How "The Sound of Silence" Saved Simon and Garfunkel

Simon and his childhood buddy Garfunkel, right, were originally defiant East Village folkies. Keystone/Getty

Simon and Garfunkel—singer-songwriter Paul Simon and singer Art Garfunkel—were one of the most popular recording acts of the 1960s, but their recording career got off to a wobbly start. Wednesday Morning, 3 AM, their first album, was released by Columbia Records on October 19, 1964, and tanked initially, with sales rumored to be less than 1,000 copies nationally, which had them thinking their career as a duo was over.

When Paul Simon came to New York City in April, he and Art Garfunkel met with their producer, Tom Wilson, who filled them in on the latest excitement in the Columbia Records offices: Bob Dylan had hired a rock band to play on his just-released album, Bringing It All Back Home, while the just-signed Byrds had released their sparklingly electric cover of Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man." Wilson, who had produced both records, said to Simon and Garfunkel, Why don't you guys give it a try too?

Simon was a folk purist, but he got to work on this new assignment and came up with the swaggering "Somewhere They Can't Find Me," which he and Garfunkel recorded with a full rock band—guitars, percussion, a horn. The two spent the rest of the session on another minor-chord rocker, sung this time by a lover determined to keep his baby from leaving him because, as the title asserts (with eccentric spelling) "We've Got a Groovey Thing Goin'."

Columbia didn't like the songs and refused to release them as a single. That and the dismal sales for their album seemed to mean "Simon and Garfunkel" was over. Simon went back to England, where he had been touring as a solo act. Garfunkel spent the summer traveling in Europe and prepared for another year of labor on his Ph.D. in mathematics at Columbia University.

Bringing It All Back Home put Dylan on Billboard 's U.S. and U.K. album charts, and the Byrds' version of "Mr. Tambourine Man" hit the top of the singles charts. Wilson's reputation soared too, but he was still sensitive about the colossal failure of Wednesday Morning, 3 AM, so when Stan Kavan, the label's chief of promotions, buttonholed him in the hall to tell him the album had sold 1,000 copies, Wilson grimaced. He'd heard that sad number months earlier. He knew the record was a flop, he told Kavan: No need to rub it in, man. The executive laughed. He wasn't talking about that 1,000 copies. He was talking about the 1,000 copies the album had just sold in Miami. Did Wilson have any idea why?

He didn't, but the answer soon found him. A burst of Wednesday Morning, 3 AM sales in Dallas that February hadn't impressed anyone in the label's New York headquarters; nor did that Miami outbreak in early May. Instead, Columbia told Southeast region distributor Mark Weiner to forget about that folk music flop and spend his time on records that actually had a chance. But Weiner wouldn't shut up about it and knew the surge in sales in Dallas and Miami was because of one song off Wednesday Morning, 3 AM, "The Sound of Silence." It hadn't been released as a single, but Weiner knew that once a radio station played the song, listeners rushed out to buy the album. The big Columbia execs didn't believe him, but when Weiner saw Wilson at a company meeting, he gave him a suggestion. Instead of releasing the original "Silence" as a single, get some electric guitars and drums on the track and make it a folk-rock record.

"Homeward Bound: The Life of Paul Simon," by Peter Ames Carlin. Henry Holt and Company

A few weeks later, at a Dylan recording session, Wilson asked a few of the musicians to stay late to help him on a small project. He played them the original acoustic recording of "The Sound of Silence" and then gave them a little while to figure out parts for electric guitar, electric piano, bass and drums. When they were ready, it took only a few tries to get it onto tape. Wilson didn't need permission to alter the record and waited until the session was over to tell Garfunkel what he was up to. Garfunkel shrugged it off—"I was mildly amused, and detached with the certainty that it was not a hit," he said later. He passed on the news of the recording session in a letter to Simon in London, who had almost exactly the same response.

Columbia released the new "Sound of Silence" 45 on September 13. The record broke across Boston radio stations a few weeks later and soon spread to other cities. It made the lower reaches of the Billboard national charts in October, and as it drew closer to the Hot 100 in November, Garfunkel called Simon to say that something had started to happen. Simon was delighted—or he didn't pay it much mind, or he was thoroughly outraged. His recollection of that key moment in his career seemed to depend on whom he was talking to, and when.

When Simon's copy of the record was delivered to London that fall, fellow folkie Al Stewart was there to witness his flatmate's anger and angst. He was furious!—Columbia was so determined to make Simon and Garfunkel pop stars that they had taken Simon's very serious song and dressed it up in a clown suit, he said. Simon hated folk-rock: Dylan, the Byrds, Sonny and Cher, all of it. Folk wasn't supposed to be commercial; that was the whole point. "I'd rather not have a hit at all than a hit with a folk-rock song," he declared.

But Simon's biggest problem with the record that afternoon was that he couldn't get it to play. The record player in the flat had only the thin 33 rpm spindle, and because all British records were that size, they didn't have one of those plastic doodads that filled in the wider hole of American 45s. Stewart helped Simon fashion a 45 adapter with coins, beads and other random bits, but they could see the disc going a bit wobbly on the turntable. No matter. Simon thumbed the needle into the groove. And of course the single sounded off: the drums quavering, the guitars out of tune. Stewart says Simon's cheeks went red. What the fuck is that?

With Stewart watching, Simon called the Columbia Records offices in New York and demanded they withdraw the record as soon as possible. He could do a much better job electrifying the song, he said; just give him a shot. The voice on the other end tried to soothe him: Did Simon know the record was No. 1 in Boston and catching fire all over New England? Why didn't he take a week to think it over?

Seven days later, Simon called back, and this time the record executive laughed at him. "The Sound of Silence" was now No. 1 all over New England, had jumped into Billboard's top 50 and was a good bet to hit No. 1 nationally. Instead of complaining, he needed to get his ass on an airplane, get back to New York. "So that's when it sort of hit him," Stewart says. "And then he did get on an airplane and buggered off for New York."

By January 1966, "The Sound of Silence" had sold over 1 million copies. Simon and Garfunkel went on to be one of the biggest folk-rock acts of the '60s; they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990.


Excerpted from Homeward Bound: The Life of Paul Simon by Peter Ames Carlin, published by Henry Holt and Co. Copyright © 2016 by Peter Ames Carlin. All rights reserved.