From the forthcoming book titled “The Soundtrack of My Life” by Clive Davis and Anthony DeCurtis. Copyright © 2013, by Clive Davis. To be published by Simon & Schuster. Printed by permission.
It’s a joke -- but only half a joke -- among executives in the music industry that any conversation you have with an artist is invariably about that artist. That intense focus is necessary for their art -- it helps give them the confidence to run the risks that great creativity requires. But it doesn’t easily make for the mutuality that true friendship requires. Still, Paul Simon and I had sons the same age and we became neighbors on Central Park West. My high regard for his songwriting didn’t hurt, of course -- I personally felt that as a songwriter Paul Simon was in a class with Dylan and Lennon/McCartney, and that Simon & Garfunkel were qualitatively the equivalent of the Beatles -- but we shared interests outside the music business and eventually grew close.
None of that made working with Simon & Garfunkel any easier. A notable example of how difficult it was occurred after the director Mike Nichols asked Paul if he would write new songs for his 1967 film “The Graduate.” With some obvious exceptions, soundtrack albums at the time essentially amounted to souvenirs for people who had enjoyed the movie. Their commercial success depended less on the quality of the music than the box-office success of the film. However, I thought this project had real possibilities. Nichols had become one of the most important directors in the country after being nominated for an Academy Award for “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” His talent combined with Paul’s songwriting seemed like a stellar match to me, so when Embassy Motion Pictures offered Columbia the soundtrack rights, I snapped them up.
Clive Davis with Sly Stone in Los Angeles, September 1973. (Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
The problems began when Nichols decided not to use the few new songs Paul had written for the film -- a significant exception being a snippet of “Mrs. Robinson,” named for the sultry character played by Anne Bancroft. He chose instead to use songs from previous Simon & Garfunkel albums, including versions of “The Sound of Silence” and “Scarborough Fair/Canticle.” Paul wasn’t happy about the whole experience of writing for the film, and when I asked him if there was enough music in it for an album, he said in no uncertain terms that there wasn’t. Then, when the film opened and it was clear that it was going to be a blockbuster hit, I again asked Paul if we could somehow assemble a soundtrack album. Again he said no. Determined, I then went to the Columbia A&R man in charge of soundtracks and asked what he thought. He agreed with Paul.
Purely from a business standpoint, I felt Columbia was losing a major opportunity at a time when a big hit album could have really helped the company -- not to mention help me continue to move things in the progressive direction I wanted. With relatively little effort we could have a soundtrack that was virtually guaranteed to be a major success. But I also firmly believed that the soundtrack could help propel Simon & Garfunkel to a new level of stardom, and also bring Paul some of the exceptional songwriting recognition he deserved. Their albums Sounds of Silence and Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme had done very well, but as “The Graduate” was being hailed as a definitive document of the era, finding a credible way to emphasize their association with it would be highly desirable. I just couldn’t let that opportunity slip.
Finally, one day, in the middle of my work, I left the office and went to see “The Graduate” myself. As I sat in the theater and watched, it became obvious that the movie was terrific and was going to be enormously successful. What also became apparent to me was the potential solution to my problem. When Paul and my A&R man Ed Kleban told me that there wasn’t enough music to put together a soundtrack album, they were thinking only of the Simon & Garfunkel songs in the film. But the composer Dave Grusin had written an instrumental soundtrack that was prominently used in the film. Vinyl albums typically contained somewhere between 35 and 40 minutes of music. We could very legitimately assemble a soundtrack for “The Graduate” that combined Grusin’s score and the Simon & Garfunkel songs.
The only remaining problem -- and it was far from insignificant -- was convincing Paul and Artie that it was a good idea. I called Mort Lewis, who managed Simon & Garfunkel, and made my case. He was blunt: Paul did not want a soundtrack album, and Artie completely agreed with him. They were in the process of completing the Bookends album, and they didn’t want a potential soundtrack either to delay the release of Bookends or confuse fans by cluttering the marketplace. I responded that the potential audience for the soundtrack was significantly larger than their own following, and would bring their music to new fans.
