A life in rock ‘n’ roll

Record producer John Simon looks back

Created date

September 27th, 2019
Legendary record producer John Simon is behind some the most iconic acts of modern pop music, including Big Brother & the Holding Company with Janis Joplin; Blood, Sweat & Tears; Simon & Garfunkel; and The Band.

Legendary record producer John Simon is behind some the most iconic acts of modern pop music, including Big Brother & the Holding Company with Janis Joplin; Blood, Sweat & Tears; Simon & Garfunkel; and The Band. 

When it comes to music, and more specifically, rock and roll, few people possess the talent and experience that has long defined musician and record producer John Simon’s career. Indeed, his work is legendary.

Throughout the 1960s and 70s, he produced some of the greatest rock albums of all time by performers who hold a permanent place in the annals of music history: Artists such as Janis Joplin, Leonard Cohen, Simon & Garfunkel, The Band, and Blood, Sweat & Tears.

And in his new book, Truth, Lies & Hearsay: A Memoir of a Musical Life In and Out of Rock and Roll (2018), Simon gives readers a behind-the-scenes look at the wild and unpredictable world that is the music industry. Recently, he spoke with the Tribune, reflecting on his storied career and how the book captures its essence from his unique perspective.

Tribune: How did you end up going from the structured world of an Ivy League university like Princeton to the wild and crazy culture of rock 'n' roll and rock stars?

Simon: It was a fairly stark culture shift in some ways but not in others. 

After graduating from Princeton, I joined the staff of Columbia Records in New York City, and like everyone else who worked there, I came to work every day in a suit and tie. Even in the studio, you wore professional, dressy clothing, but you could loosen your tie and roll up your shirtsleeves; in that sense, I was in a relatively orderly, office-like environment.

Then I went out to San Francisco and got my first taste of hippies—that scene was unlike anything I’d ever encountered, culturally and musically.

Even though I had already been producing rock records, we did it in a very structured way in New York: We often used session players who could read music. But the musicians on the West Coast were all about playing from the gut—they were jam bands that operated on that whimsical sense of freedom that defined the 1960s.

They fed on heart and soul. A great example is Janis Joplin.

Tribune: Of course, you produced one of her earliest records, Cheap Thrills (1968), which is undeniably a classic album. Janis, however, was known for her free-spiritedness. Did this present challenges for you as a producer during those recording sessions?

Simon: Overall, not really, but remember, she wasn’t yet the star of the band. In fact, if you look at the album’s cover, it says Big Brother & the Holding Company, Featuring Janis Joplin. But it quickly became clear that she was going to become the star act—the center of attention.

This made the guys in the group a little jealous, so I had to sort of referee the infighting that came out of this. But they ultimately accepted it because her voice was so good, so powerful that it was obvious that she was going to be a star, and they finally realized it was in their interest to ride that train.

Tribune: Part of your book’s title is Truth, Lies, and Hearsay. What does that mean?

Simon: Well, it goes right to the heart of the mystique that defines rock ‘n’ roll. Given the crazy characters that rock stars often are, the world of rock music is just full of opportunities for good stories. 

That said, it’s also fertile ground for lies, legends, and rumors. 

One example from the book is a story that a rock blogger had written involving Rick Danko [bassist for The Band]. Specifically it referred to a famous train ride that Janis, Rick, Jerry Garcia [of The Grateful Dead], and a few others took across Canada.

This writer had essentially claimed that I drove alongside the train with Rick in the passenger seat, when Rick suddenly jumped out of the car and onto one of the passenger cars. That NEVER happened [LAUGHTER].

I didn’t even know that this big train tour was taking place until after it was finished. So, people come up with some good stories—and they are good stories—but they’re frequently based on false hearsay. 

There are also a lot of really crazy stories that are absolutely true, and readers will find those in the book too.

Tribune: What makes this book stand out from other rock memoirs?

Simon: This book is quite different from other rock books in that it’s not a kiss-and-tell story. My objective was not to dig up dirt and dish about every famous artist I’ve worked this. It’s a very personal narrative about my life in the music business, and it’s written in a very conversational style. 

One reviewer put it best when he said that reading the book was like getting on a plane, sitting next to someone you don’t know who, from the moment you take off to the moment you land, tells you stories about the music that you love.

But the book really gives people an inside look at the music business during the 1960s and 1970s, which was a seminal period in rock ‘n’ roll; and they get it from my perspective as someone who lived it.