Today (8.25.2016) marks the 30th anniversary of the release of Paul Simon’s seventh solo studio album and masterpiece, GRACELAND. After Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel parted ways in 1970, Paul embarked on a successful solo career in the 1970s, picking up multiple Gold and Platinum albums, five Top 10 hits on the BILLBOARD Hot 100 – including two No. 2 hits (1973’s “Kodachrome” and “Love Me Like A Rock”), and a No. 1 single (1975’s “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover”).
The first half of the 80s were not as good to Paul Simon – his 1980 film and soundtrack for ONE TRICK PONY did not fare well (though “Late In The Evening” reached the Top 10), nor did his follow-up album, HEARTS AND BONES. Paul’s marriage to Carrie Fisher (HEARTS AND BONES was about their relationship) lasted less than a year (they had dated for six years before that).
Sometime after the divorce, Paul Simon became interested and intrigued by the music of South Africa. Before leaving with his co-producer, Roy Halee, for a two-week trip to Johannesburg, South Africa, to work with musicians there, he was talked into contributing to the historic recording of “We Are The World” (Paul was the third person to sing on the song).
At that recording, Paul asked the charity song’s organizers, Quincy Jones (who produced the song) and Harry Belafonte, if he should make the trip (it was right around the time of the Apartheid backlash and “Sun City”), and they both encouraged him to go. Personally, I don’t think Paul Simon broke any “cultural boycott” in recruiting South African musicians for the recording of GRACELAND. If anything, I think he just wanted to share what he discovered with the rest of the world. And share he did.
GRACELAND would win the Grammy Award for Album Of The Year, it would reach No. 3 on BILLBOARD’s album chart and has sold more than 16 million copies worldwide since its release. In 2007, GRACELAND was added to the National Recording Registry, for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically important.”
The response to GRACELAND was unbelievable – it was universally loved by fans and critics alike. ROLLING STONE’s Rob Tannebaum called GRACELAND “lovely, daring and accomplished.” The magazine would later say that GRACELAND is “an album about isolation and redemption that transcended ‘world music’ to become the whole world’s soundtrack.” High praise indeed.
Musicians were also mesmerized by GRACELAND. The late, great Joe Strummer of The Clash brilliantly said this about the album in a 1988 interview: “I don’t like the idea that people who aren’t adolescents make records. Adolescents make the best records. Except for Paul Simon. Except for GRACELAND. He’s hit a new plateau there, but he’s writing to his own age group. GRACELAND is something new. That song to his son [“That Was Your Mother”] is just as good as ‘Blue Suede Shoes’: ‘Before you were born dude when life was great.’ That’s just as good as ‘Blue Suede Shoes,’ and that is a new dimension.”
The fourth single released from GRACELAND is the gorgeous “Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes,” with guest vocals by South African choral music legends Ladysmith Black Mambazo, an act that’s been around since 1960 and still going strong today. GRACELAND introduced the rest of the world (and yours truly) outside of South Africa to Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
While in South Africa, Paul Simon wrote this song with Joseph Shabalala of Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Paul finished the album in New York City, but not without bringing the South African artists back with him. And on May 10, 1986, Ladysmith Black Mambazo performed (singing in Zulu) with Paul on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE. The Zulu to English translation is, “It’s not usual, but in our days we see those things happen. They are women, they can take care of themselves.” Yes they can!
Senegal’s Youssou N’Dour (who would also work with Peter Gabriel in 1986, notably on “In Your Eyes”) helped provide percussion on “Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes,” which wasn’t really a hit anywhere, save for a Top 30 ranking in Belgium in 1987, though it’s always been a hit with me.
It’s hard to believe GRACELAND is now 30, and harder to believe Paul Simon is turning 75 this year, in October 2016. But, not at all hard to believe is how GRACELAND and songs like “Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes” have aged well and both will be shining like those diamonds for a long, long time to come…