Stories Behind Classic Songs, Part 6

1) The Sound of Silence was originally a failure

This will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Simon & Garfunkel’s discography, but The Sound of Silence is featured in two versions. The first is acoustic and closes side 2 of the duo’s 1964 debut album, while the second is electric and opens the follow-up to that, their 1966 eponymous album. And while both have their fans (I’ve personally always belonged to the former camp), a much more interesting comparison can be made between them from a historical point of view. When record producer Tom Wilson signed Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel to Columbia, they were still playing under the name of Kane & Garr (just another in the series of many monikers) in Greenwich folk clubs. The Sound of Silence was a highlight in their set-list, if only for the fact that it was one of the few original compositions. Three more would be written for the band’s debut album that Wilson produced, with the rest of the space being filled with folk, harmony-enhanced, singer-songwriter-vibe covers. But in the year of the British Invasion phenomenon on one hand and protest, lyric-centered folk on the other, Wednesday Morning, 3 AM couldn’t find any open niche to shine. The album only sold a few thousand copies and caused the discouraged Simon and Garfunkel to part ways – Paul moved to UK and Art returned to college studies in New York.

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‘Tom & Jerry’ was another stage name they adopted

And then two years later, something happened. A new sub-genre emerged, placing the aforementioned folk lyrics in a rhythm-section-and-electric-guitar rock context. It was aptly titled folk-rock and its two main pioneers were The Byrds and Bob Dylan. To be more exact, The Byrds took Dylan’s Mr. Tambourine Man, electrified it and jingle-jangled it up in March 1965 and then four months later Dylan responded with the legendary Like a Rolling Stone. And what do both of those songs have in common? I mean, besides birthing a whole new genre. They were both produced by the very same Tom Wilson that’d signed Simon & Garfunkel two years before. And if the duo had already lost hope, Wilson wouldn’t give up so easily. He took The Sound of Silence without its composers’ knowledge, hired a bunch of session musicians (the same from Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone except for keyboardist Al Kooper) and remixed it by adding electric guitars and a rhythm section. Riding on the new wave of music, the folk skeleton of The Sounds of Silence became folk-rock. And though it initially left Simon cold upon hearing it, the song’s topping of the Billboard charts and selling of over one million in number of copies caused the two to get back together. They started all over and proved everybody that they were not just a one-hit wonder if there ever was any doubt.

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Tom Wilson

2) Tutti Frutti originally had sexually explicit lyrics

Little Richard’s music and persona may not seem eccentric anymore these days. But that’s only because so many took the rock ‘n’ roll formula that he established and expanded on it. And so many adopted wild stage personas just to out-wild him. When Richard started out in the early 1950s, he decided right off the bat that he not be just another blues singer. Or a country one. Or just R&B or gospel. He would fuse them all in such a chaotic and off-the-bat manner that it didn’t make much sense to that generation’s parents. The kids loved it however; they could relate to the screams, the catchy choruses, the sexual vibes, the raw arrangements and just the primal urgency of it all. Rock ‘n’ roll was born and no doubt Little Richard was one of its founding fathers.

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Maybe by shouting the words in an incomprehensible manner I can avoid censorship

But if the vibe of Tutti Frutti, his break-through single, is not dirty enough on its own, Richard’s original decision was to make the lyrics as explicit as possible. The audiences of the small clubs he was touring before making it big had no problem in hearing a make-up-wearing, feminine-dressing, stage-jumping Richard shout the words “Tutti Frutti, good booty / If it don’t fit, don’t force it / You can grease it, make it easy.” They either couldn’t understand or didn’t care about any of the sexual references that made up the song’s original lyrics. Naturally, when it came to signing the rock ‘n’ roller and releasing Tutti Frutti as a single, the record company had something to object. There was a line they wouldn’t cross. Specialty producer Robert Blackwell hired an outside song-writer to write a new set of lyrics that would be deemed acceptable for the wide audiences: “Tutti Frutti, aw rooty / Tutti Frutti, aw rooty.” Luckily, this didn’t weaken the song’s immediate impact – honestly, even if the words would’ve been about fairies and marshmallows, Little Richard’s nearly-demonic performance hinted at something totally different, totally new. Something that went way beyond lyrics and chords.

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Categories: Stories Behind Classic Songs

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26 replies

  1. I had no idea there was more than one version of “Sounds of Silence.” Thanks for sharing this fascinating info!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I had Simon and Garfunkle’s original album but purchased it after the Sounds of Silence album. The two songs from these albums that are still current for me are Bleeker Street and Kathy’s song. Nobody that I know of wrote songs like that at the time. They never grow old.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I was going to say Little Richard was ahead of his time, but he was probably perfectly placed. Interesting about the Sound of Silence… Great post.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I didn’t know the full Tutti Frutti story. Makes sense given Richard’s outrageousness. Good story. Thanks.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Nice call on the irrelevance of the tutti frutti lyrics – it’s not so much what he said, but how. To borrow one of his frequent phrases, woooooo!

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Interesting read as always! I’m not a big fan of Simon & Garfunkel but I’m very familiar with Sound Of Silence. Had no idea it was tinkered with and rereleased, though. I don’t think I’m aware of the original!

    As for Little Richard, you’re spot on about the tone of the song and the performance. It really wouldn’t have mattered if he was singing about fairies and marshmallows!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Good rock ‘n’ roll should hide its dirtiness under a slightly tongue-in-cheek crypticism. See Chuck Berry’s ‘My Ding-a-ling’…
    But those original Tutti Fruitti lyrics were just too much 😉
    Enjoying these posts very much, BTW

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Reading the Simon & Garfunkel story just makes you realize what a fine line there is between success and obscurity in music.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Excellent write-up about the folk-rock genre and the background story of “The Sound of Silence.”

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Really interesting article.
    You’re absolutely right about Little Richard. His wild and raw approach was amazing and trailblazing. He’s still alive, thankfully. But he doesn’t perform anymore, as far as I know.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Ovidiu, your love of music is truly so entangled in it that I can see a grand future success writing about it. Your style is wonderful, easy to read and delightfully engaging. Your blog title really does say it all. Thank you for the follow. I’m in the middle of a transition at the moment, so I haven’t been blogging much lately.

    Listening to the Sounds of Silence again, brought back lots of memories, as I grew up in that era. I was never a Little Richard fan, and though I didn’t know much about Tutti Frutti, I’m not surprised about his unsavory lyrics; my expectations of him were not very high to begin with. Thank you for the education.

    Again, you have a most informative blog, and I can truly see your love of music in it. Keep up the great writing, and God bless you much.

    Marianne

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Hey thanks for the follow, i was just listening to the sound of silence yesterday and today im reading about its story, you have a wonderful blog here 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  13. I can imagine Paul Simon actually being livid about adding to his song. But it is quite beautiful, in the end. And now I have some juicy, original lyrics for when I’m doing housework and dancing to Tutti Frutti! Thanks for that!

    Liked by 2 people

  14. I love the sound of silence!

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Thanks for enlightening me on some of my favorite classic tunes! I look forward to learning more:)

    Liked by 1 person

  16. thanks for reading and following – i love the look and feel of your blog and look forward to doing the same ) best, beth

    Liked by 1 person

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