Paul Simon's curiosity seems to be the driving force behind the music he's created since formally breaking off with Art Garfunkel in 1970. Reggae, salsa, zydeco, doo-wop, samba, gospel, electronica, conjunto, and mbaqanga have all been part of the swirl of styles that Simon has explored over the years. The through-line is obvious: Simon bolsters that wispy voice with some of the world's most fetching rhythms. Here's an aging boomer who has looked around the planet for inspiration and delivered some of the most evocative music created by any singer-songwriter.
On Paul Simon (Number Four, 1972), his first album after Simon & Garfunkel's breakup, Simon began working from a broader stylistic palette and playing with such celebrated artists as jazz violinist Stephane Grappelli; the first single, "Mother and Child Reunion" (Number Four, 1972) was cut in Jamaica and used reggae syncopations; "Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard" (Number 22, 1972) showed an urban-Latin influence. Although he had ventured outside classic folk idioms on Simon & Garfunkel songs like "Cecilia," and "El Condor Pasa," he was now pursuing these new directions in earnest. There Goes Rhymin' Simon (Number Two, 1973) contained a sweet gospel rave up; "Loves Me Like a Rock" (Number Two) featured the venerable Dixie Hummingbirds on backup vocals. The album also included "Kodachrome" (Number Two, 1973) and went on to sell two million copies. The next year's Live Rhymin' (Number 33, 1974) again utilized the Hummingbirds as well as the Peruvian folk group Urubamba.
Despite their sometimes rocky relationship, Simon and Garfunkel never completely severed ties. They performed at a George McGovern fund-raiser in 1972 and Garfunkel was a frequent guest at Simon's concerts. In 1975 they collaborated on their first song since 1970's Bridge Over Troubled Water, the single "My Little Town" (Number Nine), which turned up on both Garfunkel's Breakaway and Simon's Still Crazy After All These Years (Number One, 1975). The latter, which purportedly focused on the dissolution of Simon's first marriage, generated the hits "Gone at Last" (Number 23) (a duet with Phoebe Snow) and "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover" (Number One), and won a Grammy for Best Album of 1975.
Simon tried his hand at screen acting by playing a small part in Woody Allen's Annie Hall in 1977, and started working in television, hosting Saturday Night Live and his own special. His Greatest Hits (Number 18, 1977) yielded the 1977 Number Five hit "Slip Slidin' Away." In 1980 Simon starred in One Trick Pony, for which he wrote the screenplay and soundtrack. The story of a journeyman rock & roller, Pony received mixed reviews and flopped at the box office, although the salsa-influenced "Late in the Evening" (from the album One Trick Pony), became a Number Six hit. In 1981 Simon reunited with Garfunkel again for a concert in Central Park.
A year later, the pair toured together, intending to collaborate in the studio. When those plans fell through, Simon released Hearts and Bones (Number 35, 1983), which included a collaboration with modern composer Philip Glass. The album failed commercially, and with the end of his second marriage, to actress Carrie Fisher, Simon reached a personal and professional low point.
Seeking inspiration, Simon traveled to South Africa in 1985 to explore its local music, which he had been studying. After participating in the recording of "We Are the World," the all-star anthem for the USA for Africa hunger relief project, he began recording in Johannesburg. He emerged with Graceland, a dazzling collection influenced by South African vocal and dance music and featuring the vocal group Ladysmith Black Mambazo (for whom he'd later produce two albums), the Everly Brothers, and Los Lobos. Echoes of Louisiana zydeco and Texas conjunto dot the disc, and Simon connected a lot dots between various styles. Graceland reached Number Three in 1987 — a whimsical, rhythmically-driven single, "You Can Call Me Al," reached Number 44 (and Number 23 in rerelease in 1987). In 1987 Graceland won a Grammy for Album of the Year.
Recording in South Africa caused Simon to be blacklisted by the United Nations and the African National Congress (ANC) and to be picketed in concert by anti-apartheid protestors. Simon addressed his critics face to face at public gatherings, defending his actions, and insisting that his motives in breaking the boycott on recording in South Africa were musical, not political. The UN and the ANC dropped their bans in early 1987 after Simon wrote the UN pledging to abide by the terms of their South African boycott. Simon then released a best-selling home video of the Graceland concert in Zimbabwe.
In 1990 The Rhythm of the Saints, which incorporated strains of West African and Brazilian music as well as more zydeco, reached Number Four, and Simon & Garfunkel were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The next year, Simon hosted a free Central Park concert (at which Garfunkel was pointedly asked not to appear) that drew an estimated 750,000 people. In 1992 he married Edie Brickell, then the lead singer for the New Bohemians; he coproduced his wife's first solo album in 1994.
Simon performed a series of 16 concerts at the Paramount in New York City in the fall of 1993. A retrospective of his career, the concert event also included a reunion with Garfunkel.
Over the years, Simon's charitable and social work has involved fundraising for Amazonian rain forest preservation, New York's homeless, and South African children. For his humanitarian efforts, the United Negro College Fund accorded him its highest honor in 1989.
In 1997 Simon won an Emmy for a televised concert special (Paul Simon Special), received critical praise for the three-CD Simon and Garfunkel retrospective, Old Friends, and collaborated with Nobel Prize-winning author Derek Walcott on a Broadway musical. The show, The Capeman, based on the true-life story of a young Puerto Rican immigrant sent to jail for the murders of two Manhattan teens, featured both Marc Anthony and Ruben Blades, but failed financially. However, it received a Tony Award nomination for Best Original Score written for Theater, and its accompanying CD was warmly received.
In 1999 Simon toured with former rival Bob Dylan. The following year, Simon released You're the One, a solid set of songs with no overarching conceptual framework. In 2001 he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a solo artist.
Simon penned "Father and Daughter," the Oscar-nominated theme song for The Wild Thornberrys Movie in 2002, and was one of five recipients of the Kennedy Center Honors that year.
In 2003, he and Garfunkel appeared together at the Grammys performing "The Sounds of Silence." The reunion was followed by a tour. Two years later, all of Simon's solo albums, with extra tracks, were reissued individually and as a limited-edition boxed set.
In 2006, a full six years after his previous solo album, Simon issued the aptly named Surprise, his collaboration with ambient-pop pioneer Brian Eno, followed by a solo tour. In 2007, Simon won the first Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song. For the event he reunited with Garfunkel yet again, this time performing "Bridge over Troubled Water."
In 2008 The Brooklyn Academy of Music presented a live retrospective of Simon's music entitled "Hard Times: The Music of Paul Simon"; it featured three separate engagements with Simon and a wide-array of musicians including Hugh Masekela, Milton Nascimento, David Byrne, Grizzly Bear, and many others. In 2009, Simon performed (both solo and with Garfunkel) at one of the Madison Square Garden concerts celebrating the 25th Anniversary of The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Portions of this biography appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001). Jim Macnie contributed to this article.