Long before there was Simon and Garfunkel, there was just Paul and Artie – two high school seniors bonded by a passion for rock & roll. One afternoon while trying to recall lyrics to the Everly Brothers' "Hey Doll Baby," the 15-year-olds accidentally stumbled onto words that would give them an early taste of their future fame. Written in under an hour, "Hey Schoolgirl" became their party piece, performed at amateur stages across their home borough of Queens, New York. The relentlessly upbeat number kicks off with a slew of nonsense syllables in the mold of Little Richard's "Tutti Frutti" ("A-wop-bom-a-loo-mop-a-lomp-bom-bom!") before settling into harmonies that would do the Everlys proud.
Convinced of the song's potential, the boys ventured into Manhattan to pitch "Hey Schoolgirl" to the Tin Pan Alley publishers centered in the heart of midtown. Together they banged on doors throughout the famous Brill Building, desperate to perform their tune for anyone who would listen. Unfortunately, no one would. So they decided to record a demo that they could hand out to executives, thus eliminating the need for awkward in-person recitals.
In early October of 1957, they ponied up $25 and crammed into the photo-booth-sized live room at Sanders Record Studios on Seventh Avenue and West 48th Street. In a move straight out of Hollywood fantasy, a promoter named Sid Prosen happened to overhear the session and offered to sign the pair on the spot. Contracts were drawn up, their parents consulted, and in days they were officially artists on Prosen's Big Records label.
It was feared that their given names were "too ethnic-sounding" to play in Middle America, so the boys commenced the time honored showbiz tradition of picking flashy pseudonyms. "Tom and Jerry" served as a starting point – borrowed from the cartoon series – which they had already used for local gigs. Garfunkel settled on "Tom Graph," a reference to both his love of mathematics and habit of marking the chart position of favorite pop songs on graph paper. Simon christened himself "Jerry Landis," after the surname of then-girlfriend Sue Landis.
"Hey Schoolgirl" hit shelves less than a month later in early November, backed by another original, "Dancin' Wild." Prosen, no stranger to less-than-legal tactics, reportedly slipped DJ Alan Freed $200 to play the song on his influential radio program, where it quickly gained traction. Soon it entered regular rotation on AM playlists across the country. Variety gave the tune its "Best Bet" seal of approval, and Cash Box made it their "Sleeper of the Week."
Prosen also managed to get Tom and Jerry a spot on Dick Clark's seminal afternoon music program, American Bandstand. The teenagers were stunned to learn that they would share a bill with Jerry Lee Lewis, who performed his latest single, "Great Balls of Fire," just before their set. "It's was an incredible thing to have happen to you in your adolescence," Simon recalled. "I had picked up the guitar because I wanted to be like Elvis Presley, and suddenly there I was!"
The song went on to sell over 100,000 copies, enough to bring it to a respectable Number 49 on the Billboard charts. More importantly to the high schoolers, it earned them major respect from their peers. "You can't imagine what it was like having a hit record at 16," he said later. "It made me a neighborhood hero."