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Paul Simon

The creative half of the iconic folk-pop duo, SIMON AND GARFUNKEL, contemporary singer-songwriter PAUL SIMON has elasticated his musical boundaries beyond that of just folk and into the realms of worldbeat, gospel and the odd pop soundtrack. Rather than being “Still Crazy After All These Years” or a “One-Trick Pony”, the maverick SIMON is one of America’s great sons, and not just another in the shadow of DYLAN, but a legend in his own right.
Born October 13, 1941, Newark, New Jersey, Paul grew up with his family in Queens, New York, where he was grounded in the sounds of jazz, folk and R&B. Inspired by the likes of ELVIS, CARL PERKINS and other Sun Records artists through listening to radio disc-jockey, Alan Freed, teenage Paul fast became aware of America’s best-known harmony duo, The EVERLY BROTHERS. Another lad that shared his interest was junior-high school buddy, ART GARFUNKEL, and as purveyors of their boyhood heroes, they formed TOM & JERRY (Paul was Jerry Landis to Art’s Tom Graph). The pair found immediate success when `Hey, Schoolgirl’ climbed the US Hot 100 in 1957, although a repeat prescription was unforthcoming.
Under many pseudonymous disguises, from True Taylor and Jerry Landis in the late 50s, to Tico (& The Triumphs), Jerry Landis (again!) and Paul Kane in the early 60s, SIMON grew as a solo artist and in-house songsmith, although only minor hits such as `Motorcycle’ and `The Lone Teen Ranger’, made the grade chart-wise. At a time when folk-rock was the in-thing, especially in their new Greenwich Village locale, Tom & Jerry became the less-animated and solemn SIMON & GARFUNKEL, delivering one set that almost got away, “Wednesday Morning, 3AM” (1964), to an American public engrossed and enveloped by all things DYLAN and BAEZ.
The record’s dismal sales figures prompted SIMON to return to Europe, where he’d been living in London the previous year. The folk singer duly recorded and released THE PAUL SIMON SONGBOOK (1965) {*8} LP, a set featuring many of his greatest compositions, including songs such as `I Am A Rock’ and `The Sound Of Silence’, which would become main staples of the S&G repertoire, as would `April Come She Will’, `A Most Peculiar Man’, `Leaves That Are Green’, `Kathy’s Song’, `Patterns’ and `A Simple Desultory Philippic’.
From 1966’s “Sounds Of Silence” to 1970’s multi-platinum-selling “Bridge Over Troubled Water” (and a few subsequent reunion concert albums to boot), SIMON & GARFUNKEL took centre stage in Paul’s career. But with fame and fortune came anguish and in-house bickering as GARFUNKEL pursued his career in acting, and SIMON pursued his as a solo singer-songwriter.
Released into the Top 5 in the early part of ’72, his eponymous PAUL SIMON {*8} explored even more avenues and genres that made the “Bridge” so fruitful; example the reggae-beat in attendant transatlantic hit, `Mother And Child Reunion’, the South American/pan-pipes-style in `Duncan’, and the violin virtuoso of Stephane Grappelli on short-piece, `Hobo’s Blues’. Widely acclaimed, the record proved conclusively that SIMON could fashion his own distinct musical identity, experimenting with Latin-American on the excellent second hit, `Me And Julio Down By The Schoolyard’.
Venturing further into his psyche and the sounds of R&B, gospel and Dixieland, the session-friendly Muscle Shoals-recorded THERE GOES RHYMIN’ SIMON (1973) {*8}, equalled its predecessor in class and commercial acumen. Strangely not far removed from RANDY NEWMAN or NILSSON, in terms of wit and amiable sophistication, Paul came up with at least four great songs, `Kodachrome’ (a US-only Top 3 hit), `Take Me To The Mardi Gras’ (its UK companion), the swinging `Loves Me Like A Rock’ and `American Tune’.
The need then for a live album, LIVE RHYMIN’: PAUL SIMON IN CONCERT (1974) {*6}, looked to be at first self-indulgent, although it was a chance to reclaim and interweave songs such as `Homeward Bound’, `El Condor Pasa (If I Could)’, `The Boxer’, `The Sound Of Silence’, Bridge Over Troubled Water’ and `America’, from his halcyon S&G days. To back him on this lumbering but illuminating sojourn was Brazilian accompaniment, Urubamba (formerly Los Incos), and gospel choir the Jessy Dixon Singers.
