Carly Simon

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Carly Simon Pencil Portrait
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Last update:25/11/18

It could have been another sprawling autobiography simply recounting the highs and lows of her musical career, but instead Carly Simon chose to produce a nuanced account of her emotional states during childhood, adolescence, early adulthood, and her first marriage to James Taylor which ended in 1983. “Boys in the Trees” is all the more readable for all that, like a lengthy conversation between friends, with exciting pit stops, diversions, and confessions than a rote recitation. Perhaps it’s something to do with the American way of life – that early start in therapy – self introspection becomes as natural as consuming a ham sandwich.

When not in therapy, Carly Simon’s body of work encompasses a significantly wide spectrum of activity. In addition to having recorded 22 concept albums of her own compositions, she has composed four film scores, including “Heartburn,” “This Is My Life,” “Postcards from the Edge” and “Working Girl,” for which she won a Grammy, a Golden Globe Award and an Oscar. Simon has also written four successful children’s books for Doubleday, including her most recent, “The Nighttime Chauffeur.” The most far-reaching of her accomplishments is the opera, “Romulus Hunt,” for which she was commissioned jointly by The Metropolitan Opera Guild and The Kennedy Center. The co-production was performed both in New York and Washington. Referring to the opera, a recent review in CD Magazine states, “Here is a genuinely beloved artist, with years of popularity, with a vast public that American opera composers would kill for, bringing that public to opera with an ease few composers can match.”

Carly Simon was born in New York City, the third of four children born to Richard and Andrea Simon. Richard Simon, the founder of Simon and Schuster, was also a pianist and Andrea Simon was a civil-rights activist as well as a singer. All four children were raised in an atmosphere conducive to self-expression. All three girls became musicians: Joanna, the eldest, a prominent opera singer and television personality; Lucy a two-time Grammy winner for her children’s album; Peter, the only son in the Simon family, is a successful photographer.

Lucy and Carly Simon, while enrolled in Sarah Lawrence College, sang professionally for three years as The Simon Sisters, and scored a hit single record of Lucy’s song, “Winkin’, Blinkin’ and Nod,” on Kapp Records. When Lucy married, Carly began singing and writing on her own. Her debut album, Carly Simon on Elektra Records, was released in 1971 and included the single, “That’s the Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be.” The album resulted in her first Grammy for “Best New Artist.” Following this release came an unbroken string of songs, all of which were to become classics with memorable but quirky melodies and personal, literate lyrics. The list includes songs like “Anticipation,” “You’re So Vain,” “Loving You Is the Right Thing To Do,” “Haven’t Got Time for the Pain,” “Mockingbird” (with James Taylor), “Jesse,” “Coming Around Again,” “Give Me All Night,” “The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of’ and “Let the River Run (Theme from Working Girl),” among others.

As Simon had grown up in a household where show music and jazz was played along with classical, pop and folk, she naturally wanted to do an album of her own favorite standards. The result was 1981’s “Torch,” a slow burn platter that would take Warner Bros. Records, to whom she was signed at the time, totally by surprise. As a result of her acceptance in this genre, she convinced Clive Davis, president of Arista Records to do another jazz/standard album, “My Romance,” released in 1990. An HBO Special was produced and aired in conjunction with the album. One of the songs from this collection, “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning,” was featured in the smash soundtrack album for the film, Sleepless in Seattle. on Epic Records.

During the 1990’s, all of Simon’s albums were released on Arista, with the exception of the “This Is My Life” soundtrack on Quest/Reprise and “Romulus Hunt,” on Angel. She would also guest on the dubious Frank Sinatra “Duets” album, with two wonderful performances, “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning” and “Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out to Dry.” She also recorded a song for the album of music by The Gershwins, produced by George Martin.

Carly Simon is married to writer James Hart, and has two children, Sally and Ben by her former husband, James Taylor. Her professional life has been punctuated by financial highs and lows.

By the mid 70’s her sales — especially since “You’re So Vain” in 1972— had seemingly left her without money worries. Her first album, in January 1971, sold 400,000 units (including tapes); a single, “That’s the Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be,” helped, along with a quick-set press image as a Mick Jagger look-alike. “Anticipation,” in late 1971, sold 610,000, boosted by the single of the same title. The next fall she burst loose with Perry’s first effort with her, “No Secrets,” containing “You’re So Vain,” with Jagger singing backup and everyone else guessing which of her numerous famous ex-lovers she was scalding. “No Secrets,” done in London, sold 1.9 million units. In November 1972 she and Taylor married. “Hotcakes,” full of bucolic, love-in-bloom songs, cut in New York during her pregnancy and released in January 1974, shifted 825,000 units. She then had two more hit singles — “Mockingbird” with Taylor and “Haven’t Got Time for the Pain.” Three million LP units, plus five hit singles, plus publishing royalties, not to mention a working musician husband. No pain therefore; at least at that stage in her life.

