With its catchy rhythm and infectious hook, Cecilia found its way into pop culture in the 1970s. On an album of hits, Cecilia sparked speculation about the song’s mystery woman. Neither Simon nor Garfunkel had a partner with the name, but the lyrics suggested an afternoon rendezvous.
Over the years, many fans speculated about who the enigmatic beauty in the song was. So who really inspired the duo to create this undeniable masterpiece?
We’ll take a look at the facts surrounding Simon & Garfunkel’s hit, Cecilia, to discover the answer.
Who Originally Wrote Cecilia?
Cecilia came out as the number three single on the Bridge Over Troubled Water album in April 1970. Simon & Garfunkel were at the peak of their popularity, coming off of three hit records. Sounds of Silence (1966), Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme (1966), and Bookends (1968), placed them at the front of the folk and Americana pack.
The duo traded on their tight harmonies and Simon’s intricate fingerstyle guitar playing. But it was the songs that propelled them forward. Most of the tunes the two performed came from one man, Paul Simon.
Born in 1941, Paul Frederic Simon grew up in Queens, New York. His parents were Hungarian-Jewish, and young Paul was fascinated with baseball and music. His father, Louis, played the double bass and led a dance band, so his exposure to the life of a performer came early. Then, at the age of eleven, something happened that changed his life forever. He met Art Garfunkel.
At the end of sixth grade, both boys performed in a production of Alice in Wonderland and realized they had something special. Under the name Tom & Jerry, they recorded Simon’s first song, The Girl for Me, followed by Hey Schoolgirl in 1957.
When the boys graduated high school, they headed in different directions. Simon majored in English at Queens College, and Garfunkel majored in Math at Colombia.
The Songwriters Reunite
Simon continued writing songs and met up with Garfunkel occasionally to record. Clive Davis signed the two in 1964 to record their first album as Simon & Garfunkel. Unfortunately, the record was a flop. Paul left for London, where he played folk clubs, but things back home heated up. Record producer, Tom Wilson, added drums and electric guitar to their song The Sounds of Silence, and the song reached number one.
After that, the two once again joined forces for the next four years. In 1970, they had the best-selling album of all time when their final record Bridge Over Troubled Water was released.
Paul Simon spent the rest of his career writing the soundtrack to the later part of the twentieth century. As a New York native, his performance of The Boxer on Saturday Night Live after 9/11 brought the nation to tears.
Over the years, Paul Simon’s work won twelve Grammys. In addition, Simon & Garfunkel were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of fame in 1990, and Simon again in 2001 as a solo artist.
Was Cecilia Written About a Specific Person?
In interviews, Simon talks about his songwriting process, starting with the music. Cecilia is no different. Simon, Garfunkel, and Simon’s younger brother Eddie were at a party one night and started banging on the furniture. They recorded the rhythm on a Sony tape recorder with another friend jumping in on the guitar.
Later, when Simon remembered the tape, he went back and found a one-minute section that he liked. It had a groove he could work with. Simon wrote the song and went into the studio with Garfunkel to record. They added all kinds of random sounds, like dropped drumsticks and random xylophone notes, to flesh out the tune.
As for the mystery woman, Paul Simon suggested it’s St. Cecilia, the patron saint of music. For Simon, the lyrics speak to the songwriter’s struggle and the fleeting nature of inspiration. And the sexual innuendo, “making love in the afternoon,” is about as racy as Paul got up to that point in his career.
Did Cecilia Top the Charts?
Cecilia came out in April 1970 and found success immediately. The lighthearted, boisterous tune carried the song to the top. It spent thirteen weeks on the Billboard Hot 100 and peaked at number four. In addition, the track reached number one on the Cash Box Top 100 in May 1970.
In 1994, English singer Suggs recorded a cover of the song for his debut album, The Lone Ranger. It reached number four on the UK Singles Chart in 1996. It also happened to be the best-performing tune Suggs saw in his career.
What Popular Covers Are There of Cecilia?
As with most great songs, some folks trade on the previous success. For singer-songwriters, that gets tricky. But here are a couple of covers that pay tribute to the genius of Simon.
Smokey Robinson and the Miracles
Capturing something of the original rhythm, Smokey Robinson covered the tune in 1971 on his album One Dozen Roses. If you’ve never heard this version, prepare for a disco-infused take on Simon’s tune.
Robinson and the Miracles sand off some of the original energy of the song. The smooth vocals and strings change the tone and make things a little sweeter. But Robinson’s signature falsetto cheats in, and the jubilant “Cecilia” in the chorus misses just a bit of the fun.
This version, by the German group The ABC Company, came out in 1970. Released on the album Discotheken Hitparade 4, it repackaged the song for the German dance market. The group, anonymous studio musicians recording hits of the day, skirted copyright laws but gave audiences access to new music.
They also recorded and released over one hundred covers of other popular tunes between 1969 and 1972.
By far the most popular version of the song in the UK, Suggs got together with London ragga musicians to record his rendition. Louchie Lou and Michie One came into the studio with Suggs and recorded their version in 1994. With a more dancehall vibe, this version made it all the way to number four on the UK charts.
Suggs is mainly known for his work with the ska band Madness but is also a TV and radio personality.
What is Paul Simon Doing Now?
After a successful solo career and a few reunions with Garfunkel, most notably in 1981, Simon hasn’t slowed down. Through the eighties and nineties, Simon toured and worked on other projects.
Sadly, his Broadway show, The Capeman, flopped and cost him $11 million, jeopardizing his career. But in 1999, he embarked on a tour with Bob Dylan, and continued touring with musicians like Sting for several years. Simon had a comeback in 2001 after appearing in tributes to Americans killed in the 9/11 attacks.
Critics praise Simon’s ability to change and stay hungry in his songwriting. Even in his later years, he continues to innovate musically. His album Surprise with Brian Eno captured that spirit perfectly.
In 2018, Simon finally announced his retirement from touring, saying he wanted to spend more time with his family. But not before he embarked on one final world tour in 2018 and released his fourteenth album, In the Blue Light, shortly after that.
We’ve seen less of Paul Simon in the last few years, but don’t count him out yet. He appeared at the Newport Folk Festival in July 2022 and is supposedly working on a new record. We can’t wait to hear it!
A Lifetime of Success
St. Cecilia’s been good to Paul Simon. No one can argue with that. After a nearly six decades-long career, it’s safe to say Simon is one of the world’s great songwriters.
As an American icon, Simon’s playful and approachable music inspires young songwriters to reach for that next level of inspiration. We hope that, on his next album, another banger like Cecilia takes the world by storm.
What’s your favorite version of Cecilia? Let us know in the comments below.