As a very gifted American singer-songwriter, musician, film score writer and children’s author, the beautiful and multi-talented Carly Simon first rose to fame in the 1970s with an incredible string of enduring hits.
But her life didn’t start out with a silver lining. Ignored by her publisher father and sexually abused starting at age 7, Simon was treated by many men she admired like just another conquest – even at her commercial peak. And James Taylor? The love of Carly’s life gave her two children – and a decade of dysfunctional heartbreak.
She was an artist who wore her heart on her sleeve, as narrated in the lyrics of her songs. Her Top 40 U.S. hits include “Anticipation” (No. 13), “Haven’t Got Time for the Pain” (No. 14), “You Belong to Me” (No. 6), “Coming Around Again” (No. 18), and her four Gold certified singles “You’re So Vain” (No. 1), “Mockingbird” (No. 5, a duet with James Taylor), “Nobody Does It Better” (No. 2) from the 1977 James Bond film The Spy Who Loved Me, and “Jesse” (No. 11).
The Simon Family
Carly Elizabeth Simon was born June 25, 1945, in New York City, and was raised in its Riverdale neighborhood, with two sisters and a brother. Her father, Richard L. Simon, was the co-founder of the Simon & Schuster publishing company. He was also a classical pianist who often played Chopin and Beethoven at home. Her mother was Andrea Heinemann Simon (née Heinemann), a civil rights activist and singer. Simon was raised in the Riverdale neighborhood of the Bronx, and has two elder sisters, Joanna (b. 1940) and Lucy (b. 1943), and a younger brother, Peter (1947–2018).
The Family Photo That Changed Carly Simon’s Life
My sisters drew me into music at the age of five. Like little von Trapps, Lucy and I surrounded the eldest at the piano: Joey. She had taken lessons and could read those black dots on the two rows of five lines each. Those were, and remain, something of a mystery to me. Joey (Joanna) was used to being the queen, and the queen she stayed. She borrowed sheet music from the school library and had excellent taste—and our voices suited the parts on the sheets. Lucy, the middle sister, with a very high voice, carried the melody like an angel. Joey was a perfect mezzo-soprano and sang the alto parts (eventually becoming a world-famous opera singer). Just by chance, I had a husky and very low voice. My husk spread over their clearer tones like fog muting the sharp edges of a cityscape. It was ‘good to be the glue,’ Joey told me. I went with it. Oh, what a trio we were.
Lucy and I, high and low, went on to become a college sister act—the Simon Sisters. And one of Lucy’s songs, ‘Winkin’, Blinkin’ and Nod,’ appears on my new album, Songs from the Trees, a companion to my memoir. Maybe it wasn’t just luck that our father was a terrific photographer who could so very personally witness this moment of origin: the first lesson from our eldest sister in the joys of harmony.
Simon’s career began with a short-lived music group when she formed a folk duo with her sister Lucy. They billed themselves as the Simon Sisters and managed to get work at small clubs and in coffee houses across the eastern seaboard. Carly even did Al Jolson improvisations.
They were signed to Kapp Records in 1964, and released two albums for the label that year, beginning with their debut album, Meet The Simon Sisters. They had a minor hit with the lead single, “Winkin’, Blinkin’ and Nod“, a children’s poem by Eugene Field that Lucy had put to music in 1968
In addition her very clear and strong mezzo-soprano voice, Carly has a good command of the guitar as she provides backup accompaniment.
The Simon Sisters clip is from their May 18, 1965 appearance on Oscar Brand’s Let’s Sing Out! television show.
In 1965, traveling home from London, the Simon Sisters discovered they were on the same ship as Sean Connery, already famous as James Bond.
Carly wrote him a cheeky letter suggesting they could meet, and the three of them ended up spending most of the trip together, dining and primly reciting poetry. The sisters became friends with the then-35-year-old actor, and after having drinks with him one night, met him in his cabin. There, he proposed having a ménage-à-trois — or as one of Carly’s friends called it, a “Simon sisters sandwich,” – but they turned him down.
On the last night of their trip with Connery, however, Lucy successfully made her move with him — which Carly took as a sign that it was time to start looking beyond the sister duo. Lucy eventually left the act and married a physician.
[Could it have been this experience with Connery that inspired Simon to write the lyrics for “Three Of Us In The Dark” which would be ultimately recorded for her 1980 Come Upstairs album?]
The debut album contained her breakthrough top-ten hit “That’s the Way I Always Heard It Should Be” which won her the Best New Artist Grammy Award and set the stage for an enormously successful career.
This was an art song written by Simon with a semiclassical melody. Her friend and frequent collaborator Jacob Brackman wrote the lyrics * with personal subject matter that included “the parents’ bad marriage; the friends’ unhappy lives; the boyfriend’s enthusiasm for marriage but controlling nature; the woman’s initial resistance and ultimate capitulation.“
Looks like Art Garfunkle was in the audience for this live performance.
