John Simon at Aroma Thyme where he occasionally performs.


Producer and record industry insider, John Simon helmed some classic albums by Leonard Cohen, Janis Joplin and the Band (including Music from Big Pink), among others, and then embarked on a solo recording career. Richie Unterberger talked to Simon about his stellar career and some of the revelations in his new memoir, Truth, Lies & Hearsay

“I always preferred jazz,” proclaims John Simon. “Never been a fan of rock & roll. Tribal. Kids’ stuff.”

For a guy who maintains he’s not a rock & roll fan, however, Simon’s made quite a mark on rock music. As a Columbia staff producer in the late 1960s, he worked on key albums by Simon & Garfunkel, Leonard Cohen, and Blood, Sweat & Tears (their Al Kooper-helmed debut LP, not the inferior but vastly more popular records after Kooper’s departure). He also produced Big Brother & the Holding Company’s Cheap Thrills, even if he left his name off the credits.

“Ball and Chain” from Cheap Thrills (cover art by Robert Crumb):

And after going independent, he produced the signature albums by the Band, their 1968 debut Music from Big Pink and their 1969 self-titled follow-up. He was virtually a sixth member of The Band, also playing some horns and piano on each LP. If he didn’t like rock & roll, what was he doing with a group that wove so many strands of roots rock together?

“I love the SOURCES of rock & roll,” he clarifies. “The blues, rhythmic Latin music, bluegrass, good balladeer stories.” The roundabout route that led him to The Band, who synthesized all of the above and more, is detailed in his new book Truth, Lies & Hearsay: A Memoir of a Musical Life in and out of Rock and Roll.

Simon was decidedly out of rock & roll when he was hired as an $85/week Columbia trainee right out of college in 1963. (His other offer was, as he recalls in the book, “to write copy for Anacin commercials for the Ted Bates advertising company in Chicago.”) Soon he was part of the Special Projects department, working on Broadway original cast recordings and coffee table book/record combo packages on subjects like the Confederacy and the Irish Rebellion.

His goal was to be an A&R man, not special projects jack-of-all-trades. But he didn’t get a chance to produce hit records until Brian Epstein associate Nat Weiss played him a demo of a trio singing “Red Rubber Ball,” co-written by Bruce Woodley of the Seekers and Paul Simon (no relation to John). The trio was named the Cyrkle, and the version John cut with them — after Weiss had been brushed off by several other Columbia producers — became a #2 hit.

By 1967 John Simon was working with Paul Simon, producing part of Simon & Garfunkel’s Bookends. Along the way he also produced non-hits by the likes of Bernadette Peters and, somehow, one of Iceland’s few rock groups of the time, Thor’s Hammer.

“Wow, they actually have a compilation?” responds an astounded Simon when I tell him I have the Thor’s Hammer single he produced on a CD of tracks by the group. “They actually have ‘work’?! A guy came in with a demo of the band and I liked it. I think I double-speeded a sax solo for the instrumental on that record. I have no memory of much more.”

“I love the SOURCES of rock & roll, the blues, rhythmic Latin music, bluegrass, good balladeer stories.”

But more projects were coming his way that he was able to put a greater stamp on, for discs that proved far more popular. After a frustrated Leonard Cohen got impatient with the progress of the initial John Hammond-produced sessions for his classic debut, the project was reassigned to Simon, who was pleased, as he remarks in the book, “that I would have the chance to do some real arrangements of my own, not like simply taking dictation from Paul and Artie…

“Because so many of Leonard’s songs seemed to be either about women or addressed to them, I felt a real female presence in all the material. So instead of using horns or strings for the musical lines that accompanied his vocals, I used wordless female voices, mostly sung by Nancy Priddy, my girlfriend of the time, who was uncredited — until now.”

“Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye” from Leonard Cohen’s first album, produced by John Simon

That’s the same Nancy Priddy, by the way, whose daughter, Christina Applegate, would star in Married…With Children. Simon’s again surprised when I tell him Priddy subsequently cut an obscure solo LP, 1968’s You’ve Come This Way Before.

“She made an album too?  Wow! I am SOOOOOO out of touch. I know she had previously been a member of a large-ish pop vocal group [the Bitter End Singers].” (Priddy was also the inspiration for Stephen Stills’s “Pretty Girl Why,” one of Buffalo Springfield’s finest recordings.)

On a more serious note, Simon explains, “There was a Judy Collins album that I think came out before Leonard’s that had some really nice orchestrations” (probably In My Life, released at the end of 1966, which included the first recorded versions of Cohen compositions). “I wanted our album [Songs of Leonard Cohen] to be as classy as that one.”

“Because so many of Leonard’s songs seemed to be either about women or addressed to them, I felt a real female presence in all the material. So instead of using horns or strings for the musical lines that accompanied his vocals, I used wordless female voices, mostly sung by Nancy Priddy, my girlfriend of the time, who was uncredited — until now.”

Also classy was the debut album by Blood, Sweat & Tears, whose critical standing would plummet as their hits piled up. At their outset, however, they were a much different band than the one that scored smashes with David Clayton-Thomas on lead vocals. For 1968’s Child Is Father to the Man, they were guided by founder Al Kooper, mixing standard rock instrumentation with horns on a blend of strong original material and tasteful, imaginative covers of songs by Tim Buckley, Harry Nilsson, Randy Newman, and Gerry Goffin and Carole King.

