Graceland is the seventh solo studio album by American singer-songwriter Paul Simon. It was produced by Simon, engineered by Roy Halee and released on August 25, 1986, by Warner Bros. Records.
In the early 1980s, Simon’s relationship with his former musical partner Art Garfunkel had deteriorated, his marriage to actress Carrie Fisher had collapsed, and his previous record, Hearts and Bones (1983), had been a commercial failure. In 1984, after a period of depression, Simon became fascinated by a bootleg cassette of South African township music. He and Halee visited Johannesburg, where they spent two weeks recording with South African musicians.
Recorded in 1985 and 1986, Graceland features an eclectic mixture of genres, including pop, rock, a cappella, zydeco, isicathamiya, and mbaqanga. Simon created new compositions inspired by the recordings made in Johannesburg, collaborating with African and American artists. He received criticism for breaking the cultural boycott imposed against South Africa because of its policy of apartheid. Following its completion, Simon toured alongside South African musicians, performing their music and songs from Graceland.
Graceland became Simon’s most successful studio album and his highest-charting album in over a decade; it is estimated to have sold up to 16 million copies worldwide. It was lauded by critics, won the 1987 Grammy Award for Album of the Year, and is frequently cited as one of the best albums of all time. In 2006, it was added to the United States’ National Recording Registry as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically important”.
Following the 1970s, in which he had released a series of hit records, Simon fell on hard times. His relationship with his former musical partner Art Garfunkel had again deteriorated; his sixth solo studio album, Hearts and Bones (1983), achieved the lowest sales of his career; and his marriage to actress Carrie Fisher collapsed. “I had a personal blow, a career setback, and the combination of the two put me into a tailspin,” he recalled.
In 1984, Simon became fascinated with a bootleg cassette tape, Gumboots: Accordion Jive Hits, Volume II, loaned to him by Heidi Berg, a singer-songwriter with whom he was working as a producer. He described it as “very good summer music, happy music”, and said it reminded him of 1950s rhythm and blues. He began improvising melodies over it as he listened in his car.
Simon asked his contacts at his label, Warner, to identify the artists on the tape. Through South African record producer Hilton Rosenthal, Warner confirmed that the music was South African and played by either the vocal group Ladysmith Black Mambazo or the Boyoyo Boys.[nb 1] “I first thought, ‘Too bad it’s not from Zimbabwe, Zaire, or Nigeria.’ Life would have been more simple,” Simon said at the time.
Simon considered buying the rights to his favourite song on the tape, “Gumboots”, and using it to write his own song, as he had with the song “El Condor Pasa” in the 70s. Instead, Rosenthal suggested that Simon record an album of South African music, and sent him dozens of records from South African artists.
In the 1980s, recording in South Africa was dangerous, and the United Nations had imposed a cultural boycott for its policy of apartheid. This forced “all states to prevent all cultural, academic, sporting and other exchanges” with South Africa and ordered “writers, artists, musicians and other personalities” to boycott it. Nonetheless, Simon resolved to go to South Africa, and told The New York Times: “I knew I would be criticized if I went, even though I wasn’t going to record for the government … or to perform for segregated audiences. I was following my musical instincts in wanting to work with people whose music I greatly admired.”
Before leaving for Johannesburg, Simon contributed to “We Are the World”, a charity single benefiting African famine relief. Simon spoke to producers Quincy Jones and Harry Belafonte about recording in South Africa, who encouraged him to do it. The South African black musicians’ union also voted to let Simon come, as it could benefit their culture’s music, placing it on an international stage. At the time, musicians in Johannesburg were typically paid $15 an hour; Simon arranged to pay them $200 an hour, around triple the rate for top players in New York City. Simon said he “wanted to be as above board as I could possibly be”, as many of the musicians did not know who he was and would not be lured by the promise of royalties alone. He also offered writer’s royalties to those he felt had contributed particularly to compositions.
In February 1985, Simon and his longtime engineer Roy Halee flew to Johannesburg, intending their visit to be secret. Recording sessions took place at Ovation Studios. Halee had feared the studio would be a “horror show”, but was surprised to find it “very comfortable”. The studio was reminiscent of a garage, which Halee feared would be a problem for recording, and none of the musicians wore headphones.
Rosenthal used his connections to assemble the variety of musicians who had inspired Simon, including Lulu Masilela, Tao Ea Matsekha, General M. D. Shirinda and the Gaza Sisters, and the Boyoyo Boys Band. Jam sessions ranged from 10 to 30 minutes, with Simon and Halee intending to assemble an album from them upon their return home. Though the playing style was technically simple, Simon found it difficult to mimic. Outside the studio, the general public was hostile toward Simon, but the Musician’s Union received him warmly. At the end of the two-week trip, Simon found himself relieved of his former personal turmoil and with a revitalized passion for music.
Though Simon described the recording sessions as “euphoric”, he recalled “tension below the surface” due to the effects of apartheid. When recording sessions continued into the evening, the musicians would become tense, as they were not allowed to use public transportation or be on the streets after curfew. Simon recalled, “In the middle of the euphoric feeling in the studio, you would have reminders that you’re living in incredibly tense racial environment, where the law of the land was apartheid.”
Simon and Halee spent around two weeks recording in Johannesburg before returning to the Hit Factory studio in New York City to edit the material. Simon flew several South African musicians to New York to complete the record three months after the original sessions in Johannesburg. These sessions resulted in “You Can Call Me Al” and “Under African Skies”.
