“It’s going to be like being in my living room. I’ll play some songs, tell some stories… real warm and relaxed I hope,” says John Simon about his performance at 8 p.m. Saturday, May 14 at The Kleinert-James Center for the Arts, 36 Tinker Street, Woodstock. Simon will be performing some of his songs and reading from his working manuscript, Truth, Lies and Hearsay — A memoir of a Musical Life in and Out of Music.
John Simon name may not be a household word, yet the breadth of recordings that he has produced over the 50 or so years scans like a walk of fame of the music industry, whose albums continue to sell.
Often referred to as the “sixth member of The Band,” Simon’s copious productions include the first two absolute classic records by The Band. “Nothing got on those records that didn’t pass through all six of us,” he says. Just producing The Band alone would be a crowning achievement for most people, not for Simon.
Bass player Harvey Brooks, who played with everyone from Dylan to Hendrix worked with Simon on sessions including The Electric Flag and Mama Cass ‘s “Dream A Little Dream of Me” called him “the consummate producer, musician and arranger. We worked on many projects together and he always got the best out of me.”
At the age of four Simon’s father, a surgeon, encouraged him to play piano. “I also learned other instruments when I was in high school so that I could play in the high school band. I can play a lot of instruments, you know.” Simon played baritone horn on The Band’s “Tears of Rage” and the Tuba on “Rag Mama Rag” as well as the stunning piano on “Sad and Deep” on Dave Mason’s classic debut record Alone Together. “There was a time when I just played on a lot of records. Me, like everybody else, would show up just to have my name on the session.
“I just progressed like any other kid would on piano learning my Hayden, Clementi, Mozart and Beethoven. When I was a teenager I got interested in jazz and asked my dad to find me a piano teacher who could teach me jazz,” he says. “I found this great local teacher up there who kept me going on the classical music as well as learning the boogie woogie.”
Simon has always retained his great respect for classical music, where his roots are. “The idea that these composers can, out of their own heads, use such a broad pallet to make such a wide range of sounds, every instrument in the orchestra and how they combine? These days it’s a lot simpler because people have computer programs so they can try out what they sound like, everything is so different. I mean music used to be a blind idiom. There was no visual. The only time that you could see music being played was if you went to a concert or at somebody’s back porch where somebody was playing. There never was any visual attached to it. Then once MTV came out it was music videos then music changed completely, the audience demanded visual stimulus as much as audio stimulus.” As far as recording, “it’s pretty much the same thing. It used to be that you had to record live, there was no overdubbing or that kind of stuff. You just recorded live. Then Les Paul with all his brilliance figured how to layer things with his tape machines and his Les Paul guitar, and Mary Ford, recording with tons of guitars and people, just the two of them making records. He opened the door for multi-track recording and that became an art in itself.”
After graduating from Princeton, Simon took a job at Columbia Records. “I was hired as a trainee and they taught me how to do everything. Then they started assigning artists to me that nobody else wanted because they weren’t profitable. I got artists like Frankie Yankovic — America’s Polka King, and Charles Lloyd, he hadn’t become famous yet.” It didn’t take long until Ken Glancy, “an angel from heaven,” moved John from the Classical Music Department to the Pop Music Department.
In 1966, things would change when Simon produced the hit single for The Cyrkle. “Red Rubber Ball” was to become number two on the Billboard 100 charts and sell over one million copies. The song was co-written by Paul Simon (no relation), who John would later produce with Art Garfunkel on the incredible Bookends, which also went platinum twice with a number one hit single, “Mrs. Robinson.”
“They were the very best people. We shared so many of the same sensibilities. They were clever and bright, funny and sarcastic, musical, no friction at all with Paul and Artie. Nothing was good or went on the album without both of their approval.”
Due to scheduling problems with Bookends, Simon was assigned one of the artists that “nobody else wanted because they weren’t profitable,” Canadian poet Leonard Cohen.
“Leonard Cohen was supposed to be recorded by John Hammond but Hammond was scheduling sessions too far apart for Leonard, so Leonard asked Columbia to give him another producer and we were assigned to work together. It was a joy to work with Leonard Cohen. He was much more a man as opposed to all these other groups that I worked with that were kids. He was not that much older in age but that much older in experience and street craft.”
Many of Simon’s experiences come to life in his three-hundred-page manuscript “Truth, Lies and Hearsay.” John Simon, the writer, confesses, “I get letters, emails from fans and listeners and they say that they like what I am doing. Often they are housewives, truck drivers or accountants. One of them that I got was from a manager for Red Light Management, one of the top two or three management companies in the country. When a manager says ‘is anything that I can do to help you out?’ let me know. You call him back.” So Simon did and was encouraged to play Joe’s Pub (in New York City) and do some other concerts — and write a book.
“I wasn’t too excited about it because so many other people have labored in the vineyards and poppy fields and marijuana fields of rock and roll who have actually hung out with the people more than I did so they had much more lurid tales.”
Music to Simon meant something different. “It was like a day job to me, I had a family and I would do my rock and roll and then go home to my family. As I started writing, more and more memories came up and they were interesting to people. I just finished the last draft of it but it’s way too long for my tastes. I did a lot of the illustrations in it, photographs, so it’s 300 pages and I think that it should be 50 pages. I would rather have 50 dynamite pages than 300. My next step is to cut it back down again.”
Simon plans to read from his manuscript at the Kleinert, and one of the stories he recites will be the 22nd chapter, “The Most Important Date in Rock and Roll” — “and it’s not Elvis Birthday or when Mick Jagger reached puberty.” Not to spoil the surprise, you’ll just have to come Saturday night to hear Simon tell it as only he can.
He still remains very active today, writing music and working on various projects. He recently completed accompanying text in Elliott Landy’s latest book, “The Band Photographs 1968-1969. He’s also working on a new show with his wife C.C. Loveheart, an actress and a major talent in her own right. The show is about C.C. growing up in Las Vegas and her going to watch the atom bomb test as a child. “We are just finishing up a play now called The Amazing Sunshine Traveling Medicine Show set in 1921 and it’s a musical we will be putting it out next summer at the Shadowland theater in Ellenville and then New York City.”
Simon can also be seen every Thursday night in Ellenville at The Aroma Thyme Bistro with his Jazz trio at 7 p.m.
“So I am really enjoying writing. You can’t dry up the fountain, I’ll always keep writing.”
An Evening with John Simon, takes place at 8 p.m. Saturday, May 14 at the Kleinert/James Center for the Arts, 36 Tinker Street, Woodstock.
Tickets are $20, and $18 for Byrdcliffe members. To purchase tickets, call 679-2079 or see ulsterpub.staging.wpengineguild.org/johnsimon.html.