To seal the deal I spoke to Paul directly. I assured him that, in its marketing, Columbia would make it clear that this was not a Simon & Garfunkel album. They would not appear on the cover -- which instead used the iconic seduction shot of a mesmerized Dustin Hoffman staring at the upraised, stocking-clad leg of Anne Bancroft. The large title on the cover would indicate that this was the official soundtrack album of “The Graduate,” and smaller type would read something like “Songs by Paul Simon” and “Performed by Simon & Garfunkel.”
Paul was adamant. “We’ve been working on Bookends a long time,” he said. “We are totally into it, and we think it’s a major creative breakthrough. We don’t want to wait six months to put it out.” He needn’t have worried. Not only did I think it made good commercial sense to release the albums back to back, but, in order to keep Columbia fresh, I was experimenting with release strategies, and this unlikely move fit perfectly with that approach. I was convinced that once the two albums were out, Simon & Garfunkel would be superstars.
However reluctantly, Paul and Artie agreed to let me release the soundtrack to “The Graduate,” which I did in January 1968. Predictably, it proved tremendously popular, hitting the top of the charts and eventually reaching more than 2 million in sales. That beautifully set the table for the April release of Bookends and its classic first single, “Mrs. Robinson.” Both the single and the album shot to No. 1, and the album also went on to sell more than 2 million copies. Indeed, Simon & Garfunkel were now superstars. They had become household names all over the world.
No good deed goes unpunished, alas, so relations between Simon & Garfunkel and Columbia, as well as with me personally, still grew tense at times. Despite the extraordinary career and financial benefits the soundtrack brought to them, Paul and Artie nursed a lingering resentment over its release. That puzzled me not only because it had worked out so well, but because I never would have done it without their agreement. There are definitely times when artists and executives don’t see eye to eye. Perspectives just don’t coincide. In this case, Paul and Artie were also upset because, in my ongoing effort to make variable pricing an accepted industry strategy, I had charged $1 more than usual for Bookends. The anticipation for the album, which included a large poster, was so considerable that I figured it was a perfect moment to try it. That clearly didn’t impede the album’s sales, but in that countercultural heyday, it struck them as a hard-nosed business, Establishment-style decision, which I suppose it was.
I understood their concern, but as the president of a major record label, I did have concerns of my own. I needed blockbuster sales to offset the major decline we’d seen in the sales of Mitch Miller and Broadway show albums, and I felt the decision was profitable for the artists as well as for Columbia. I really didn’t feel any particular need to apologize for it. Inevitably, their contract came up for renegotiation and, while I didn’t detect any gratitude for my efforts to make Paul and Artie superstars, it immediately was made extremely clear to me that they expected to be paid in a way commensurate with that status. Fair enough. But the strong feelings on both sides didn’t create an ideal environment for negotiations. Eventually I gave them a royalty appropriate to their importance, and they extended their contract with Columbia.
It’s ironic that all these tensions and difficulties were occurring while we were having nothing but success. Making it even harder, I personally liked Paul and Artie a great deal both as people and as artists, and felt that I had much in common with them. During my years at Columbia there were probably no other artists I listened to more often purely for pleasure than Simon & Garfunkel. For all those reasons I began to try to repair whatever damage had been done to our relationship. Paul and I began to have lunch together, and as we grew more comfortable, he confided in me about some of the problems he was having with Artie. In particular, Artie had agreed to a role in Mike Nichols’ movie “Catch‑22,” which was being filmed in Mexico. Shooting was taking much longer than anticipated, and Paul was eager to complete work on the Bridge Over Troubled Water album. If you listen to Paul’s song “The Only Living Boy in New York” on Bridge, you can get the feel for some of the emotions he was experiencing.