Simon began writing lyrics at his home in Montauk, New York, while listening to the recordings. The process was slow, but he determined he had sufficient material to begin re-recording the tracks. He played the tracks backward to “enhance their sound”, interspersing gibberish to complete the rhythms.
He brought together guest musicians including American singer Linda Ronstad and his childhood heroes the Everly Brothers. Simon’s trip to Louisiana with Richard Landry led to the recording of “That Was Your Mother” with local band Good Rockin’ Dopsie and the Twisters. After seeing the group at a dance hall in Lafayette, he recorded the song with them at a small studio behind a music store. He felt that the accordion, central to zydeco, would make a pleasing transition back to his own culture. Afterward, he contacted Mexican-American band Los Lobos, with whom he recorded “All Around the World or The Myth of Fingerprints” in Los Angeles.
Engineer Roy Halee edited the album with new digital technology, transferring analog tape recordings to the digital workspace countless times. He said: “The amount of editing that went into that album was unbelievable … without the facility to edit digital, I don’t think we could have done that project.” He used tape echo and delay on every song, and paid particular attention to the bass, saying: “The bassline is what the album is all about. It’s the essence of everything that happened.” Each song was mixed in about two days at the Hit Factory, where most of the vocal overdubs were recorded.
Warner executives were uninterested in the project, viewing Simon as a bad investment due to the failure of his previous two solo albums. The label was much more invested in Prince and Madonna, viewing Simon as a has-been. Simon felt their indifference to him worked in his favor, as it gave him more freedom. According to Halee, he believed executives at the label viewed the duo as “crazy” (by wikipedia)
With Graceland, Paul Simon hit on the idea of combining his always perceptive songwriting with the little-heard mbaqanga music of South Africa, creating a fascinating hybrid that re-enchanted his old audience and earned him a new one. It is true that the South African angle (including its controversial aspect during the apartheid days) was a powerful marketing tool and that the catchy music succeeded in presenting listeners with that magical combination: something they’d never heard before that nevertheless sounded familiar. As eclectic as any record Simon had made, it also delved into zydeco and conjunto-flavored rock & roll while marking a surprising new lyrical approach (presaged on some songs on Hearts and Bones); for the most part, Simon abandoned a linear, narrative approach to his words, instead drawing highly poetic (“Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes”), abstract (“The Boy in the Bubble”), and satiric (“I Know What I Know”) portraits of modern life, often charged by striking images and turns of phrase torn from the headlines or overheard in contemporary speech. An enormously successful record, Graceland became the standard against which subsequent musical experiments by major artists were measured. (by William Ruhlmann)
Demola Adepoju (pedal-steel guitar)
Bakiti Kumalo (bass)
David W. Bargeron (trombone)
Adrian Belew (guitar synthesizer)
Steve Berlin (saxophone)
Randy Brecker (horn)
Ronald E. Brecker (trumpet)
Ronald E. Cuber (saxophone)
Jon Faddis (trumpet)
Babacar Faye (percussion)
Alex Foster (saxophone)
Steve Gadd (drums)
Earl Gardner (trumpet)
Morris Goldberg (penny whistle, saxophone)
David Hildago (accordion, guitar, vocals)
Johnny Hoyt (saxophone)
Alonzo Johnson (bass)
Vusi Khumalo (drums)
Kim Allan Cissel (trombone)
Bakithi Kumalo (bass)
Lloyd Lelose (bass)
Lewis Michael Soloff (trumpet)
Conrad Lozano (bass)
Ralph MacDonald (percussion)
Makhaya Mahlangu (percussion)
Mike Makhalemele (saxophone)
Petrus Manile (drums)
Lulu Masilela (tambourine)
Jonhjon Mkhaladi (accordion)
Forere Motloheloa (accordion)
Rob Mounsey (synthesizer)
Isaac Mtshali (drums)
Youssou N’Dour (percussion)
Teaspoon Ndlela (saxophone)
Louie Pérez (drums)
Chikapa “Ray” Phiri (guitar)
Leonard Pickett (saxophone)
Barney Rachabane (saxophone)
Sherman Robertson (guitar)
Cesar Rosas (guitar, vocals)
Alan Rubin (trumpet)
Alton Rubin (accordion)
Alton Rubin Jr. (drums)
David Rubin (washboard)
Joseph Shabalala (vocals)
Paul Simon (vocals, guitar, bass, synclavier)
Assane Thaim (percussion)
Daniel Xilakazi (guitar)
Michele Cobbs – Diane Garisto – Linda Ronstadt Guest Artist, Vocals
The Everly Brothers – Gaza Sisters – Ladysmith Black Mambazo (vocals)
01. The Boy In The Bubble (Motloheloa/Simon) 3.59
02. Graceland (Simon) 4.51
03. I Know What I Know (Shirinda/Simon) 3.13
04. Gumboots (Masilela/Mkhaladi/Simon) 2.45
05. Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes (Shabalala/Simon) 5.48
06. You Can Call Me Al (Simon) 4.40
07. Under African Skies (Simon) 3.37
08. Homeless (Shabalala/Simon) 3.48
09. Crazy Love, Vol. II (Simon) 4.19
10. That Was Your Mother (Simon) 2.52
11. All Around The World Or The Myth of Fingerprints (Simon) 3.15