A cover of Tim Buckley’s “Morning Glory” from Blood, Sweat & Tears’ first album, produced by John Simon. Vocals by PKM contributor Steve Katz:

“It was someone’s idea (not mine—I don’t know a decibel from a Tinkerbell) to double the horns,” writes Simon. “That is to record the parts twice, one on top of the other. This gave the horn sound the consistent power that was part of BS&T’s identity. This was a new recording concept at the time.” Adds John in our interview, “The doubled horns was, I think, Al Kooper’s idea. Maybe his and [alto saxophonist] Freddie Lipsius’s.”

I offer my view that Child Is Father to the Man is far and away BS&T’s best, and not too similar to the hits with the David Clayton-Thomas lineup.

“I find that a lot of people do like the first better,” he says. “It’s more of a concept album, whereas their subsequent stuff consists of efforts to write hit records.”

Did he have any sense that Kooper would soon be out of the band he’d founded?

“I knew that Al and some others in the band didn’t get along. And Al took his departure in stride, no regrets.”

The most commercially successful production of Simon’s career would also be released in 1968, yet the construction of the chart-topping Cheap Thrills was far from smooth. The initial plan was to make a live album, which foundered when John found their recording of a show at San Francisco’s Winterland too mistake-ridden to release as was. “As I wrote in the book, they couldn’t cut it,” is Simon’s blunt verdict. “On a record, mistakes live forever.” For the Cheap Thrills studio sessions, “their background vocals were doubled because their sound was weak and thin compared to Janis’s.”

1968 Janis Joplin and John Simon by Elliott Landy

Yet as he acknowledges in the book, “I have to give credit to Sam Andrew [one of Big Brother’s guitarists] for a musical innovation. That song [“Summertime”] had been recorded countless times but I’d never heard any version with the subtle touch that Sam added…It’s on the downbeat of the second measure and it’s a diminished chord. That was Sam’s choice. And I’d never heard anyone else do it. It’s fabulous.” As he adds in our conversation, “Sam had a melodic attitude, James [Gurley, Big Brother’s other axeman] was into feedback and distortion.”

Even with all the problems involved in bringing Cheap Thrills to completion, why wasn’t Simon’s name on the credits? As he reveals in the memoir, filmmaker Howard Alk, with whom John worked on the soundtrack to You Are What You Eat, convinced him that if he put his name to a project, “you’ll make compromises that will corrupt the purity and honesty of your work. But, if you leave your name off and work anonymously, you won’t be worried about your reputation and you’ll be free to take chances—‘make great art’—even if it goes beyond the bounds of what people may want or like.”

The most commercially successful production of Simon’s career would also be released in 1968, yet the construction of the chart-topping Cheap Thrills was far from smooth.

Columbia publicist (and Janis Joplin biographer) Myra Friedman, however, told Simon, “That’s not the truth. You left your name off because you hated the record.” As he allows in the conclusion to the chapter, “Both things were probably true.”

No such reservations were in play for his collaboration with the Band, which gets more space than any other in Truth, Lies & Hearsay. “I’m an arranger principally and adept at a few instruments,” he tells me. “So that’s what I did. And I fit in because they didn’t have an arranger and also needed someone to play some of the piano parts when Garth [Hudson] was playing organ and Richard [Manuel] playing the drums, or else another horn player to join Garth.” Early on, Simon even asked Robbie Robertson if he could join the Band, Robertson turning down his offer with the explanation, “We’ve already got two piano players.”

“Chest Fever,” from Music from Big Pink, produced by John Simon:

That didn’t stop Simon from taking his place in the Big Pink photo shoot. As a drawing in the book with a key to who’s who in the picture shows, he’s the guy in the hat in the back left corner. His wry assessment of the Bob Dylan painting on the front cover is also in that chapter: “Looks like something Marc Chagall might have painted if someone woke him up too quickly from a nap.”

Simon doesn’t get into why he only produced the first two Band LPs in his memoir, but is willing to elaborate when I ask for some thoughts on how their music changed—and, in the view of most fans and critics, declined—on their subsequent albums. “Well, there was the factor of Robbie having already written so many good songs perhaps,” he observes. “But there are a lot of good songs on Stage Fright [their third album] too.

“I think he made a big mistake in dismissing me and thinking they could do it on their own. On the previous albums, as on all the music I worked on, I listened to the songs first, said what I liked and what I thought could be helped, and stayed lovingly close to each song until it was finished.

“Robbie was looking for better engineerings, better ‘sound,’ when he hired Todd Rundgren. But Todd didn’t fit in the same way. There’s a tale of Levon [Helm] chasing Todd around the studio intending to kill him. Nowhere near the same kind of harmony,” he understates. “But then drug abuse might’ve gotten in the way by then too.”