The Grammy Award-winning chart-topper STILL CRAZY AFTER ALL THESE YEARS (1975) {*8} was even more successful, if overtly commercial and jazz-pop orientated. The album featuring a rare duet `My Little Town’ with “old friend”, GARFUNKEL, but disillusionment from his divorce from Peggy Harper (whom he married in 1969 and had a son, Harper Simon) was the crux of several of the self-mocking and visceral vignettes, including hits `50 Ways To Leave Your Lover’, `Gone At Last’ (a gospel duet with PHOEBE SNOW) and the title track; the tracks `Have A Good Time’ and `Silent Eyes’ had been pulled from the soundtrack to Hal Ashby’s high-grossing sex satire, Shampoo.
SIMON, for his part, took time out from his own buoyant solo career to take a major part (as Tony Lacey) in Woody Allen’s acclaimed Annie Hall feature; one could also find Paul in a cameo role in RUTLES spook, All You Need Is Cash. He subsequently attempted to bring his songwriting and acting talents together in his own feature/OST, ONE-TRICK PONY (1980) {*5}, writing the script into the bargain. If he didn’t quite possess the dramatic gravitas necessary to carry off his gritty tale of a has-been musician (Jonah) lost in the brave new wave world, it was at least a decent attempt, with a soundtrack which served as a surrogate solo album for SIMON-starved fans. He suffered a critical roasting, however, also bombing at the box office, and long-since consigned to history, shape-shifting as it did from a pony into a dark horse.
Save for the brassy, syncopated rattle of `Late In The Evening’ – a song firmly in the Latin-pop tradition of “Me And Julio…” – it’s also one of his most introspective. It’s no coincidence that the sophisti-fusion-session calibre of his backing band resembled the one which accompanied him on his previous pensive masterpiece, and at least four of that number are present here: late Motown pianist Richard Tee, percussionist Ralph McDonald, drummer Steve Gadd and singer, Patti Austin. Add to that the likes of Dave Grusin (with whom he shared a S&G soundtrack, “The Graduate”), plus legendary guitarist Eric Gale, and the muso credentials of this record tell their own story. It’s not quite STEELY DAN, but in its tastefulness and barbed disillusion, it’s getting there. And if SIMON only really sounded alive on the relatively straightforward arrangement and gilded memories of the aforementioned `Late In…’, the rest of the songs chug by so innocuously it’s difficult to tell them apart. The DIRE STRAITS-meets-Bob James canter of the title track comes closest to a definable hook, and Gale at least gets into something resembling a groove on `Ace In The Hole’; Tee likewise on `God Bless The Absentee’. Yet while the lyrics sketch the protagonist’s struggle using insight and humanist wit, SIMON assumes Jonah’s mantle of emotionally frazzled world weariness all too convincingly; for all its musical slickness, much of this record felt like an ad hoc, after-hours session.
On the back of a collaborative hit with RANDY NEWMAN (`The Blues’), and left to his own devices, SIMON came up with the NILE RODGERS-produced HEARTS AND BONES (1983) {*7}, another personal effort which nevertheless scraped into the Top 40. Including some of SIMON’s most affecting material since his “Still Crazy…” period, it lacked a hit 45 (only `Allergies’ reached chart status), but incorporating PHILIP GLASS into the mix on `The Late Great Johnny Ace’ was an inspired move.
With 1986’s GRACELAND {*10}, the singer-songwriter changed tack again, looking to tribal rhythms and musicians for inspiration. The result was a highly infectious, exotic fusion of SIMON’s innate feel for pop melody and traditional South African mbaqanga sounds, recorded in collaboration with the likes of the musicians of LADYSMITH BLACK MAMBAZO and Tex-Mex outfit, LOS LOBOS. Despite the initial fuss over Paul’s supposed breach of the anti-apartheid cultural boycott (through recording and touring the album in Johannesburg), the ground-breaking charm of songs like the title track, `The Boy In The Bubble’, `Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes’ and `You Can Call Me Al’ (featuring actor/friend Chevy Chase in a smart video) was eventually recognised when the album won a Grammy.