Recommended listening

Carly Simon (1971)

Anticipation (1971)

No Secrets (1972)

Carly’s albums can be hunted down on well preserved original vinyl for modest prices (£4 sterling – $5.19 – fall 2018.) That being so, her discography is well worth re-discovering.

This, her third album comes handsomely dressed by producer Richard Perry and boasts many illustrious helpers. The hit single alone – “You’re so vain” – features Jagger on backing vocals and Klaus Voormann’s distinctive opening bass rolls.

Regardless of the quality of her songs — and they do range from fair to excellent — there remains an eminently likeable quality to everything she sings. She is possessed of a radiant vocal personality, utilising her whitest of white voices to full effect, singing full throat with faultless enunciation. Her almost literal note-for-note phrasing of songs is uniquely ingenuous.

The album was Simon’s commercial breakthrough. It spent five weeks at #1 on the Billboard Pop albums chart and quickly went Gold, as did its leadoff single, “You’re So Vain”, which remained at #1 on the Billboard Pop singles chart for three weeks, and #1 on the Billboard Adult Contemporarychart for two weeks. 25 years after its initial release, the album was officially certified Platinum by the RIAA on December 12, 1997.

The cover caused even more of a stir than its contents. Somewhat “edgy” and controversial for its day, Carly was photographed bra-less under her blue top with a big floppy hat, smiling radiantly like Mick Jagger in all his youthful pomp.

Hotcakes (1974)

Playing Possum (1975)

If the album title reflects the idiomatic phrase for “pretending to be dead,” then the artist herself was very much alive and fertile with fresh ideas.

Quite possibly my favourite of all her albums, it marked her transition from a plaintive balladeer to a rather free spirited aggressive sexual vixen. Domestically content at this stage in her marriage to James Taylor, there appeared no rhyme or reason for such an artistic shift but it all works to maximum effect here.

Track one side two garnered the most plaudits. “Attitude Dancing” stands as the album’s showstopper, boasting nifty nonsense lyrics by Jacob Brackman and one of Richard Perry’s tour de force productions: strutting horns, razor-sharp string lines, perfect backup vocals by various luminaries including Rita Coolidge, and Jim Gordon’s impeccable, essential drumming. The stinging guitar solo perfectly complements Simon’s vocal, which is both sassy and occasionally growly in equal measure. Its placement on the album was perfect; had it opened the collection, it might have have misplaced the listener’s expectations for an all dance experience.

As such, six other original songs comprise the core of Playing Possum‘s thematic material. Opening with “After the Storm,” which has a remarkably strong, twisting chromatic melody and lavish production, Simon promotes the domestic squabble as a tool for sexual stimulation: “And doesn’t anger turn you on.” “Love out in the Street” explores voyeuristic fantasy, suggesting, if not a mass orgy, at least greater sexual relaxation. In a softer style, “Look Me in the Eyes” extols the ecstasy of eye contact during sex. The affecting “Waterfall” likens lust to drowning in a waterfall and “Are You Ticklish,” an old-fashioned waltz, describes a childlike playfulness that can precede sex. The album’s “heaviest” erotic song, “Slave,” an anti-feminist ode to downtrodden women describes the overwhelming madness of true love.

Advancing years remove the rough edges of political activism and Playing Possum‘s title cut ends the album on a sociological rather than erotic note. The song traces the history of the generation just turned 30 at a time when one’s fourth decade suggested old age, and details a more bourgeois genteel existence.

“Attitude Dancing” bombed as a 45 in Britain which says much for the plethora of banal disposable pop fodder floating around at the time; “Barbados” by two recording engineers named Typically Tropical an obvious point in case.

Coming Around Again (1987)

Nobody does it better - The best of Carly Simon (1998)

Recommended reading

Boys in the trees: A Memoir (2015)

Carly’s overripe memoir could only have been written by a native New Yorker, so accustomed as the more affluent sections of the city’s residents are, to weekly sessions with their local shrink. Her upbringing as a privileged daughter of Richard L. Simon, a founder of Simon & Schuster did not provide a trouble free childhood.

The least dainty and favored of three sisters and a baby brother, and the offspring of a troubled marriage, there are the usual lifelong ‘father figure’ issues . Sadly, there would be no stabilising influence from her mother. At 42, Andrea would move a 19-year-old lover into the household, nominally as a tutor to the girls’ brother. Carly hated him for destroying her parents’ marriage whilst simultaneously acknowledging his sexual power. She was growing up, and fast.

What follows is “information overload,” as Carly analyses her relationships with the men in her life. There’s copious amounts of pure bullshit, as she singularly fails to appreciate the pitfalls of involving herself with individuals so in love with themselves that that there’s barely a kind thought left over for anyone else. If husband James Taylor was …“my muse, my Orpheus, my sleeping darling, my ‘good night, sweet prince,’ my something-in-the-way-he-moves,” it would all end in icy incommunicado and her literary indiscretions are unlikely to heal their rift.