July 2004
By Steven M. Housman

Nobody Does It Better

New CD Release: Reflections: Carly Simon’s Greatest Hits

For those of you who have read my columns in the past, it’s probably obvious to you that music is my passion. Whether it is pop, r&b, jazz, alternative, country, disco, trance or dance, the bottom line is, it’s all music.

I’ve never met anyone who hasn’t liked music. We all have our favorite genre. Mine happens to be vocals. Well, to be perfectly absolute, it’s vocals with intelligent lyrics.

When I was growing up as a young teen in the early 70’s, music took a turn from the psychedelic love revolution of the late 1960’s and turned much more introspective to the singer/songwriters of the era. Carole King, James Taylor, Harry Chapin, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Emmylou Harris, etc, etc. In my opinion, and in the opinion of millions of others, Carly Simon fits into that elite group perfectly.

It’s funny, when a particular song or a singer makes a strong impression, you always remember either where you were, whom you were with, or what the situation was. For me, I associate music with all of the above and more. I could even give you the date and the weather report that day!

The day I discovered Carly Simon was June 11, 1971. It was a gorgeous spring day. I was in the back seat of my sister’s red mustang while her best friend at the time rode shotgun. We were headed to Crane Beach in Ipswich, Massachusetts, and this voice and song came on the radio. That voice, those lyrics! My friends from college they’re all married now. They have their houses and their lawns. They have their silent noons, tearful nights, angry dawns. It was pure poetry with a wildly unique alto voice. Then the crescendo, Well you say it’s time we moved in together, raised a family of our own you and me, well That’s The Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be…I was hooked. I remember my sister and her friend commenting on how much they loved the song. They were twenty years old and smack dab in the midst of their college years. My age group, let alone gender, was probably not aware enough to sense the yearning of a young woman rebelling against what’s expected of them at that point in their lives. But somehow I got it. It was 1971, and Gloria Steinem was all over the news. This was a voice of a new generation. And Carly’s was not just a voice in lyric, her voice spoke to me as few others have in my lifetime. But when there’s a unique voice, you always know who it is. Nobody has to let you know when Frank Sinatra, Bob Dylan, Johnny Mathis or even Cher is being played. Like them or not, they are originals. Can you tell when Ashanti, Jessica Simpson or Britney Spears is being played? I can, but it’s my business to know.

Most people think that’s where Carly’s life began, but it’s not. She already had an extraordinary life. She was born June 25, 1945 just weeks before the end of World War II. Her father was famed publisher Richard Simon of Simon & Schuster, and little miss Carly and her two older sisters grew up in a very privileged world. Just because there’s money doesn’t mean there’s not dysfunction. It’s been said that Carly was very shy and felt very isolated. Remember the opening lines of “That’s The Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be?” My father sits at night with no lights on, his cigarette glows in the dark, The living room is still, I walk by, no remark…If you don’t recall, listen to the song again. It may hold different meaning for you now after all these years. One of the many wonderful things about Carly’s lyrics is that 99 percent, perhaps 100 percent of the time, the songs are autobiographical. She has said, “Songwriting is cathartic, it’s part of my therapy.”

When Carly was 18, she joined her older sister Lucy and they became known on the coffee house set as The Simon Sisters. Singing the songs of the day such as Dylan, Joan Baez and Peter, Paul & Mary. The Simon Sisters eventually would be the opening act of some rising stand-up comedians, most notably, Woody Allen. They even made it on to some local NY variety shows at the time. People who recall them knew that there was something special about these girls, especially the younger, shy Carly. They continued to play the small club circuit, all the while Carly began to write songs of her own.

While Carly was in college, the managers who had handled Bob Dylan signed her. They even dubbed her, “The Female Dylan.” They had her record with Bob’s touring group who would eventually be known as The Band. Carly was performing other singer’s material, but she was anxious to start performing her own songs and have her own identity.

In 1970, Elektra Records caught wind of this girl and decided to sign her. Carly said, “They weren’t sure I had the right voice and so they had to be talked into recording me, not just lending my songs to established singers.” The first album, Carly Simon, released in March 1971 rose to an impressive #30 on the Billboard album charts on the strength of the single “That’s The Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be,” which became a Top 10 single and was nominated for a couple of Grammy Awards. Simon didn’t go home empty-handed. The night of the Grammy’s, Carly was honored with The Best New Artist Of The Year Grammy and was officially on her way to stardom. That same year, her second album Anticipation was released and also landed the artist at #30 and two hit singles, “Legend In Your Own Time” and the title cut which younger people probably associate with a Heinz Ketchup commercial! An interesting footnote; Rolling Stone named the album Anticipation as “One of the best records of the year.”

