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If there were any concerns about Paul Simon’s ability to be a successful one-man show, they were immediately dismissed with this lead track off of his eponymous solo album. Recruiting Jimmy Cliff’s backing group, including two members of Toots & The Maytals, Simon recorded this pop-reggae blend in Kingston, Jamaica in 1971 – a song that would become the first in a long line of world-traveling hits. Incidentally, the melody was recorded before the lyrics, with Simon taking the title from a Chinese restaurant menu upon returning to New York.
In the nearly 45 years since its release, Paul Simon has never revealed just what crime the two protagonists of this toe-tapping ditty were guilty of that made ‘Mama Pajama’ so mad. But that’s never stopped his second single from becoming a timeless classic, as well as a neighborhood favorite. In fact, when Simon released his 1988 greatest hits compilation, Negotiations and Love Songs, he promoted the album with a somewhat belated video for ‘Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard,’ featuring real students from his alma mater, Halsey Junior High School.
For his second album in 1973, There Goes Rhymin’ Simon, the artist enlisted the help of Southern gospel group The Dixie Hummingbirds to further establish his unique artistry as an individual. Whereas Simon & Garfunkel developed a reputation for soft, often acoustic folk songs, ‘Loves Me Like A Rock’ saw a dramatic departure from this mellow style, utilizing a deep base and harmonizing background vocals to create the rich layers on this uptempo tune. Of course, despite sounding like a gospel song, the lyrics touch only briefly on spirituality and instead allude to the wildest political scandal of the time: Watergate. The Dixie Hummingbirds would later go on to record a version of their own, winning a Grammy for Best Soul Gospel performance in 1974.
With a marching-band rhythm and a humorous rhyme scheme, this 1975 song from Still Crazy After All These Years has been both parodied and sampled ever since its release and holds the prestigious title of being Simon’s one-and-only number-one hit on the Billboard Hot 100. This salacious little tune tells the story of a man who is jaded with his marriage, and his scheming mistress who counsels him on the many different ways to break it off. But despite the title, Simon only actually names five different ways to leave your lover; you’ll have to come up with the other 45 on your own.
The titular song from Simon’s fourth studio album is a surprisingly poignant and sadder tale than the melody would suggest. Singing about a recent run-in with an ‘old lover,’ Simon ruminates on the feeling of nostalgia and how the sweetness of memory often gives way to loneliness and heartache. But don’t let the somber mood fool you; Paul Simon isn’t always so grim. In fact, during the pre-Thanksgiving episode of Saturday Night Live in 1976, Simon performed the song in a turkey costume to remind audiences that contrary to his lyrics, he really did have a sense of humor.
Few would imagine that a five-foot, three-inch Jewish man from Queens would go on to have a hit salsa record, but that’s precisely what Paul Simon did in 1980. From Simon’s One-Trick Pony album, ‘Late in the Evening’ centers around a dream the artist had as a teenager, in which he snuck into a club and proceeded to impress the patrons with his musical prowess. With roaring horns and a syncopated rhythm, this dance number hit number six on the Billboard Hot 100 and spent 16 weeks on the charts in total.
Largely considered to be his magnum opus, Graceland was Paul Simon’s most commercially successful studio album, taking home the 1987 Grammy Award for Album of the Year and added to the National Recording Registry in 2007 for being ‘culturally, historically or aesthetically important.’ Nevertheless, it was a massive beacon for controversy upon its initial release. Recorded in Johannesburg in 1985, Graceland defied the global cultural boycott on the South African apartheid regime and was subsequently condemned by organizations like the Artists United Against Apartheid and the African National Congress, who claimed that the album undermined the solidarity of the worldwide movement and appropriated South African culture. Simon denied the charges, arguing that his collaboration in no way helped the South African government or exploited musicians, but instead exposed them to a global audience. One such example, ‘Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes’ features guest vocals from Ladysmith Black Mambazo, who went on to achieve international recognition.
Another hit from Graceland, ‘You Can Call Me Al’ became Simon’s most successful composition worldwide, reaching the top five in seven countries. The seemingly nonsensical song actually tells the story of a man suffering through a midlife crisis, and later touches upon Simon’s own life-changing experiences on his journey through South Africa. But why would Paul Simon want to be called Al? The title stems from an embarrassing party blunder by French composer Pierre Boulez, who mistakenly referred to Simon and then-wife Peggy Harper as ‘Betty’ and ‘Al.’
1990’s The Rhythm of the Saints was Paul Simon’s attempt to recreate in South America what Graceland had done in South Africa. Although it did not reach the same level of success as its predecessor, the album was still certified multi-platinum and earned two Grammy nominations for Album of the Year and Producer of the Year. ‘The Obvious Child,’ the album’s only song to chart or receive substantial radio play, was recorded in Salvador, Brazil in 1988 and features the lively, booming input of Grupo Cultural Olodum – a Brazilian drumming collective. Thematically similar to ‘You Can Call Me Al,’ the tune ponders mortality as the middle-aged Simon shares his own personal struggles with the fear of getting older.
Simon’s music over the past two decades has gravitated from mainstream top 40 hits to mainly adult contemporary, as is the case for many Baby Boomer musicians. Nevertheless, this does not mean that the artist has stopped churning out a plethora of critically acclaimed songs, which is proven by his 2011 album, So Beautiful or So What. Widely considered to be his best work in over 20 years, the album is a grown-up throwback to the days of Graceland and The Rhythm of the Saints. With a mixture of electronic dance music, Peruvian drums, gospel choirs, and African woodwinds, So Beautiful or So What is a true cross-section of Simon’s many worldwide adventures, and a breathtaking culmination of all the musical lessons he’s learned. ‘The Afterlife’ is a testament to his growth, tackling the mature issue of death while maintaining the classic Paul Simon sense of humor. Imagining a scenario in which Heaven is a DMV, Simon blends Afropop and Americana folk to create an aged cynicism that is a reflection of his earlier work while also being remarkably current.