Recently one writer declared that Paul Simon will just be a footnote in the history of Bob Dylan. Almost everyone would agree that Bob Dylan is a great and influential songwriter, but Paul Simon is also one of the world’s greatest songwriters. One difference is that the popularity and familiarity of Paul Simon’s recordings surpasses Bob Dylan’s recordings.
I’m a fan of both artists, and have lots of their albums. I got to know Bob Dylan first. It was through Peter, Paul & Mary’s recordings of “Blowin’ In The Wind” and “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright”. Next came The Byrds’ “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “All I Really Want To Do”. Then it was Bob Dylan himself with two great singles “Like A Rolling Stone” (#2 on Billboard’s singles chart) and “Positively 4th Street” (#7). The Turtles quickly followed those with Dylan’s “It Ain’t Me Babe” (#8).
Later that same year, 1965, America first heard Paul Simon & Art Garfunkel with “The Sound Of Silence”. The single went to #1 in January of 1966. Below are shots directly from my 1994 Billboard Top 40 book, so you can compare the popularity of songs by Bob Dylan and Paul Simon. You’ll also be reminded which recordings they chose as singles. The info looks a little wonky, because the pages are curved by the book’s spine. The three columns on the left side give the date the song entered the Top-40, the highest chart position it made, and the number of weeks in the Top-40. (Click to enlarge)
Bob Dylan had 12 Top-40 hits, with 4 making the Top-10. He did not have a #1 hit. In Paul Simon’s career (including with Art Garfunkel) he had 29 Top-40 hits…14 made the Top-10, and 3 hit #1. By the way, the black dots next to the above songs indicate the singles went “Gold”, selling over half-a-million copies, and Top-10 songs are in bold type.
Interestingly, Bob Dylan and Paul Simon have each sold approximately 125-million albums. Dylan’s biggest sellers are his Greatest Hits (over 6-million) and Greatest Hits II (over 5-million). Simon’s biggest sellers are Bridge Over Troubled Water (over 25-million) and Graceland (over 16-million). It shows that Dylan served his fans by releasing a greater number of albums, and Simon reached a wider audience with fewer, but more popular albums.
Bob Dylan wrote many well known songs that were performed by other artists. Those include “All Along The Watchtower” by Jimi Hendrix, “The Mighty Quinn” by Manfred Mann, “If Not For You” by George Harrison, “My Back Pages” by The Byrds, “I Shall Be Released” by The Band, and “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” by Eric Clapton. The majority of Americans have not even heard Dylan’s versions of many of his most famous songs.
Bob Dylan had more influence on other songwriters. That’s because of his early albums and songs like “The Times They Are A-Changin’”. The Beatles and other Rock/Pop songwriters saw they could expand their writing to topics beyond love. That was shortly before the emergence of Simon & Garfunkel.
The history of music is not just about songwriting. It includes the recordings themselves. Here’s where Paul Simon excelled. His songs, as sung by him (and sometimes with Art Garfunkel) are very well known, and they have the potential to be enjoyed for many generations, and maybe hundreds of years. If we had recordings going back to the original classical composers, they’d still be listened to today. Recordings like “The Sound Of Silence” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water” should stand the test of time.
Paul Simon was particularly innovative with the way he incorporated musical influences that went beyond Folk, Rock, and Pop. He adopted musical styles from around the world into his solo albums. He was one of the first American artists to help popularize Reggae from Jamaica, and his 1987 Album Of The Year, Graceland utilized South African music. Then Rhythm Of The Saints used South American music.
The point is that Bob Dylan and Paul Simon are national treasures. It’s true that history will necessarily compact the decades, and some artists may be forgotten, but that’s not likely to happen to either Bob Dylan or Paul Simon. Their contributions are so great that the two should remain essential to music history.