John did work with the Band again, as the musical director for the famous concert (and, later, movie and soundtrack album) The Last Waltz. That soundtrack album wasn’t exactly a concert document; as he reveals in the book, everyone but Helm redid their parts for the record. “The motivation of billing it as a live recording is monetary (as was the motivation for the remix of Big Pink last year: a violent abomination),” he comments. “But, at the same time, if it improves the record and people like it … well, that’s the goal.”

1969. In the studio set up in Sammy Davis Jr’s pool house. Richard at the piano,John Simon reading a manual and trying to figure out how the mixing board works, Rick, Garth scratching his head again, Levon in the foreground and Robbie by Elliott Landy

That’s the cue for some more remarks about something else not addressed in the autobiography. “On the subject of the Big Pink remix, I call it an Un-mix,” he says. “We worked so hard to delicately balance all those elements in our final mixes. I don’t fault Bob Clearmountain; he had his idea of how it should sound (or maybe Robbie urged him to pump up the drums), but it was overthinking. The original album sounds so beautiful. The UnMix is an attempt to prey upon Band fans for more money to complete their collections.

“I only read one reviewer who agreed with me that the UnMix is awful. Greil Marcus referred me to that review, which was in Variety. [Chris Morris] wrote that brave review — bless him!” (Morris’s review—which concludes, “the new Big Pink betrays nearly everything that was exciting and original about the album when it first appeared”—can be read here.)

Simon also had reservations over the mix of an acclaimed album at the time it was released, rather than remixed. Steve Forbert wanted his 1979 LP Jackrabbit Slim, cut live without overdubs, to sound like the Rolling Stones’ new album. So it was issued, as John writes, sounding like “bird calls from a 500-pound seagull.” Has Simon ever been tempted to remix the record to make it more in line with its original ambience?

“Yeah, in my opinion, Steve should have listened to me about that,” said Simon. “He overthinks things (and admits it). He says he has the originals and, every time I’m in contact with him, I urge him to release them as is. He always has an excuse (can’t quite remember in which of several places they are). I have a cassette copy of them. Maybe if enough people got on him about it … or gave him MONEY to do it, it might happen. It’s a remarkably ‘honest’ sound.”

There’s a tale of Levon [Helm] chasing Todd around the studio intending to kill him.

Another album Simon produced, John Hartford’s 1972 LP Morning Bugle, suffered no such second-guessing, Hartford taking the attitude of “no playbacks. Just keep rolling.”

Even those familiar with Simon’s name through the famous records he produced might not be aware of his own singer-songwriter LPs. The first pair of these in particular, 1970’s John Simon’s Album and 1972’s Journey, have attracted a modest cult following. His debut sometimes sounds like a quirky, less accessible variation on singer-songwriters like Harry Nilsson and Randy Newman, though he doesn’t claim them as inspirations: “The Band was more of an influence by far.” As he admits in the book, “Because of the difference in the two albums, the first carefully labored and rock-ish, [Journey] free-swinging and spontaneous, each has a distinct set of enthusiasts who just ‘don’t get’ the other album.”

1991. During the “Out On The Street” sessions by Dion Ogost

Part of the reason the albums are so different came down to the huge difference in budgets. The first cost almost $70,000; the second was cut live in three days. “I got my opportunity because Albert Grossman was renegotiating Peter, Paul and Mary’s contract with Warners and threw my record deal into the package,” he remembers. “I was used to working with no concern about the budget. For the second album I pitied poor little Warner Brothers (isn’t that silly?) and resolved to pay them back by doing it economically.”

The original album sounds so beautiful. The UnMix is an attempt to prey upon Band fans for more money to complete their collections.

Were his albums too quirky to sell well? In Simon’s view, “I don’t think [they] were more offbeat than a lot of folk albums or jazz/vocal albums. I chose not to tour to support those albums. That was probably a factor.”

While his work with big names in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s take up the bulk of the book, it’s also dotted with stories of his interactions with plenty of other artists through the rest of the 20th century, from Taj Mahal to Twyla Tharp and A.J. Croce. (Of the latter, Simon writes, “Riding as a passenger in his car was a leap of faith. He asked me to read those big green freeway signs for him.”) What spurred him into sharing his stories in print?

Simon had “two reasons for writing it. Young Andrew Genger, my top-flight pro-bono manager, had heard so many of my stories in response to his interest, that he urged me to do a book. I wanted to keep it conversational and I think I succeeded. Somebody wrote an Amazon review and said it was like a good conversation from your seat-mate on a long plane ride. Kirkus Reviews said it was ‘incredibly readable,’ as if they were astonished that it could be readable.” As to why he put the book out himself, “Self-publishing wasn’t my idea. I got a lot of great rejection letters, which I’ve saved.”

1976. Malibu. Taking a break outside The Band's studio with
1976. Malibu. Taking a break outside The Band’s studio with

Anecdotal and packed with frank opinions on the capriciousness of the record business that can be humorous yet cautionary, Truth, Lies & Hearsay doesn’t blow his own horn with too much volume. Asked if he made a mark on record production with balance that’s sympathetic to the material, Simon modestly demurs, “I think my ‘mark’ came because of the Big Names I worked with. No more than that.”

Info on John Simon’s memoir Truth, Lies & Hearsay is on his website at

2013. Solo show at Joe’s Pub