The record also resurrected SIMON’s chart career, as did his follow-up, THE RHYTHM OF THE SAINTS (1990) {*7}, a similar project, constructed around compelling Brazilian percussion. Integrating worldbeat and international fusion into the mix, the compelling No.1 set lacked nothing in spirit and quality. From hit single, `The Obvious Child’, to surprise flops `Proof’ and `Born At The Right Time’, it further enhanced the merging of music throughout the vast globe. Recorded on August 15th, 1991, and released only a matter of months afterwards, PAUL SIMON’s CONCERT IN THE PARK {*7} double-set, reached out his saintly rhythms on a greater platform; after finally breaking from a lengthy on/off relationship with actress Carrie Fisher, whom he was married to between 1983-84, Paul wed fellow singer-songwriter EDIE BRICKELL, in 1992 (they have three children).
Four years later, SIMON unveiled the most ambitious – and most commercially disastrous – project of his career: The Capeman, a Broadway musical taking as its controversial subject matter the story of 50s-era Puerto Rican killer-turned-writer, Salvador Agron, an action which drew protests from relatives of the man’s victims. Receiving a pasting from critics and to add insult to injury, the accompanying salsa and doo-wop influenced score, SONGS FROM THE CAPEMAN (1997) {*4}, also performed poorly. Working with Nobel-prize winning poet/playwright, Derek Walcott, the set was one of Paul’s most ambitious recordings to date.
Come the new millennium, SIMON went back to basics with his first “proper” album in ten years, YOU’RE THE ONE (2000) {*6}. Together with veteran but youthful sounding musical accomplices Bakithi Kumalo, Vincent Nguini and the stalwart Steve Gadd, SIMON crafted a cerebral yet spontaneous album which inherited the rich rhythmic grace of his past work while simultaneously showcasing his insight, intelligence and lightness of touch as a singer-songwriter. Matching the octaves of old mucker GARFUNKEL on opener, `That’s Where I Belong’, the record trawled through past rhythms on the BUDDY HOLLY-esque `Old’ and his folky/worldbeat inclinations on `Darling Lorraine’.
SURPRISE (2006) {*7} was aptly titled; produced, and at least partly co-written by BRIAN ENO, of all people. As many critics pointed out, this ostensibly odd couple actually had a shared passion in ethnic roots and global rhythms dating back decades. The presence of jazzbo’s like Steve Gadd, HERBIE HANCOCK and BILL FRISELL might’ve suggested a sleepy session fest akin to Paul’s 1980 score, yet, while his fresh Top 10 shared some of that soundtrack’s lack of hooks, it replaced them with the kind of quizzical monologues and shifting sonics that saw SIMON hailed for dragging his art into the future as many of his peers were casting fond backward glances. A re-invention of sorts for the earnest minstrel, songs such as the PiL-like `How Can You Live In The Northeast?’, the U2-like `Everything About It Is A Love Song’, plus ENO’s co-contributions `Outrageous’, `Another Galaxy’ and `Once Upon A Time There Was An Ocean’, were enlightening stuff for a man now collecting his pension.
With producer Phil Ramone taking the delicate job of moving SIMON into a fresh decade, SO BEAUTIFUL OR SO WHAT (2011) {*8} disappointed no-one. Drawing from his polyrhythmic days of “Graceland”, the leftover ENO influenced was apparent on the street-hustling/bustling textures of `The Afterlife’, `Getting Ready For Christmas Day’ and `Rewrite’. Simple and smart, Paul’s new spirituals might well’ve found a deaf ear, had he not already established himself as the complete artist, and in today’s direct-onto-download world, a great album such as this could’ve been posted missing. Thankfully, keeping it to a strict sub-40-minutes gave one a chance to appreciate his magic. If there was any need for proof that SIMON had not forgotten how to give his audience what they wanted, then the concert double-set document, LIVE IN NEW YORK CITY (2012) {*7}, was surely enough evidence that his star was still in the ascendancy, not er… “slip slidin’ away”.
Still creative after all these years, PAUL SIMON was back with a bang on 2016’s top-selling 13th set, STRANGER TO STRANGER {*7}. Co-produced by Roy Halee and delivered for the Concord imprint, the rhymin’ SIMON embraced a wide range of explorative and worldly doo-wop pop-rock, from the opening salvos `The Werewolf’ and `Wristband’ to the sedate and seductive title track. Soul-searching courtesy of a few humming instrumental stints (`In The Garden Of Edie’ and `The Clock’), Paul also backtracked into old and familiar territory through the Graceland-ish `Cool Papa Bell’ and the Surprise-esque `Proof Of Love’.
© MC Strong 1994-2006/BG-GRD/LCS // rev-up MCS Feb2013-Jun2016

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