Musician Paul Simon was born on October 13, 1941, to Jewish-American parents living in New Jersey. As a singer-songwriter known for his cerebral compositions, it seems only fitting that Simon’s mother, Belle, was an English teacher and his father, Louis, was both a teacher and a bandleader.
Simon moved to Queens, New York, at a young age, soon meeting and befriending Art Garfunkel, “the most famous singer in the neighborhood.” In fact, Simon credits Garfunkel’s performance in the 4th grade talent show as his inspiration to start singing.
At Forest Hill High School, Simon and Garfunkel formed a duo called “Tom and Jerry.” Occasionally performing for school dances, they pooled together $7 in 1957 to lay down the track “Hey Schoolgirl,” which became a minor hit. Although the song’s success landed the pair a chance to perform on American Bandstand right after Jerry Lee Lewis, Tom and Jerry decided to go their separate ways for college after they failed to produce a follow-up hit.
The two reunited a few years later, however, releasing their first album, Wednesday Morning 3AM, as “Simon & Garfunkel” in 1964. Although the album was a commercial failure, it set the tone for their collaborative style: slow, analytical and antithetical to most rock ‘n’ roll of the time. The album also contained an acoustic version of “The Sound of Silence” that would later help pave the way to broader success.
Dismayed by the failure of Simon and Garfunkel’s first album, Paul Simon released a solo album, The Paul Simon Songbook, in 1965. Once again, the album went largely unnoticed despite including tracks like “I Am a Rock” and “Kathy’s Song” that would later go on to become fan favorites.
In 1966, Simon and Garfunkel took another stab at recording with the album Sounds of Silence. Included among its tracks was a re-edited version of “The Sound of Silence” that contained electric accompaniment. The remake became an instant hit; overnight, the duo became the darlings of literary-minded college students.
Things only got better in 1967 when Simon and Garfunkel were asked to collaborate on the soundtrack to Mike Nichols’s iconic film The Graduate. Released in 1968 with songs like “Scarborough Fair” and “Mrs. Robinson,” the soundtrack was a smash hit, marking Simon and Garfunkel’s ascendency to become one of the most popular and influential acts of the era.
Simon and Garfunkel would produce only one more album together after The Graduate, however, recording Bridge Over Troubled Water in 1969. With its gospel influences, dramatic crescendo and pacifist lyrics, the title song became a cultural anthem for the 1960s generation.
In 1970, Simon and Garfunkel split up due to artistic differences, freeing Simon to record a self-titled solo album in 1972. With songs like “Mother and Child Reunion” and “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard,” Paul Simon took a distinct stylistic turn away from Simon and Garfunkel’s collaborative work and earned rave reviews from critics.
Simon continued to release critical and commercial successes through the mid-1970s but slowed down considerably during the second half of the decade. In 1982, Simon and Garfunkel reunited for a world tour, but their subsequent attempt to record another studio album together ended in disagreement and led to many years of estrangement.
During the 1980s, Simon became fascinated by African and Brazilian music. His interests took him to South Africa in 1985, where he began recording his crowning achievement, Graceland. Combining elements of rock, zydeco, Tex-Mex, Zulu choral singing and mbaqanga, or “township jive,” the album captured a sound that wasn’t quite like anything anyone had heard before. A groundbreaking and risky departure from Simon’s earlier projects, Graceland proved to be one of the unlikeliest hits of the 1980s, helping put South African music on the world stage and restoring Paul Simon to superstardom.
Further exploring the idea that “we are all connected on this very basic emotional level by music — by rhythm and harmony,” Paul Simon followed up Graceland with 1990’s The Rhythm of the Saints. This album, which included West African guitar, American blues and Cameroonian vocalists, was another critical success — though not quite as popular as its predecessor.
Although Paul Simon’s unique, carefully constructed contributions to American music could be called innovative, he insists that the process has a lot to do with discovery. “I’m more interested in what I discover than what I invent. You don’t possess it. You can’t control it or dictate to it. You’re just waiting. Waiting… for the show to begin.”
Simon married his third and current wife, singer Edie Brickell, in 1992. They have three children. (Earlier marriages to Peggy Harper and Carrie Fisher both ended in divorce.) To date, Simon has won thirteen Grammy Awards, including one Lifetime Achievement Award. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001 and in 2007, became the first ever recipient of the Library of Congress’s Gershwin Prize for Popular Song.