Saturday, June 11, 2005

Simon and Garfunkel

Anne Bancroft's death earlier this week got me to thinking about her most famous film role, Mrs.Robinson in The Graduate. Of course, that got me to thinking of Simon and Garfunkel, who provided the music for that movie. I remember from when I was a very young child that their music was constantly being played on the radio. In fact, when I think of music from the Sixties, it is the British Invasion bands (especially The Beatles) and Simon and Garfunkel that always come to mind.

Paul Simon and Art Garfunikel were both born in New York City and met when they were 11 years old. Their friendship led to the two of them forming a musical partnership. The two would eventually adopt the name "Tom and Jerry" under which they performed. At that time their style imitated that of the Everly Brothers, whom they idolised. While still attending Forest Hills High School in New York, they recorded their first song. "Hey, Schoolgirl" led to a performance on American Bandstand and reached #49 on the Billboard charts. Unfortunately, "Tom and Jerry" could not follow up their initial success, with subsequent singles going nowhere. The two went their separate ways after high school. Art Garfunkel attended Columbia University while Paul Simon attended Queens College.

By 1963 Simon and Garfunkel reunited as a music team, this time using their real names. By that point they were performing folk music, although the influence of the Everly Brothers was still noticeable in their harmonies. The two became very popular on the New York folk scene and were eventually signed to a contract with Colubmia Records. In 1964 they recorded their first album, Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M. Among the songs the album contained was an acoustic version of "The Sound of Silence." Released in late 1964, Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M. flopped.

In the interim Simon and Garfunkel went their separate ways again. Paul Simon went to England where he recorded his first solo album, The Paul Simon Song Book. Art Garfunkel remained in the United States. Very soon, however, their lives would be changed forever. During the summer of 1965 a few radio stations began playing the original, acoustic version of "The Sound of Silence." News of this reached Simon and Garfunkel's prdoucer, Tom Wilson, who saw a chance to make up for the failure of Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M. With an eye on the "folk rock" sound of The Byrds, which Bob Dylan himself later adopted, Wilson added electric guitar, electric bass, and drums to "The Sound of Silence," while leaving the vocal tracks the same. By September 1965 the new version of "The Sound of Silence" had reached Billboard's pop chart. By January 1, 1966, "The Sound of Silence" was the #1 song in America.

In the wake of the succeess of "The Sound of Silence," Paul Simon returned to the United States and once more renewed his partnership with Art Garfunkel. The two immediately recorded another album, this time in the new folk rock style. That album, titled Sounds of Silence, contained both the new version of The Sound of Silence, as well as "I Am a Rock," which would go top 10 on Billboard's pop chart. The album itself would hit #21 on the album chart.

Simon and Garfunkel had at last achieved what they could not as Tom and Jerry, success on the music charts. They would release two more hit singles that year, "Homeward Bound" (which would go top ten on Billboard's pop chart) and "Scarborough Fair/Canticle," their version of a traditional English ballad. Late in 1966 they released their third album, Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme. It cotained both "Homeward Bound" and "Scarborough Fair/Canticle." While both the album Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme and its singles did well, subsequent singles did not fare nearly as well as their earlier work. For a short time, it looked as if Simon and Garfunkel's career could well be in decline.

The turning point came when Mike Nichols asked the duo if he could use their songs for his movie The Graduate. The movie included such older songs as "The Sound of Silence" and "Scarborough Fair/Canticle," as well as a new song, "Mrs. Robinson." Nichols had asked Simon to write a song for the movie and Simon said that he had a song he was writing about Eleanor Roosevelt. That partially written song, "Mrs. Roosevelt," became "Mrs. Robinson." The movie proved to be a hit, as did its soundtrack album, which spent nine weeks at the #1 spot on Billboard's albums chart. As to the song "Mrs. Robinson," it proved to be one of Simon and Garfunkel's biggest hits. It went to #1 on Billboard's singles chart.

Nineteen sixty eight saw the release of their only concept album, Bookends. The album dealt with the ideas of the pasage of time and stages in human lives. Besides "Mrs. Robinson," the album also contained the hit singles "Hazy Shade of Winter (possibly my favourite Simon and Garfunkel song)," "At the Zoo,""Fakin' It," and "America." All went top 25 on the pop charts. The following year would see Simon and Garfunkel on tour. It would also see their TV special, Songs Of America. The special took a strong stand against the Vietnam War, which led to sponsors refusing to advertise on the show.

It was in early 1970 that their last album was released, Bridge Over Troubled Water. Besides "The Sound of Silence" and "Mrs. Robinson," the title track would prove to be one of their biggest hits. It went to #1 on the pop singles chart, staying for an incredible six weeks. It also contained the top ten singles "Cecilia" and "The Boxer." At the Grammy Awards, Simon and Garfunkel would take Album of the Year, Record of the Year, Best Engineered Record, Song of The Year, Best Contemporary Song, and Best Arrangement Accompanying Vocalists.

Unfortunately, as a recording duo, Simon and Gafunkel's career was over. The two announced that they were parting ways in 1971. Their relationship had been under considerable strain for the past several years. Many of the problems between the two arose from Art Garfunkel's desire to have an acting career. Garfunkel had been cast as Nately in Catch 22. This required that Garfunkel take time off from recording their next album, a fact that did not make Simon happy. Simon also felt that he had been the primary creative force in the duo, causing some resentment on his part. At the same time Art Garfunkel felt overshadowed by Simon's talent as a songwriter. Ultimately, there were many reasons for the strain on Simon and Garfunkel's relationship that led to the break up. Like The Beatles, their break up was not due to any one thing.

Since their break up both Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel went onto solo careers. Simon had great success throughout the Seventies and Eighties, although Garfunkel's albums did not perform that well. Garfunkel did continue acting and has appeared in many movies and TV shows. The two have reunited for concerts and a tour, but insofar as I know they have never recorded another studio album together. The differences between them are apparently still too great.

Regardless, by the time of their break up in 1971, Simon and Garfunkel had established their place in rock history. Indeed, in my humble opinion they were among the very best rock acts of the Sixties. Much of this was due to the fact that the duo was absolutely meticulous in their songwriting. Songs might well be polished for weeks and even months before the final version would be recorded. This is the reason that at a time when many performers released multiple albums a year, Simon and Garfunkel generally released only one. Of course, much of their success was due to Simon's sheer talent as a song writer. In particular, Simon's lyrics were full of imagery, acute observations, and often dry humour ("Mrs. Robinson" is a perfect example of this). The duo also produced some of the best harmonies to be found in any songs of the Sixties, often reminiscent of the Everly Brothers.

Indeed, Simon and Garfunkel's works are hard to classify. Often they are counted as folk rock, but their music would often seem to owe more to the Everly Brothers than Bob Dylan. "I Am a Rock" could be held up as a clear example of the folk rock sound of the mid-Sixties, yet "Hazy Shade of Winter" would clearly seem to be a straight rock song. "Mrs. Robinson" perhaps falls somewhere in between. Like most great artists, Simon and Garfunkel defied being placed in any single category.

During their career, Simon and Garfunkel placed many songs, as well as most of their albums, in the top twenty five of Billboard's charts. Ultimately, they would sell over 20 million records. To this day their songs are still played on the radio. I think it is rather safe to say that they will played for a long, long time to come.

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