Then, November 1972 came and the single that’s most associated with Carly Simon was released. “You’re So Vain” was the first single from Carly’s album No Secrets, which topped the album charts for over a month, as did the single. Carly was not just a star anymore, she entered superstar territory. There have been so many rumors about the song and whom it’s about. Carly simply says, “Those who think they know, don’t.” I suppose this wipes out the famous Warren Beatty theory, although the two were romantically linked previous to the release. Hmmm. One rumor that’s true and Carly has confirmed, it was Mick Jagger who sang back-up vocals on the song. Carly said, “It just so happened he showed up at the recording session and decided to add his take on it.” Rumor has it that the two were also “very close.” Another hmmm.

After “Vain,” Simon was a one-woman-hit-machine releasing hit songs and albums one after another. It was during this time that the song “The Right Thing To Do” was released and was supposedly about someone in particular. That particular person turned out to be James Taylor. She had gone to see Taylor appear at Carnegie Hall. Following the performance, Carly went backstage to say hi during the intermission, and thus we have the first date of Carly Simon and James Taylor. They married months later and Simon continued one hit after another. The first single to be released after the marriage was the duet “Mockingbird” between the two lovebirds. In early 1974, the song became a massive hit and landed in the Top 5 and the album from which it was spawned, Hotcakes, reached #3 and stayed on the charts for months. The next single is also a Simon staple; “Haven’t Got Time For The Pain,” which people say reflected her already rocky marriage to Taylor. As I said, Simon’s songs are 99, if not 100, percent autobiographical, and every album and song that followed during the rest of the decade seemed to mirror the celebrity couple.

At the height of her hit making in the mid-seventies, Carly was asked by several movie studios to star in films. The still shy girl turned down the opportunities and instead decided to focus on performing music for films. “Nobody Does It Better” from the James Bond film The Spy Who Loved Me went through the roof and became one of the best-selling songs from the Bond movies, as well as one of Carly’s biggest hits, reaching #2 on the pop charts and #1 on the AC charts. Following “Nobody Does It Better” Simon decided to slow down to become a mom. Her first daughter Sally Taylor was born in 1974. She went back to work and followed up with several more hits including “You Belong To Me” and “Jesse.” This began the 80’s and Carly was thriving in motherhood with her second child Ben. To the outside world, Carly Simon had it all. But she didn’t. She was constantly fighting a battle she couldn’t win, and that was her husband’s dependency on drugs. After a decade, Carly walked away from the marriage and devoted herself to her children and to occasional albums. She still had offers from the movie executives to strut her stuff on the screen, but decided to stay focused on the music, except for a couple of cameos. And it paid off. In 1986, she wrote the song “Coming Around Again” for the Mike Nichols film Heartburn starring Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson. At the same time, her record label was in a quandary over what to do with the now 40 year-old singer/songwriter. After all, to the world of pop music, 40 is over the hill. Clive Davis, head of Arista Records didn’t think so and signed Carly. The man with the golden ear knew exactly what to do with her, as he had with Barry Manilow, Melissa Manchester, Whitney Houston and her cousin Dionne Warwick, to name just four. Carly’s 1987 album and first single, appropriately named Coming Around Again, was a financial and critical success. Carly didn’t just “come around again,” she let people know that she never really left. If it was possible, her writing and singing were better than ever. The following year she scored and wrote the song “Let The River Run” for the film Working Girl, and Carly was now the proud recipient of the 1989 Academy Award for Best Song.

In the 90’s, Carly said she no longer felt the need to write “hit” songs, but just to write songs that meant something to her and hoped her fans liked it. The albums are absolutely astounding, starting with 1990’s My Romance, followed by Have You Seen Me Lately? The soundtrack to This Is My Life, Carly Simon’s Romulus Hunt: A Family Opera, Letters Never Sent, Clouds In My Coffee 1965-1995, Film Noir, The Bedroom Tapes, an album that dealt with her recovery from breast cancer in 1999, Christmas Is Almost Here (Her first holiday album), Anthology, Piglet’s Big Movie, and the just released Reflections: Carly Simon’s Greatest Hits. I’m happy to say that this latest “Hits” package isn’t just the usual fare, but has some of the most gorgeous songs ever written and performed by Carly, including “Like A River,” Touched By The Sun” and a song co-written and performed with her daughter Sally, “Amity.” If you are a Carly Simon fan, you will love this new set. If you are a bit younger and want to hear a singer/songwriter who truly deserves the term “artist,” I implore you to pick up this CD.

Carly songs are timeless. Even Janet Jackson sampled her song and vocal “You’re So Vain” a couple of years back. How many of today’s recording “star’s” songs do you think you’ll be humming in thirty years. Hell, “Oops, I Did It Again!” is only two years old and I haven’t heard it since.

The CD, Reflections: Carly Simon’s Greatest Hits, debuted at Number 22 on the Billboard 200. It was Carly’s best showing in 26 years, since her stunning opus Boys In The Trees hit the Top 20 in the summer of ‘78

Carly, thanks for all the songs and for the new disc Reflections. I look forward to the next thirty years with much “Anticipation.”

© 2004 Steven M. Housman. All Rights Reserved.