Paul Simon – Music Biography

Apr04

He has won over a dozen Grammy awards, been selected as one of Time Magazine’s “100 People Who Shaped the World” and is a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He’s also one of those guitarists whose playing has inspired thousands, if not millions, of people to take up the guitar to create music for themselves. And every new song he makes seems to push the possibilities of music even further, constantly taking traditional music from all over the world as well as the classic rock and pop from the last century and forging something new and wonderful.

Paul Simon was born in October of 1941. His parents, Hungarian Jewish immigrants, were both teachers – his mother in elementary school and his father, a college professor. His dad was also a musician, one of the first musicians to perform on Hungarian radio. Shortly after Paul was born the family moved to Queens, New York and his father continued to play bass and also was a dance bandleader.

In sixth grade, Paul played the White Rabbit in his school’s production of “Alice in Wonderland.” The role of the Cheshire Cat was played by Art Garfunkel. Years later, the two friends started singing together and even cut a single, Hey Schoolgirl, which managed to hit number forty-nine in the pop charts of 1957. Their close harmonies echoed those of the Everly Brothers (whom they both admired) but Paul was also very much into jazz, blues and folk music as well.

In the six years that followed Hey Schoolgirl, Paul wrote and recorded over thirty songs, which were released through small record labels such as Big, Tribute and Amy. He often wrote and performed under various pseudonyms and performed both as a solo artist and with other singers. He was “Jerry” in Tom and Jerry (when he performed with Art), and his Jerry Landis landed at number ninety-nine with The Lone Teen Ranger.

Columbia Records signed Paul and Art as a duo and released Wednesday Morning, 3 AM in October 1964. The album faired poorly and Paul moved to England, spending most of 1965 there to pursue a solo career, working the folk music venues and coffee house circuit. He met British folk guitar legend Martin Carthy, from whom he learned Scarborough Fair, and also Bruce Woodley of the Australian group, The Seekers. He and Bruce co-wrote a number of songs, including Cloudy and Red Rubber Ball, which would later be a number two hit for the American pop group The Cyrkle.

While in England, one of the songs from Wednesday Morning, 3 AM, started getting airplay in both Boston and Florida radio stations. Columbia producer Tom Wilson, just out of a session on Bob Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone, overdubbed the original track of The Sounds of Silence with drums, electric guitar and electric bass and released it as a single without informing either Paul or Art. In fact, Paul got the news that the song had entered the charts moments before performing at a club in Copenhagen, Denmark. Before 1965 was over, the song Paul had been performing solo in England was at number one and he and Art were back together again performing and recording.

Simon and Garfunkel went on to record four more albums, Sounds of Silence, Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme, Bookends and Bridge Over Troubled Water, each more successful than the preceding one. Through the duo broke up in 1970, Paul and Art have gotten together to perform, record and tour on numerous occasions since.

During the summer of 1971, Paul taught a songwriting class at New York University. Among his students were Melissa Manchester and Maggie and Terre Roche of the Roche Sisters.

As a solo artist, Paul’s fascination with all types of music often dictated how his new songs would develop. His musical explorations, already becoming more of his writing as heard in the gospel style piano chords in Bridge Over Troubled Water and the Peruvian group Los Incas (who would later become Urubamba) performing the music of El Condor Pasa, went even deeper, and his songs took on more and more of the rich flavors of the world’s many musical styles. He also sought out other renowned artists to help him realize his musical visions. Mother and Child Reunion, recorded in Jamaica, featured members of Jimmy Cliff’s back up band (some who were old members from Toots and the Maytals) as well as Cissy Houston on vocals. Las Incas performed on Duncan and gypsy jazz legend’s Stephane Grappelli’s violin can be heard on Hobo’s Blues.

Paul picked on his former students, Maggie and Terre to sing on Was a Sunny Day on his second album, There Goes Rhymin’ Simon. Recorded primarily at the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio with the “Swampers” providing backup, Simon also enlisted the Dixie Hummingbirds (providing back up on Tenderness and Loves Me Like a Rock) as well as legends Quincy Jones (string arrangements) and Alan Toussaint (horn arrangements).

His third solo album, Still Crazy After All These Years, reached number one on Billboards Album charts and also won a Grammy for Best Album. And his 1983 release, Hearts and Bones¸ while not anywhere close the commercial success of his other solo albums, contains some of Paul’s finest songwriting, particularly the title track and The Late Great Johnny Ace, which also features a musical coda written by Phillip Glass.

In 1985, Paul travelled to Johannesburg, South Africa, to record most of Graceland, which would prove to be his most successful solo album. In addition to the many South African artists that appear on the album, the title song features a guest vocal by the Everly Brothers, Paul and Art’s boyhood idols as well as contributions by Los Lobos and guitar wizard Adrian Belew. Paul followed up this album with the Brazilian flavored Rhythm of the Saints in 1990.

The Grammy Awards gave an Album of the Year Nomination to Paul’s 2000 release, You’re the One, making him the first artist to receive nominations in five consecutive decades (Paul McCartney would match this feat in 2006). And his 2006 release, Surprise, an intriguing collaboration with Brian Eno, demonstrated that Paul’s musical explorations are far from over. We eagerly await his 2010 album, with all its bluegrass influences.

About David Hodge

Since joining Guitar Noise in November 1999, David has written over a thousand articles, lessons, interviews and reviews. He also serves as the site's Managing Editor, supervising all content in addition to the continued writing of his own lessons and articles. In April 2013, David joined the writing staff of Answers.com, heading up their Guitar Pages. And if that wasn't enough to keep him busy, David contributes to regularly Acoustic Guitar Magazine. He is also the author of six instructional books, the most recent being Idiot’s Guide: Playing Guitar.

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