How Simon & Garfunkel’s "The Sound Of Silence" Almost Didn't Happen
July 27, 2022
“Hello Darkness, my old friend” forever lives as the infamous line of Simon & Garfunkel’s first hit, “The Sound of Silence.” While most people know the line, few realize how close the #1 hit of New Year's Day in 1966 came to fading into obscurity. In fact, if just one of a number of tiny decisions had gone the other way, the names Simon & Garfunkel might not mean anything. From the darkness of an unlit bathroom in Queens, New York to the #1 hit in the United States, here’s the unlikely story of “The Sound Of Silence.”
Simon got his first gig as music’s version of a door-to-door salesman fresh out of college. “My job was to take the songs that this huge publishing company owned and go around to record companies and see if any of their artists wanted to record the songs. I worked for them for about six months and never got a song placed, but I did give them a couple of my songs because I felt so guilty about taking their money.”
Right as a little ditty called “The Sound Of Silence” began burbling in Simon’s head, he realized that giving away songs for free wasn’t ideal. “Then I got into an argument with them and said, 'Look, I quit, and I'm not giving you my new song.' And the song that I had just written was 'The Sound of Silence.' I thought, 'I'll just publish it myself,' and from that point on, I owned my own songs, so that was a lucky argument.”
An Instant Seller
The young musician then began auditioning for a publishing deal and played his future hit for Tom Wilson at Columbia Records. Wilson loved it for a band called “The Pilgrims” but Simon stole the show by performing a duet version with fellow New Yorker Art Garfunkel. Upon hearing the duo perform “The Sound of Silence,” Columbia immediately signed them.
To this point, if Simon sold his future hit or failed to wow executives with Garfunkel, the classic would have likely disappeared. Yet, Simon & Garfunkel’s first sensation still needed to clear one more massive “what if?”
The opening line of “Hello Darkness, my old friend” came from Simon’s childhood, singing in his bathroom with the lights out. And initially, it looked as if “The Sound of Silence” would also remain in darkness. The first acoustic version tanked, selling roughly 2,000 copies. Simon & Garfunkel dissolved, going their separate ways.
However, producer Tom Wilson never gave up, tweaking the song with some electric instruments before releasing it as a single. He did all this without the knowledge of Simon & Garfunkel. The former learned about his #1 hit while in England while the latter received the news at college!
“The Sound of Silence” almost evaporated thanks to vague complexities but its power, according to its author, comes from its simplicity. As Simon said,
“My thinking is that if you don't have the right melody, it really doesn't matter what you have to say, people don't hear it. They only are available to hear when the sound enters and makes people open to the thought. Really the key to 'The Sound of Silence' is the simplicity of the melody and the words, which are youthful alienation.
It wasn't something that I was experiencing at some deep, profound level - nobody's listening to me, nobody's listening to anyone - it was a post-adolescent angst, but it had some level of truth to it and it resonated with millions of people. Largely because it had a simple and singable melody.”