The long friendship but relatively short-lived musical team of Simon and Garfunkel began early in the lives of Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel. As boys in the 1950s, they lived only three blocks from each other in Queens, New York.
Around age 14, Simon and Garfunkel started writing songs together and practicing harmonies, recording themselves on Garfunkel’s tape recorder. From the beginning, Simon and Garfunkel worked as a team. Simon wrote the lyrics and melodies. Garfunkel contributed his voice and ability to fine-tune the music.
In 1957, Simon and Garfunkel discovered the Everly Brothers, a duo that sang harmony much like they did. Hearing the Everly Brothers made them hunger to make a real record. So they did, releasing “Hey, Schoolgirl” under the stage name of Tom and Jerry later that year.
Simon and Garfunkel as Tom and Jerry performed mostly at school and community functions. But they did get some national exposure playing immediately after Jerry Lee Lewis on the television program “American Bandstand” in late November 1957. “Hey, Schoolgirl” sold a modest 120,000 to 150,000 copies, but it stayed on Billboard Magazine‘s Top 100 list for nine weeks.
After high school, Garfunkel enrolled at New York’s Columbia University but later left school to travel to Europe. On his return, by way of San Francisco, he became interested in the folk music he heard there. Meanwhile, Simon, attending college in New York, was also developing an interest in folk music. This new influence would transform their sound from adolescent, “bubblegum” pop to a more mature, folk music with story-like lyrics.
In the early 1960s, Garfunkel was finishing his degree. Simon spent some time in law school before dropping out to devote himself entirely to his music. During this time, Bob Dylan’s “rough poetry and driving rhythms” began to influence Simon’s song writing.
In their book Simon and Garfunkel: Old Friends, authors Joseph Morella and Patricia Barey wrote that Simon (like Dylan) was interested in the social issues of the time and began to incorporate that into his music. “Newspapers and television were full of stories about the valiant civil-rights freedom fighters in the South who were being beaten and killed for their beliefs,” the authors wrote. “Moved by their bravery and the importance of the struggle, he wrote his first protest song, ‘He Was My Brother.'”
“He Was My Brother” landed Simon and Garfunkel a contract with Columbia Records. But when the album, “Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M,” was released in 1964, it only sold 3,000 copies.
As luck would have it, months later a deejay in Boston began regularly playing “The Sounds of Silence,” another song from the album. The song was soon among the top 100 singles, and in January 1966, it hit number one.
The Sounds of Success
A number-one hit on the charts earned Simon and Garfunkel a trip back into the studio, where they recorded another album, Sounds of Silence, released in February 1966. Hoping it would get more play time the second time around, the studio then re-released Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M. Both became successful albums.
Simon and Garfunkel’s music then caught the attention of film director Mike Nichols, who was about to film “The Graduate.” Nichols wanted Simon to write some original songs specific to the film’s story line for the soundtrack. Both Simon and Garfunkel were interested in branching out into films, so they agreed.
At the same time, however, they were producing their newest album, Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme. They were also gearing up to perform at the Monterey Pop Festival, where they were the closing act on June 16, 1967. Simon and Garfunkel followed bands with sounds completely different from their own (Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, The Grateful Dead and the Jefferson Airplane). But their performance was a hit.
Meanwhile, Nichols was finishing the filming of “The Graduate” and wanted to know how the songs were coming. He had already rejected two of the songs that Simon had submitted. As a temporary measure, Nichols had used four of Simon and Garfunkel’s earlier recordings to cut the film. In the end, he kept these songs and added one original, “Mrs. Robinson,” to “The Graduate” soundtrack. The “alienation” theme of Simon’s earlier material fit perfectly with Nichols’ concept of the film.
“The Graduate” was shown in theaters across the country in spring 1968. It accumulated unheard-of grosses at the time. The soundtrack quickly became the number-one selling album, even though it consisted of mainly previously released Simon and Garfunkel songs. Simon and Garfunkel became household names.
Fame Then Fizzle
1968 was Simon and Garfunkel’s most successful year as a team. They dominated the popular music scene. Their Bookends album, released shortly after “The Graduate” soundtrack, went platinum after selling more than a million copies. “Mrs. Robinson” then won the Grammy Award for Best Record of the Year and Best Contemporary Pop Vocal Performance by a Group in 1969.
According to Simon and Garfunkel: Old Friends, the two were so busy they had to decline repeated invitations to play at “what promised to be an interesting, three-day, outdoor concert in a farmer’s field in upstate New York.” You guessed it-Woodstock.
The Bridge Over Troubled Water album was next. It was released in February 1970, and by March it was number one. At the 1971 Grammy Awards, Simon and Garfunkel won Record of the Year, Best Contemporary Song, Album of the Year, Best Arrangement, Best Engineered Recording, and Best Song of the Year for “Bridge over Trouble Water.”
But even though they seemed to be at the height of their success, they could no longer work together. “Making music together, once so easy, had become an abrasive, divisive process,” wrote Morella and Barey. “And the recording studio, once their favorite creative refuge, now seemed like a prison.” Years of tension between the two finally pulled the musical team apart. Fortunately, the friendship was only temporarily put aside.
Both went on to solo music careers and tried out the film industry. In 1981, Simon and Garfunkel reunited for a concert in New York’s Central Park that was a huge success. Then, in 2003, they reunited again for a 40-date tour they appropriately titled “Old Friends.”