Finally the album was completed and, though it took a terrible toll on Paul and Artie’s relationship, everyone was happy that it was done. I was invited to the studio to listen to the completed tracks with them and Paul’s parents and brother. Those situations can sometimes be awkward; the artists are so deeply invested in what they just played for you that if you feel any reservations at all, it’s nearly impossible to express them. That was not the case in this instance. I was moved by the beauty and power of what I heard, and it was a pleasure to tell them so. I felt privileged to be in the room.
Knowing my conviction about the importance of hit singles, the conversation quickly turned to what the first single should be. We had released “The Boxer” as a single months before the album’s release, and it had cracked the top 10. Now we were talking about the single that would announce the album and, hopefully, drive its sales. When Paul and Artie asked me what I thought, I said, “It just has to be ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water.’” They were bowled over. It was not at all a standard move to choose a big ballad as an album’s first single. They were convinced I would choose “Cecelia,” a more rollicking track that would become a top five hit a few months later. “We love ‘Bridge,’” Artie said, “and we planned to make it the album’s title song. But do you really think it could be the album’s first single?”
Clive Davis with Whitney Houston at her contract signing with Arista Records in New York, April 1983. (Photo: Ebet Roberts/Redferns/Getty Images)
Because music was getting louder and heavier -- Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix, for example -- releasing a ballad seemed like a counterintuitive strategy. And partly for that reason, it also seemed like the smartest strategy: Ignore the trend and let Simon & Garfunkel do what they do best -- create beauty, touch people’s hearts and define the cultural moment. And, most important of all, we had a stellar song that could accomplish all that. When you’ve truly got a great song, a potential all-timer, that trumps all the rules. “I can’t be absolutely positive,” I said. “But this is one time to go for a home run. It is the age of rock and this is a ballad -- and a long one at that -- but if it hits, it will become a classic.” To this day, whenever I run into Artie on the street or at an event, he never fails to say, “Remember when you picked ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ to be the single? I still can’t believe that!”
Released in January 1970 on the same day as the album to prevent any other song on the record from jumping out ahead of it to radio, “Bridge Over Troubled Water” won Grammys for song of the year and record of the year, and the album won for album of the year. The album spent 10 weeks at No. 1, and to date has sold more than 8 million copies in the United States alone. The album and song have also become markers for the end of the ’60s and its great hopes, a consolation for all that was lost.
They also became a marker for the end of the ongoing collaboration between Simon and Garfunkel. Relations between Paul and Artie had become frayed beyond repair, unfortunately. As much as anything else, it was a case of two young artists whose ambitions and egos got in the way of the brilliance of their collaboration. Artie was seeking a film career in part because of feeling overshadowed by Paul’s talents as a songwriter. Artie made about $75,000 for his role in “Catch-22,” while he made more than $1 million at the time from Bridge Over Troubled Water, so he clearly wasn’t acting for the money. Paul, on the other hand, grew jealous of the attention that Artie got as the group’s main vocalist and “frontman.” Unlike those in the know, casual fans might not realize that Paul wrote all the songs, and might view Paul merely as Artie’s accompanist. Paul has said in interviews that when audiences erupted in applause after Artie completed the bravura close to “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” he would be onstage thinking, “Yes, thank you, I wrote that song.” That’s not the way successful partners should be thinking.
So one day Paul called and said he wanted to meet with me at my office. When he arrived, he got straight to the point. “Before others find out, I want you to know that I’ve decided to split with Artie,” he said. “I don’t think we’ll be recording together again.” For all that I was aware of the difficulties they were having, I was still shocked. I was also torn in how I should respond. From a business standpoint, this was devastating news for Columbia. Simon & Garfunkel were standing in the highest tier of the most successful artists in the world at that point. They had become what I think of as an institution -- a combination that is much larger and more significant than the sum of its parts. Even if the parts are not equal, together they mean more than any individual member. Rarely do solo artists, however successful they become, enjoy a success equivalent to institutional groups they leave. More personally, I understood Paul’s frustrations, and his desire to have more control over his music. I simply believed there were ways to satisfy those concerns without breaking up the duo. I also knew how competitive Paul was and how much he valued success. It would be extremely difficult for him to achieve alone anything like the stratosphere he had reached with Simon & Garfunkel. I believed he was underestimating the challenge of what he was setting out to do, and that it was my job to be honest with him and make clear the risk he was taking.
