The Kennedy Center

Paul Simon


Paul Simon
(Songwriter; born October 13, 1941 in Newark, New Jersey)

Faith is at the heart of American culture, faith above all in humanity's possibilities. This has been the key to Paul Simon's songs throughout a career rich in musical exploration and deep commitment. His work embraces a world of poetry and music that knows no frontiers, from folk music and do-wop, salsa and rockabilly, to ancient African rhythms and the minimalism of the new American century. But generosity, love and faith run through each tale in Simon's songs. "And I believe in the future," he confessed in the song "Cool, Cool River" from his epic 1990 album Rhythm of Saints, "we shall suffer no more / Maybe not in my lifetime / But in yours I feel sure."

Paul Fredric Simon was born in Newark, New Jersey, to a Hungarian-Jewish family. His
mother was a music teacher, his father a bass player on the radio. The boy grew up in Queens, New York City, and attended Forest Hills High School alongside Art Garfunkel. The friends together sang Paul's first song, "The Girls for Me," when they were both 15. Billed as Tom and Jerry, the two had their first hit record at 16: "Hey Schoolgirl," a disarmingly romantic rocker that got the boys their first gig on "American Bandstand" as well as their first appearance on the Billboard charts. Tom and Jerry went their separate ways after high school, but Simon and Garfunkel soon got together again and American music would never be the same.

It was after gaining experience as a journeyman songwriter, a collaboration with Carole King, and even a stint as lead singer for Tico and the Triumphs that Simon reunited in 1964 with his high school friend to record Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M. Simon then traveled to England, to renew himself artistically in the budding folk music scene. He later referred to period as "one night stands / my suitcase and guitar in hand / every stop...neatly planned / for a poet and a one-man band." He found himself homeward bound in a hurry, when a single from Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M., "Sounds of Silence," became a No. 1 hit in the United States.

The song announced something new, neither folk music nor rock and roll, nothing to do with California dreaming and certainly less to do with the British Invasion. Here, as later throughout Simon's vast songbook in the decades to come, was an American troubadour's passionate narrative impulse filtered through an urbane aesthetic drenched in melancholy gentleness. Subtlety and irony marked Sounds of Silence, Simon and Garfunkel's 1966 follow-up album to Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M., but so did an almost childlike sweetness that Simon the poet would never abandon.

Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme in 1966, the monumental concept album Bookends in 1968, and what turned out to be the duo's valedictory 1971 Bridge Over Troubled Waters gave further proof of Simon's unique songwriting gifts. The presence of Simon's "Mrs. Robinson" and a slew of other Simon and Garfunkel hits in the soundtrack of Mike Nichols' The Graduate helped catapult that film to its iconic '60s stature and further widened Simon's audience. Even greater success still awaited Simon, as a solo performer of his songs, beginning with the hit single "Mother and Child Reunion" in 1972 and the million-selling There Goes Rhymin' Simon in 1973. That album yielded his sardonic hit single "50 Ways To Leave A Lover," effectively signaling the poetic end of the '60s. It earned Simon a Grammy for Best Album of the Year.
The next few years gave Simon fans a dazzling spectacle of musical surprises that continue to this day. He revisited his own classics with a Greatest Hits collection, but could not help including something new: "Slip Slidin' Away.'' He taught songwriting at New York University. He explored the film medium with One Trick Pony, much as later he ventured on Broadway with The Capeman, and he also found time to work on the erudite and intensely personal album Hearts and Bones.

Letting blossom an intellectual curiosity that music lovers always admired, the man who redefined Anglo-American folk-rock for a new age then set his sights on world music and managed to create a new universe of American song. Graceland, Simon's 1986 masterpiece, fused the heart of South African rhythms with the soul of the American poet. It was Simon's biggest-selling solo album to date. In 1990's Rhythm of Saints, Simon followed the African musical diaspora to Brazil and again found sympathies and connections among cultures across oceans and centuries. You're The One found Simon in a lyrical, introspective vein in 2000. In 2001, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Looking back on his own life and music, Simon reflected in You're The One that "Somewhere in a burst of glory / Sound becomes a song / I'm bound to tell a story / That's where I belong." Paul Simon is a born storyteller, and the American song is where he belongs.

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