Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



(b 11 August 1941, Norwalk CT) Keyboards, composer, arranger, singer-songwriter, producer; also plays brass instruments, bass and drums. Taught fiddle and piano by his father, a country doctor; wrote his first song for his Cub Scout den; wrote musical shows and led bands in high school and at Princeton U, leading a band to the finals in the first Georgetown Intercollegiate Jazz Festival. Began at Columbia Records as a trainee producer, assisting in jazz, original cast albums and special projects for Goddard Lieberson. They allowed him $500 to produce 'Red Rubber Ball', co-written by Paul Simon and Bruce Woodley (of the Seekers); it was a no. 2 hit '66 by the Cyrkle (pop group from Easton PA named and managed by Brian Epstein). In '67 he prodused arranged the first album by Blood, Sweat and Tears, Child Is Father To The Man (for comparison, a Sony CD reissue had the original audition tapes, made before Simon took over), and in '68 hit the big time: BS&T went top 50, The Songs Of Leonard Cohen did even better (Simon was particularly pleased with the use of women's voices on it) and Big Brother and the Holding Company's Cheap Thrills, with Janis Joplin, best of all. Contrary to rumour, he did not take his name off Cheap Thrills because he didn't like it, but because he had made a pact with Howard Alk not to take credits: they thought that 'if you knew your name was going to be on it, this would colour your effort and prevent it from being pure art'. Simon had too much integrity to have to worry about that, and besides, Cheap Thrills was a no. 1 album for eight weeks: he began taking credit again.

While editing Peter Yarrow's rockumentary film You Are What You Eat with Alk, he met the members of the Band (who were not yet called that), began helping them with demos for Capitol and produced and played on their first two albums, Big Pink and The Band, the work for which he is probably best known: for the second of these he put together a studio in a poolhouse in Los Angeles, with the board in the same room as the group, a revolutionary concept then. 'If I'm going to be in a recording studio, I'd rather be on the same side of the glass where the music is being made. Let the engineer work on the recording end; I work on the music.' His skills and the Band's experience of many years on the road resulted in two of the finest albums of the whole era; he became virtually a sixth member of the group and played on most of their work, including a co-production credit on The Last Waltz '76 (music director for both concert and film, writing arrangements for many of the guests).

He also produced most of Simon and Garfunkel's Bookends, produced and played on debut albums by Jesse Ed Davis, Dave Mason and Eric Clapton, as well as on Howlin' Wolf's London Sessions '71; and worked with many more, in and out of the studio: Cass Elliot, Taj Mahal (two tours and two albums as pianist '70-1), Phoebe Snow, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, The Firesign Theater, Electric Flag, Seals and Crofts, Jackie Lomax, Bobby Charles, John Hartford and others, as well as scoring film Last Summer '69. His versatility allowed him to work with the polka band of Frankie Yankovic and with Gil Evans (Priestess '72). His own first albums of songs were John Simon's Album '70 and Journey '72, both on WB; he credits Paul Simon, who had heard some of his songs, with pushing him into becoming a recording artist. The albums got good reviews, but he refused to tour to promote them, seeing what the road had done to some of his friends.

He spent less time in the studio in the '70s and almost none in the '80s, the era 'when a guitar player couldn't play a decent solo without putting it together from ten different attempts. You needed ten tracks for him alone.' He stayed at home bringing up his children, taking odd jobs; he worked with Al Kooper '76, David Sanborn '78, Michael Franks and Steve Forbert '79, as well as on the original Broadway cast album Best Little Whorehouse In Texas '78. In the '80s he composed classical music including an oratorio, two unproduced musical shows, and worked on a show by the creators of Beatlemania (which had played at NYC's Winter Garden '77 for weeks of previews apparently without ever opening officially). Rock & Roll! The First 5,000 Years ran for nine days '82, with film clips and re- creations of classic hits from Little Richard to the Rolling Stones. ('It was great!' says Simon; Gerald Bordman, in his American Musical Theatre, says it 'received upbeat notices but could not attract playgoers, suggesting perhaps that theatre was not a habit with the rock and roll generation'.) Simon played piano in bars; he and his wife, actress C. C. Loveheart, performed their own witty songs about life and love until they became too busy with their separate careers.

He produced Jericho by The Band and A. J. Croce's debut album '93, going back to analogue tape on the former to try to achieve the warm sound of the classic Band albums: 'Sure, digital is clean and flat, without any shaping of the sound, but I love the sound of music on tape. I mean, Carnegie Hall is not at all flat, but it sounds great.' A new album, Out On The Street, was sponsored by Pioneer and launched in Japan '92, where one of the biggest record chains ranked it as one of the year's top releases, in the West on Vanguard '94 with two more tracks. Simon's somewhat quavery tenor suits his songs, which compare with those of Dave Frishberg or Randy Newman, and they each receive the arrangement they need: 'Rock And Roll Is An Open Wound' is accompanied only by Jim Hall's guitar and Garth Hudson's discreet synth, while other tracks call variously upon the Brecker Brothers, Lew Soloff, Ron Carter, Rick Danko, Levon Helm and others. On 'Overpop' he sings 'Sex is automatic...' and we know the word 'attic' is coming, but we're listening to the lyrics while we wait. That's the craftsmanship of someone who's been writing for decades.