Released: August 25, 1986 – 30 years ago
Simon’s seventh studio album combined astute songwriting with an eclectic mixture of pop, zydeco, and South African elements, creating a pop-worldbeat-folk hybrid that reinvigorated his audience and earned him new fans. A major critical and commercial hit, it became Simon’s most successful release and the standard by which other experiments in blending different cultural styles of music would be measured.
The Classic Pick is a weekly feature at 4 p.m. Monday-Friday on The Home Stretch, sponsored by the Good Oak Bar and curated by Kris Kerry. Each Monday at 4 p.m. Kris stops by KXCI’s studio to give us insight on this classic album at 91.3 FM and KXCI.org.
Paul Simon’s fame, influence, and commercial success began as part of the acoustic duo Simon & Garfunkel, forming in New York in the early 1960s and disbanding in 1970. Known for their amazing harmonies and songwriting, which Simon was primarily responsible, the pair released five studio albums, and charted three number one US singles: “The Sound of Silence,” “Mrs. Robinson,” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”
After Simon split with Garfunkel in 1970, he began a very successful solo career, recording three highly acclaimed albums in five years, namely his self-titled 1972 release, There Goes Rhymin’ Simon (1973), and Still Crazy After All These Years (1975).
In the late 1970s and early 80s, Simon’s career hit a low point. Following a successful but discordant reunion with Art Garfunkel, resulting in the 1982 live album, The Concert in Central Park, Simon’s second marriage (to actress Carrie Fisher) fell apart and his 1983 release, Hearts and Bones, was a significant commercial disappointment.
In 1984, Simon became fascinated with bootleg cassette of South African music, culminating with planning a trip to visit the country with his friend and record engineer, Roy Halee. This soon led to recording in late 1985 and early 1986, incorporating many elements of South African Zulu traditions and South African musicians.
South Africa was under the racially segregated Apartheid government at the time, and Simon faced significant controversy for breaking a cultural boycott that had loosely been imposed by many European and North American artists. In contrast, Simon received praise and/or support from many South African artists, and others in the music industry such as Harry Belafonte, who saw Simon as someone showcasing South African native music and culture. Indeed, Simon’s success helped highlight the plight of native South Africans, and introduce several African artists to the Western world, including Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
Despite the controversy, Graceland was a monster commercial hit, becoming Simon’s most successful studio album with six million sold worldwide by 1987. As of 2014, sales have been estimated at over 16 million worldwide, and it is one South Africa’s highest-selling album of all time.
Graceland was recorded throughout much of 1985 and early 1986 at various studios in Johannesburg, New York, Los Angeles, London, and New Orleans.
Production credit goes to Paul Simon himself with prominent engineering credit to long-time Simon collaborator, Roy Halee. Halee engineered several Simon & Garfunkel albums, and also worked with The Yardbirds, The Byrds, Journey, Blood, Sweat & Tears, and Bob Dylan.
In addition to the many South African musicians featured on Graceland, Simon brought together numerous other guest musicians during recording, including his childhood heroes The Everly Brothers on “Graceland,” Ladysmith Black Mambazo on “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” and “Homeless,” Los Lobos on “All Around the World or The Myth of Fingerprints,” and Tucson native, Linda Ronstadt, on “Under African Skies” (Tucson is featured in the song lyrics).
Executives at Warner Brothers were unimpressed with Simon’s new material, viewing him as a “has been” after the relative failure of his previous solo release. Simon and Halee believe this worked to their favor as record executives offered little interest or input, so they were able to release what they had envisioned.
From the outset, initial reviews of Graceland were very positive. Rolling Stone and The New York Times, among other reviewing publications, lauded the release, and The Village Voice deemed it “his best album.” Retrospective reviews continue to praise the release; the album is included in nearly ever “greatest ever” list, including those by Time, USA Today, Q Magazine, Slant, Blender, Pitchfork, NPR, The Guardian, and Entertainment Weekly. It resides at #81 on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.
Graceland won the Grammy for Album of the Year in 1987, and “Graceland” was nominated for Song of the Year that same year. Also, Simon was nominated for Male Best Pop Vocal Performance in 1987.
In total, Simon has won twelve Grammy Awards – one of them a Life Achievement Award, and numerous other industry awards. He holds an honorary PhD from Brandeis University. In 2002 he was one of the five recipients of the annual Kennedy Center Honors, America’s highest tribute to performing and cultural artists, and in 2006 Time selected Simon as one of a “100 People that Shaped the World.” He was inducted in the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1988, and belongs to the exclusive fraternity of musicians to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice: as a member of Simon & Garfunkel (1990) and as a solo artist (2001).