The success of this song propelled Simon into the limelight. The song peaked at No. 10 on the Billboard charts, and earned her a nomination for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance at the 14th Annual Grammy Awards. The album itself peaked at No. 30, and Simon won Best New Artist at the same ceremony.
* Carly claims that she has a difficult time adding words to a melody already written, but if she starts out with the words, the melody comes naturally.
Her second album, Anticipation, came in November of that same year.
Like its predecessor, this album peaked at No. 30. Its lead single, also titled “Anticipation“, became a huge hit, reaching No. 3 at Easy Listening radio and No. 13 on Billboard’s Pop singles chart. It earned Simon a second nomination for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance, at the 15th Annual Grammy Awards.
Carly wrote the song “Anticipation” in 15 minutes, precipitated by waiting for Cat Stevens to meet her for a date.
The pair became romantically involved shortly after Simon had opened for Stevens at L.A.’s Troubadour around the time her debut album was released.
Simon scored the biggest success of her career in 1972–73, with “You’re So Vain“.
When Simon was recording the backing vocals Mick Jagger called up the studio phone: He was pursuing Simon and had tracked her down. Minutes later, he was at the microphone with her. “It was shortly after midnight,” Simon writes.
Mick and I, we were close together — the same height, same coloring, same lips. I felt as if I were trying to stay within a pink gravity that was starting to loosen its silky grip on me. I was thrilled by the proximity, remembering all the times I had spent imitating him in front of my closet mirror.
It hit No. 1 on the U.S. Pop and Adult Contemporary charts, and sold over a million copies in the United States alone. It was one of the decade’s biggest hits and propelled Simon’s breakthrough album No Secrets to No. 1 on the U.S. album charts, where it stayed for five consecutive weeks.
The subject of the “You’re So Vain” song itself became one of the biggest mysteries in popular music, with the famous lyric “You’re so vain/I bet you think this song is about you“.
[In November 2015, Simon would promote her about-to-be-published memoir, and say, “I have confirmed that the second verse is Warren” and added that while “Warren thinks the whole thing is about him, he is the subject only of that verse, with the remainder of the song referring to two other, still unnamed men.”]
The follow-up single, “The Right Thing to Do“, was another sizable hit later in 1973, reaching No. 4 on the Adult Contemporary chart and No. 17 on the Pop chart.
In 1974, Simon followed the smash No Secrets album with Hotcakes, which became an instant hit, reaching No. 3 on Billboard’s Album Chart and was certified Gold.
Hotcakes included “Haven’t Got Time For The Pain” / Top 40 U.S. Hits #14
Enter James Taylor…
Another major hit for Hotcakes album was “Mockingbird“, a duet with her then-husband James Taylor
James Taylor and Carly Simon were rock’s ultimate power couple in the ’70s. They met at the Troubadour in Los Angeles on April 6, 1971.
According to Timothy White’s Long Ago and Far Away: James Taylor — His Life and Music, the pair was already somewhat familiar with each other. Taylor knew of the Simon Sisters, a mid-’60s folk duo Carly formed with her sister Lucy and which frequently performed in Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., where Taylor’s family had a summer home; Simon knew of Taylor’s reputation as one of the cool kids around town. More recently, she had seen his photo on the March 1, 1971, cover of Time magazine and said to her sister, “I’m going to marry that man.”
Read More: The Day James Taylor Met Carly Simon
In 1977, Simon had an international hit with the million-selling gold single “Nobody Does It Better“, the theme to the James Bond film The Spy Who Loved Me.
This song was her second-biggest U.S. hit (after “You’re So Vain“) and was 1977’s biggest Adult Contemporary hit. It held the No. 1 position for seven straight weeks.
Simon’s career took another upward swing in 1978 with the hit album Boys in the Trees.
The album produced two Top 40 singles; the jazzy and sensual “You Belong to Me“, which hit the Top 10 on both the Pop and Adult Contemporary charts, and “Devoted to You“, a duet with James Taylor.
On November 2, 1978, Simon guested on the song “I Live in the Woods” at a live, four-hour concert by Burt Bacharach and the Houston Symphony Orchestra at Jones Hall in Houston, Texas.
All the songs at that concert became Bacharach’s album Woman, which was released in 1979.
In 1979, Simon released her last album for Elektra, entitled Spy.
The albums sales were a disappointment, peaking at only No. 45 on the Pop albums chart, although a hard-edged single from the album, “Vengeance“, became a modest hit and received airplay on U.S. album rock stations, and peaked at No. 48 on the Pop singles chart.
The album also features a track entitled “Never Been Gone“, which became a fan favorite, as well as one of Carly’s personal favorites.
