In 1964, a Jewish music executive, Goddard Lieberson, then the president of Columbia Records, told his newest act, a harmonizing duo inspired by the Everly Brothers, to use their “ethnic” names.
Goodbye, Tom and Jerry. Hello, Simon and Garfunkel.
“[Paul] Simon didn’t think people were going to buy folk songs sung by two middle-class Jewish men, but he embraced it,” said Erin Clancey, curator of “Paul Simon: Words & Music,” the Skirball Cultural Center’s latest exhibition.
“Words & Music,” which runs through Sept. 3, presents this curious piece of music industry trivia and much more, in a retrospective of his creativity that spans more than 16 albums — from Simon’s early work with Art Garfunkel to his 2016 solo album, “Stranger to Stranger.”
The exhibit is on loan from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland. Its chronological sections display more than 150 items — scratchpad notes, awards, the first jacket he wore on “American Bandstand” and his first acoustic guitar, a 13th birthday gift from his father, Louis, a professional bass player.
Additional items from the early years include correspondence between Simon and Garfunkel when Simon was away at summer camp that shows the two were friends before they were collaborators. “Send my love to Marilyn and any other nice lookin’ girls up there,” Simon wrote in one letter. It also features the duo’s first recording contract with Columbia, from 1957.
One section of the exhibit, “Simon and Garfunkel,” features nearly 35 photographs, sheet music and handwritten lyrics encapsulating the duo’s brief, impactful six years together when they recorded such baby boomer hits as “Mrs. Robinson,” “Homeward Bound” and “America.”
Clancey recalled a Skirball staffer looking at a photo of Simon and saying, “Hmm, that looks like my dad.”
“That’s kind of who we’re pitching this to — dads,” she said. “I guess that could be described as the core audience for this, people for whom this music is the soundtrack to their youth, the soundtrack to their young adulthood.”
The treasures include a photo of Simon and Garfunkel seated on the floor of a CBS studio while recording tracks for their debut album, “Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M.,” which sold poorly and prompted the duo to disband. Simon moved to England and immersed himself in the folk music scene. Included in the exhibition is a diary of his performances in the U.K.
Without either of them knowing it at the time, Tom Wilson, a music producer who had worked with Tom and Jerry, provided their big breakthrough. Responding to the growing popularity of folk-rock, Wilson overdubbed electric instruments onto “The Sound of Silence,” which Simon had written in response to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The record topped the Billboard Hot 100 chart.
Notified of his hit record, Simon returned to the United States. From 1966 to 1970, he and Garfunkel recorded blockbuster albums, including “Sounds of Silence,” “Bookends” and their last together, “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”
The examination of Simon’s versatile solo career shows how he has stayed relevant even as popular music has evolved. “Mother and Child Reunion” helped introduce Western audiences to reggae music; “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard” showcased his love of language; and “Still Crazy After All These Years” is Simon the songwriter at what he has called his peak.
Still, creative frustration hit him in the mid-1980s before a trip to Johannesburg, South Africa, in pursuit of township sounds he’d heard on a cassette tape, led to a career rejuvenating fusion of South African and American music on his 1986 landmark record, “Graceland.”
Handwritten lyrics from the title track and from “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes,” the Album of the Year Grammy Award for “Graceland,” and annotated sheet music highlight the exhibition’s section on “Graceland.” On May 12, Skirball is screening “Under African Skies,” a 2012 documentary examining Simon’s bold decision to record music in South Africa in the 1980s, when the country was still under apartheid rule. In the documentary, Simon “talks about how perhaps he didn’t understand the fullness of the situation, the crisis of South Africa,” Clancey said.
One section of the exhibition, “Paul Simon in Popular Culture,” is unique to the Skirball. Included is a movie poster from “The Graduate,” which featured the song, “Mrs. Robinson,” originally “Mrs. Roosevelt” until Simon changed the lyric to match a character in the film at director Mike Nichols’ request.
“We’ve included sections that deal specifically with Paul’s popularity, his icon status, his place in our cultural consciousness, which I think was not so much the focus of the rock hall’s exhibition,” Clancey said. “They’re focused on music, of course, and the various instruments and songs, lyrics, etc. We’re interested in Paul as a cultural figure, first, and as a musician, second.”
Further distinguishing the Skirball exhibition is an interactive music lab Skirball developed in partnership with Roland Corp., an electronic music equipment manufacturer and distributor. It enables people to sing and jam with Simon.
“They have a drum circle where you can listen to songs that have a very distinctive drumbeat like, ‘50 Ways [to Leave Your Lover].’ You can harmonize along with Simon and Garfunkel to ‘Mrs. Robinson.’ I expect that to be a very, very popular attraction,” Clancey said.
Skirball and Roland previously partnered in 2008 for the Skirball exhibition “Bob Dylan’s American Journey, 1956-1966.”
Meanwhile, listening stations provide an opportunity to hear nearly 30 songs.
Simon, 75, was born in Newark, N.J., on Oct. 13, 1941. His parents were Hungarian Jews who immigrated to the U.S. at the beginning of World War II. Simon grew up in Queens, N.Y., which is where he met Garfunkel. He has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a solo artist and with Simon and Garfunkel. Twice previously married, including to the actress Carrie Fisher, he currently is married to folk singer Edie Brickell.
The rock hall displayed the Simon exhibition in 2015. Simon did not see it but nevertheless provided two of the museum’s officials, Karen Herman and Craig Inciardi, with an “oral history, of his life story,” Herman said. “We had a guitar next to him and said, ‘If you feel like it, go ahead and play,’ which he did a few times. We wanted to get at what makes Paul Simon Paul Simon.
“He was gracious with his story. He was gracious with his archives.”
The exhibition at the Skirball also suggests a musician’s concern for social justice is key to relevancy.
“Beyond just the fact of his Jewish identity and his pop cultural icon status, he’s also a person who fits very well with our mission, which is a sort of a dual mission of celebrating influential cultural figures but also people who have something to say with regard to social justice,” Clancey said. “His work, his lyrics, have often reflected the frustrations of the people. They have been very pointed at times with regard to social justice. We felt that was a good match.”
“Paul Simon: Words & Music” runs through Sept. 3 at the Skirball Cultural Center. For more information, go to skirball.org.