singles such as ‘Mrs. Robinson’ and ‘The Boxer’ had a seismic impact on Simon’s reputation as a songwriter of both commercial and critical appeal. Furthermore, it was clear that despite the British Invasion and the success of psychedelic music of that era, Paul carved his own songwriting niche that was extraordinarily unique and captured the zeitgeist of the moment.
Further elevating Simon’s genius came in the shape of ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ – a classic composition due to Simon’s evocative lyrics and the elegiac chorus.
It would be easy to overlook Simon’s wonderfully melodic guitar playing only because his voice and compositional talents are so captivating, but it must be stated that Paul has always been a robust acoustic player who polished the Travis picking and Chet Atkins style from early on in his career.
Despite international superstardom, there were divisive tensions within his partnership with Art, eventually leading to Garfunkel turning his attentions to acting while Simon focussed on songwriting that was destined for a solo career. The pair split up in 1970 at what could be considered the height of their powers (although they would regroup for concerts over the years, they remained apart otherwise).
Simon’s solo career proved sensational throughout the 70s with indelible hits such as ‘Mother And Child Reunion’ and ‘Me And Julio Down By The Schoolyard’ on which he experimented with reggae and Latin music. More number one tracks followed such as ‘Kodachrome’ and ‘50 Ways To Leave Your Lover’. Simon comfortably explored soft rock, Cajun and gospel music during the decade, adding to his rich and seemingly boundless repertoire. 1975’s Still Crazy After All These Years displayed Simon’s on-going maturation as a songwriter and lyricist of wit and irony.
By the mid-80s, he was merging American and (South) African music in the masterpiece album Graceland (1986). He continued this experimentation on The Rhythm of the Saints (1990), pairing Brazilian drummers with West African guitar and backup vocalists from Cameroon. Both albums were well received commercially and artistically.
Forays into film (1980’s One-Trick Pony) and Broadway theatre followed (Capeman) with less success. Nevertheless, Simon’s impressive musical canon has been revered and referenced over the years by musicians and enjoyed by fans to this day.