Still Paul After All These Years : Simon Celebrates a Musical History--From ‘Schoolgirl’ to ‘Saints’--of Nearly Five Decades

Share via
<i> Newsday </i>

Nearly five years before Bob Dylan cut his first record, Paul Simon had already reached the apogee of teen rock stardom: an appearance on “American Bandstand.” Anointment by Dick Clark in 1957 was occasioned by the modest success of a single called “Hey Schoolgirl,” a charming though cheesy blend of doo-wop and Everly Brothers-style harmonies released on the not-very-big-at-all Big Records label. The performers listed on the record were Tom and Jerry--stage names, if you will, for Simon and his friend and neighbor from Queens, Art Garfunkel.

Although the song was a minor hit, Tom and Jerry never had another. But Simon, with and without Garfunkel, had plenty. Simon’s five decades in music are being celebrated in a series of 21 concerts at the Paramount in New York’s Manhattan. To some people, the big news is that Simon and Garfunkel are reuniting for a segment of the concert, which also features Simon’s regular band and Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the South African vocal group that came to international acclaim after appearing on Simon’s “Graceland” album.

But rock trivia aficionados also will rejoice that Tom and Jerry will be reuniting as well. “Hey Schoolgirl” may not have been a watershed recording in rock history--Simon jokes that “it’s impossible to underrate” the record. But by performing it, Simon will be exposing one of the most essential, least discussed elements of his music: rock of the ‘50s.


“So many people thought we were folk, but we were doo-wop first, then this imitation of the Everly Brothers and then folk,” Simon said recently in his comfortable midtown Manhattan office, a room filled with artifacts of his career: photos of “The Joshua Levin Band,” Simon’s fictional combo from his 1980 movie flop, “One Trick Pony”; a basketball signed by Bill Bradley; a stand-up bass that belonged to his musician father; and a framed copy of “Hey Schoolgirl”--a 78-rpm, no less. The inclusion of that 1957 track makes the title of Simon’s just-released three-CD retrospective, “Paul Simon 1964/1993” (Warner Bros.), ever so slightly misleading.

“We were 15 years old, we went on ‘American Bandstand’ and the other act was Jerry Lee Lewis,” Simon said with uncharacteristic enthusiasm. “Can you imagine being 15 years old on a show with Jerry Lee Lewis, at the height of his career?”

Not quite regrettably, it was also the pinnacle of Tom and Jerry’s career. The “Hey Schoolgirl” duo went back to being schoolboys.

Back in Queens, Simon continued to play electric guitar in neighborhood rock bands through the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, performing simple instrumentals such as “Night Train” and “Tequila.” But during that period the business was taken over by entrepreneurs exploiting teen idols and hustling novelty records by one-hit wonders.

Some talented songwriters--Carole King and Gerry Goffin, Neil Sedaka and Howard Greenfield, Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry, a Brooklyn kid named Neil Diamond--were cranking out hits at Broadway music publishing companies, but their songs’ teen orientation didn’t resonate with Simon.

“I thought the records that Carole (King) wrote in the beginning were good records, like ‘Will You Love Me Tomorrow,’ even ‘The Locomotion,’ for that matter,” Simon said. “But it wasn’t something I could relate to, something I couldn’t write. So I began losing some interest in rock and roll. . . . I stopped playing electric guitar and took up acoustic guitar.”


Although Simon and Garfunkel remained friends, they didn’t perform together again until 1964, when they were caught up in the burgeoning Greenwich Village folk music scene. That year, they recorded a folk album, “Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M.” After it flopped, Garfunkel enrolled in graduate school at Columbia; Simon returned to England, where he had been building a career as a solo folk artist.

While living in England, Simon co-authored a tune with Bruce Woodley of the popular Australian folk-pop group, the Seekers. That band had hits such as “I’ll Never Find Another You” and “Georgy Girl.” The Seekers recorded the Simon/Woodley song “Red Rubber Ball” to minor English success. The Cyrkle, an American trio handled by Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein, also recorded it, yielding a major 1966 hit in the States.

While Simon was trying to make a living writing semi-bubblegum pop for others, changing trends gave his more personal tunes the potential for popularity. In 1965, the Byrds’ version of Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” put folk-rock on the map and in the charts. An enterprising executive at Columbia Records remixed a track from Simon and Garfunkel’s acoustic album to suit the latest trend. The song was “The Sounds of Silence.”

Simon’s youthful song-poems resonated beyond sales of the record itself. “The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls, and tenement halls,” went the song’s most memorable line, and it became a kind of literate rallying cry for ‘60s adolescents who took Simon’s words to mean there was more to learn than what was being taught in school.

That was the first time a Simon song seemed to seize the spirit of its time but not the last. In 1967, “Mrs. Robinson”--from “The Graduate” sound track--also summed up the Zeitgeist. The “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio” lament signified the country’s loss of innocence and the dearth of heroes for a generation in rebellion against an unpopular war.

From that moment on, Simon and Garfunkel were virtually unstoppable, until they stopped themselves, splitting after 1970’s monumental “Bridge Over Troubled Water” album.


Besides the inevitable personality differences that assert themselves after a long partnership, Garfunkel wanted to pursue a film career; it got off to a fast start with “Carnal Knowledge” but never developed much further. After the orchestral sounds of “Bridge,” Simon wanted to make leaner, simpler solo albums. Though not a conscious effort to expand his musical vocabulary, he began to absorb elements of Latin music (“Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard”), reggae (“Mother and Child Reunion”) and gospel (“Loves Me Like a Rock”).

Simon’s successes continued until 1980’s “One Trick Pony”; the bottom came in 1983, when his “Hearts and Bones” album didn’t make the Top 30. “It had some very good songs on it and some pretty bad ones,” Simon acknowledged.

Simon took advantage of being out of the spotlight to work quietly, write songs, absorb new ideas. The result was “Graceland,” the 1986 album on which Simon helped popularize a variety of South African musical styles. “Rhythm of the Saints” (1989) was even more exotic, an adaptation of Brazilian percussion music.

But even on these records, you can still hear traces of the doo-wop Simon heard on New York street corners in the ‘50s. Songs on “Graceland” drew bits from the Del-Vikings, Little Richard and the Penguins. On its successor, “Desiree” by the Charts seeped into “Obvious Child” and a vocal line from Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers’ “Why Do Fools Fall in Love” appeared in “The Coast.” Going full cyrkle--er, circle--Simon continues to take the sounds of his city and make them his own.