Fifty years ago this week, music fans were reintroduced to Paul Simon, the solo artist. They first met him in the late Fifties when he released a series of flop singles like “True or False” and “Anne Belle” under the pseudonyms True Taylor and Jerry Landis. He briefly dinged the Hot 100 with the novelty song “The Lone Teen Ranger” in 1962, and three years later he released the under-the-radar U.K. LP The Paul Simon Songbook, but none of these were even remotely successful.
But in the summer of 1965, just as The Paul Simon Songbook was tanking in England, Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sounds of Silence” was becoming an enormous hit in America thanks to Columbia producer Tom Wilson’s decision to add electric instrumentation to it without even telling the two singers about his plan. (That same day, he recorded “Like a Rolling Stone” with Bob Dylan.) The song turned Simon and Garfunkel into superstars, and Simon devoted the next five years of his life to their partnership, but it fell apart in 1970 right after the release of Bridge Over Troubled Water.
When it became clear that the duo was over, Simon began work on his first proper solo album. The leadoff single was “Mother and Child Reunion,” which you can hear right here. The reggae-inspired tune was unlike anything he’d ever attempted. “[It] is not a song that you would have normally thought that Simon and Garfunkel would have done,” he told Rolling Stone‘s Jon Landau in 1972. “It’s possible that they might have. But it wouldn’t have been the same, and I don’t know whether I would have been so inclined in that direction. So for me it was a chance to back out, and gamble a little bit; it’s been so long since it was a gamble.”
The title for the song came from the name for a chicken-and-egg dish on a New York City Chinese-restaurant menu, but the emotion behind it came gushing out after Simon’s dog was run over by a car. “It was the first death I had ever experienced personally,” he told Rolling Stone. “Nobody in my family died that I felt that. But I felt this loss — one minute there, next minute gone, and then my first thought was, ‘Oh, man, what if that was [my wife] Peggy? What if somebody like that died? Death, what is it, I can’t get it.’ And there were lyrics straight out forward like that.”
The song hit Number Four on the Hot 100 and proved that audiences were willing to accept Simon without Art Garfunkel by his side. That was proved again and again during the next few years when songs like “Kodachrome,” “Loves Me Like a Rock,” and “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” also flew up the charts. But it all started 50 years ago this week with “Mother and Child Reunion.”