Carly Simon

Carly Simon

Any list of the most influential singer-songwriters to rise from that genre’s early-‘70s tsunami of talent should include Carly Simon’s name at the very top, of course, since when it comes to cooking up carefully crafted, emotionally evocative songs with palpable passion and the perfect peppering of pop panache, many musicians, music lovers and casual radio listeners think Nobody Does It Better, capitalization intended.

With a spectacularly powerful voice that both belies and bolsters the vulnerability found in many of her songs, Simon has simultaneously charmed and disarmed her listeners for over 50 years with 23 studio albums and 26 charting singles, 12 in the Top 40 and two at #1. Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in November 2022 – after being eligible since 1996 – her 1972 classic “You’re So Vain” is as etched into the cement of American pop culture as Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” is into the nation’s folk culture, and her incalculable impact on next-generation artists is evidenced by singer-songwriters like Taylor Swift and Tori Amos citing Simon as an indescribably powerful inspiration.

Born Carly Elisabeth Simon on June 25, 1943, and raised in the affluent Fieldston section of Riverdale in the Bronx, Simon grew up with two older sisters and one younger brother – Joanna (b. 1936, d. 2022), Lucy (b. 1940, d. 2022) and Peter (b. 1947, d. 2018) – in a six-story apartment building owned by her father, the co-founder of publisher Simon & Schuster. He was trained in classical piano, her mother was an amateur singer and the family spent summers on Martha’s Vineyard, the postcard-picturesque island that Simon has made her home since 1972. 

Simon began singing at around age eight in an effort to overcome a stutter and soon started writing her own songs on the ukulele, which her uncle Peter, a jazz afficionado, taught her how to play. Her musical career began in earnest in early 1963 when contralto Carly and her soprano sister Lucy formed The Simon Sisters, each playing guitar. In April 1963, just several months after forming, they signed with Kapp Records and made their television debut on the short-lived ABC show Hootenanny. In 1964, they recorded their first album, Meet the Simon Sisters, followed by Cuddlebug (1966) and The Simon Sisters Sing the Lobster Quadrille and Other Songs for Children (1969).

In mid-1970, Simon decided to pursue a solo career despite her lifelong struggle with stage fright. By November, she’d landed a deal with Elektra and was forced to face another phobia – her fear of flying – when the label scheduled her to open for Cat Stevens at The Troubadour in West Hollywood in December. The 27-year-old Simon made the trip and played the shows – her first solo appearances – without incident. 

In February 1971, Elektra released her eponymous debut album, which hit #30 in the Billboard 200 while her Grammy-nominated single “That’s the Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be” sailed to #10. In November that year, Elektra issued Simon’s second LP, Anticipation, which also went to #30 while the title track reached #13, earned her a second Grammy nomination and became an earworm for millions around the world when it was used in Heinz ketchup TV commercials from 1976-1983.

In November 1972, after winning the Best New Artist Grammy in March, Simon’s fame soared into the stratosphere with the release of No Secrets and the single “You’re So Vain,” which made Top-10 lists in 13 countries and hit #1 in the US, earning her three Grammy nominations. There’s been endless speculation about its subject – often rumored to be Mick Jagger, who sang back-up on the track – but Simon has said it was about three different men. In 2003, she auctioned off the answer for $50,000 at a charity function on the condition that the winner, television executive Dick Ebersol, not reveal it. In 2015, Simon told People magazine that the second verse is about actor Warren Beatty; she’s refused to provide further details since then.

In January 1974, Elektra released her fourth album, Hotcakes, which went to #3 while its two singles, “Mockingbird” (a duet with her then-husband James Taylor) and “Haven’t Got Time for the Pain,” hit #5 and #14 respectively. Later that year, Simon appeared on Tom Rush’s Ladies Love Outlaws LP, to which Jeff “Skunk” Baxter also contributed.

In April 1975, Elektra issued the rock-oriented LP Playing Possum, Simon’s third consecutive Top-10 album, with the lead singles “Attitude Dancing” and “Waterfall,” both going to #21. The controversial cover featuring a lingerie-clad Simon earned the album a Grammy nomination for album packaging and in November 1975 Elektra released Simon’s first greatest hits compilation.

From 1976-79, Simon recorded three more albums for Elektra with varying levels of chart success – Another Passenger (#29), Boys in the Trees (#10) and Spy (#45) – but in 1977 her rendition of “Nobody Does It Better” (composed by Marvin Hamlisch with lyrics by Carole Bayer Sager) for the film The Spy Who Loved Me reached #1. In 1979, she appeared on the live album No Nukes along with other anti-nuclear-power artists.

In 1980, Simon signed with Warner Bros. and recorded Come Upstairs, which peaked at #36, but the single “Jesse” reached #8. While juggling other production, television and film projects, Simon recorded two more albums for the label, Torch (1981, #50) and Hello Big Man (1983, #69), before recording Spoiled Girl (1985, #88) for Epic. In 1986, after signing with Arista, Simon recorded Coming Around Again which had six Top-10 singles, and in 1988 her song “Let the River Run” for the film Working Girl won an Oscar, a Grammy and a Golden Globe, making Simon the first artist to win all three for a single song. In 1988, Arista issued Greatest Hits Live, recorded on Martha’s Vineyard and now certified platinum.

In the ‘90s, while contributing to various albums, composing soundtracks and writing children’s books, Simon recorded four more albums for Arista, none of which broke the Top 40 but all of which received critical praise: My Romance (#46), Have You Seen Me Lately (#60), Letters Never Sent (#129) and Film Noir (#84). In 1993, Angel Records issued the Simon-written-and-composed Romulus Hunt: A Family Opera and in 1995 Arista released the box set Clouds in My Coffee while the cable channel Lifetime broadcast her concert video Live at Grand Central.

Following treatment for breast cancer in 1997, Simon wrote and recorded most of her next album, The Bedroom Tapes, at home. Released by Arista in May 2000, it received rave reviews and the opening track, “Our Affair,” earned her the Boston Music Award for Female Vocalist of the Year. In 2002, Rhino issued Simon’s only Christmas album, Christmas Is Almost Here (#14, Holiday Albums chart), after which she moved to Columbia and recorded two successful records, Moonlight Serenade (2005, #2) and Into White (2007, #13), before making This Kind of Love for Hear Music (2008, #15) and Never Been Gone (2009, #11, Billboard Folk) for Iris Records. In 2015, Flatiron Books published Simon’s memoir Boys in the Trees, and in 2019 FSG published her book Touched by the Sun about her decades-long friendship with Jacqueline Onassis.

Simon has appeared at a plethora of New England venues including the Orpheum Theatre, The Paradise Rock Club, the Fleet Center (formerly Boston Garden), Great Woods (now Xfinity Center), Music Inn and Gillette Stadium. Among a vast array of awards and other accolades, she was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1994 and received an honorary doctorate from Berklee College of Music in 1998.

Asked in a May 2022 interview with Rolling Stone about her nomination for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Simon said she was confused initially. “There’s that first thought of, ‘I don’t believe it. It must be the House of Pancakes I just got into,’” she said. “Truly, I was dumbfounded. I thought they must be mistaken.” And that comment proves something: When it comes to staying grounded amidst the glitz, glam and glory of the pop universe, Nobody Does It Better than Carly Simon.

(by D.S. Monahan)

Published On: December 23, 2022