1980 saw yet another album, Come Upstairs, the first of three released with Warner Brothers. It had a harder, more rock-oriented sound than her previous works.
The track “Jesse” was a major hit: it remained on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart for six months, peaking at No. 11
In 1986, Simon signed with Arista Records and soon rebounded from her career slump. She wrote the theme for the motion picture Heartburn, “Comin’ Around Again” and her career was revitalized.
In 1987 the song was a big hit and her first album for the Arista label was a best-seller and charted well over a year.
The Coming Around Again album also featured the Top 10 Adult Contemporary hits “Give Me All Night“, “The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of” and “All I Want Is You” (which featured Roberta Flack on backing vocals)
The album also included a cover of “As Time Goes By” (featuring Stevie Wonder on harmonica).
This album was Carly’s first Gold release in nine years, and went Platinum in 1988.
Simon is the first artist to win all three major awards (Oscar, Golden Globe and Grammy) for a song that is composed and written, as well as performed, entirely by a single artist. The Working Girl soundtrack album was released in August 1989, and featured more music from Simon.
The film’s main theme, “Let the River Run“, was written and performed by Carly Simon.
In 1992, Simon wrote the music for the Nora Ephron film This Is My Life, which included the song “Love of My Life“, a No. 16 Adult Contemporary hit.
In 1993, she contributed the song “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning” to the film Sleepless in Seattle
Also in 1993 Carly recorded the same song in combination with “Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out to Dry” with Frank Sinatra for his album Duets. By this point, Sinatra’s health was too poor for him to record, so the feat was accomplished by producers lifting an isolated prerecorded vocal track from an earlier performance and laying a new background – and Simon – behind it.
Many more albums and writing for film scores followed. Then in 2005, she released her fourth album of standards, titled Moonlight Serenade.
A surprise hit, it reached No. 7 on the Billboard Album charts, her highest-charting album since Boys in the Trees, and she was nominated for the Grammy Award for Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album. To promote Moonlight Serenade, Simon performed two concerts on board the RMS Queen Mary 2 which were recorded and released on DVD in 2005 as A Moonlight Serenade on the Queen Mary 2.
In 2007, Simon released her fifth album of covers, a collection of “soothing songs and lullabies” called Into White for Columbia Records.
The collection featured covers of songs by Cat Stevens, the title track…
Carly covered James Taylor’s song “You Can Close Your Eyes” on this album with ex-husband Taylor as a duet.
Also recordings by Judy Garland, the Beatles and the Everly Brothers, as well as two new original songs, “Quiet Evening” and “I’ll Just Remember You“, and a re-recording of Simon’s own “Love of My Life“.
Simon’s experience as a mother inspired her to record a song for a children’s album that won a Best Recording for Children Grammy in 1980: In Harmony/A Sesame Street Record. The track was called “Be With Me“.
Simon also added Author of Children’s Books to her long list of accomplishments in 1989 with the publication of Amy the Dancing Bear.
Since then, Carly has published several more titles, including 1997’s Midnight Farm.
Breast Cancer Survivor
Simon underwent a mastectomy, chemotherapy and reconstructive surgery for breast cancer during 1997 and 1998. There had been a lump in her breast for several years, but her doctors had advised against surgery. Simon later recounted: “Then one doctor said, ‘You know what, I’d rather see it in a jar than in your breast.‘” She also said that she felt “a little angry with myself” that she did not insist on taking it out sooner. Simon’s surgery came at the same time as the death of her long-time friend Linda McCartney, who had also struggled with breast cancer. Simon described McCartney’s death as having emotionally “crushed” her.
Super Talented Yet Fragile
Simon deserved better than how she was treated, which she lays out in her new memoir, “Boys in the Trees.” She was sexually exploited for years starting at the age of 7. She had a liberated attitude towards intimate relationships. Some readers may look upon this attitude as being promiscuous. For her, in some cases it became a two-way street; mutual fun and satisfaction. Also, the era of the 1960s and 70s was a time of “free love”, as they called it. But Carly admits that there were encounters where she felt unattractive and afraid of being regarded as just another notch on a belt.
- 1971: Carly Simon
- 1971: Anticipation
- 1972: No Secrets
- 1974: Hotcakes
- 1975: Playing Possum
- 1976: Another Passenger
- 1978: Boys in the Trees
- 1979: Spy
- 1980: Come Upstairs
- 1981: Torch
- 1983: Hello Big Man
- 1985: Spoiled Girl
- 1987: Coming Around Again
- 1990: My Romance
- 1990: Have You Seen Me Lately
- 1994: Letters Never Sent
- 1997: Film Noir
- 2000: The Bedroom Tapes
- 2005: Moonlight Serenade
- 2007: Into White
- 2008: This Kind of Love
- 2009: Never Been Gone