To a degree that I didn’t fully understand at the time, Paul was not at all happy to hear this. Maybe my ideas just seemed so obvious to me that I didn’t think sufficiently about how they might affect him. I read later in an interview that Paul wanted unqualified support from me, something that for both personal and professional reasons it was impossible for me to provide. It was simple: I did not want Simon & Garfunkel to break up.
Of course, Paul has gone on to an extremely successful solo career, and there’s no doubt that he has personally lived with more fulfillment and less anguish by being able to proceed individually. I’m pleased, however, that he has also made room for occasional reunion tours with Artie. It’s an arrangement not unlike what I originally hoped he might do, though in my fantasy scenario, he and Artie would have continued to record new material. That would have been the best of both worlds. Even Graceland, Paul’s groundbreaking 1986 album, which was a commercial blockbuster, has not exceeded the staggering 14 million–plus sales of Simon & Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits. There was a magic about that duo that would be tough for anyone to beat.
And speaking of institutions and solo artists, I had a memorable encounter with the definitive example of that contrast, and it was occasioned by my going to a studio in New York in 1973 to hear an early version of Paul’s album There Goes Rhymin’ Simon. He was extremely eager to play it for me, and I was knocked out by it. “Kodachrome,” “American Tune,” “Loves Me Like a Rock” and “Something So Right” -- it seemed that one song after another was simultaneously thought-provoking and appealing. I was confident that he would do very well with it. Paul stayed in the studio to continue working on the album with the producer Roy Halee, and I left in an extremely good mood to go home.
I was still living at 88 Central Park West, and, as often happens with Jews, I got hungry for coffee and cake. So I met a friend and we went to a little coffee shop on Columbus Avenue and 72nd Street. We ordered, and as we were sitting there, my friend said, “My God, you’ll never guess who’s sitting behind us over there.” It was John Lennon and Yoko Ono. No matter how many famous people you’ve met, a Beatle sighting is definitely a big deal, particularly then and particularly with Lennon, who so often seemed to go off the radar.
We had never met, but when I turned around to look at him, he saw me and gestured with his finger for me to come over to their booth. “Oh my God,” I said. “What brings you here?” And Lennon said, “You know, we’re going to move to the Dakota,” the legendary New York building at the corner of 72nd Street and Central Park West, just a block from the café. I said, “I wish I had known you were in the neighborhood. I just came from the studio, where I heard Paul Simon’s new album. I would have loved to have heard it with you, as someone from an iconic group who’s also gone solo.”
We discussed those issues a bit, and I told him how much I liked Paul’s album. Then I asked him, “Do you listen to the radio a lot in order to keep current? Do you keep current?” I wanted to know if he kept track of what was happening when he was away from the music scene. He said, “I don’t listen to the radio at all.” I was flabbergasted. “Not at all?” I said. “When you’re not recording, you really have no interest in knowing what else is happening? Not to copy, not to be imitative, just to hear what’s going on? To see what else is out there?”
“No,” he said. “I haven’t listened to any new music at all.” Then I said to him, “You know, I’m really shocked.” He gave me one of those patented Lennon looks, half smiling, half well-aware of who he was, and he said, “Clive, let me ask you a question: Do you think Picasso went to the galleries to see what was being painted before he put a brush to canvas?” It was an unforgettable rejoinder, and a telling comment on the nature of true, unique creativity.
From the forthcoming book titled “The Soundtrack of My Life” by Clive Davis and Anthony DeCurtis. Copyright © 2013, by Clive Davis. To be published by Simon & Schuster. Printed by permission.