By the mid-1980s, Paul Simon was full of uncertainty. His 1983 album Hearts and Bones had underperformed, and Simon, now in his forties, worried he was too old for the newly ascendent MTV. It was around this time that Heidi Berg, a songwriter that Simon worked with at New York’s Brill Building, played him a copy of Gumboots Accordion Jive Hits Volume II, a collection of instrumental South African accordion music. To Simon, the songs were hard-driving, hopeful and optimistic. “It all seemed familiar to me,” he later told biographer Robert Hilburn. “[The music] had a feeling that was something like 1950s rock ’n’ roll. But the guitar lines were different from American lines.” Simon tracked down the South African musicians from that tape, the Boyoyo Boys, and met the group in Johannesburg, South Africa. He also invited a team of local pros—including bassist Bakithi Kumalo, guitarist Chikapa “Ray” Phiri and drummer Isaac Mtshali—to improvise for days. Accordionist Forere Motloheloa said he had reservations: “I continued to ask myself, ‘Who is going to want to hear this township music in America?’” Simon returned to the US to craft those instrumentals into songs. He took one of Motloheloa’s rowdy accordion melodies and wrote “The Boy in the Bubble”, combining images of apartheid South Africa with snapshot images of frivolous American culture. He transformed the Boyoyo Boys’ wildly fun groove “Gumboots” into a blissful plea for love. And he combined his childhood love of doo-wop with the sounds of the South African vocal group Ladysmith Black Mambazo on the tracks “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” and “Homeless”. But one especially challenging track required Simon to hit the road. While listening back to a minor progression played by guitarist Phiri, the singer began thinking of Elvis Presley’s Memphis home. So Simon rented a car and drove to Graceland for the first time. On the way, the lyrics came to him: “The Mississippi Delta was shining like a national guitar/I am following the river down the highway through the cradle of the Civil War.” As Simon later recalled: “Eventually, I understood that the song is about why we are travelling to Graceland—to find out how to get healed—and that’s why I named the album Graceland.” Released in 1986, Graceland would become the most successful solo album of Simon’s career: a culture-conquering smash that arrived (and thrived) at the dawn of the CD era. The album was also highly controversial, with some detractors accusing Simon of endorsing the oppressive South African government with the project, and others accusing him of exploiting his guest musicians (Simon pushed back, saying he paid artists triple-scale and also offered writing credits). Despite the pushback, Graceland won rave reviews, four Grammys and sold more than 16 million copies. “There were people who said I shouldn't go,” Simon said at the time of the album's release. “South Africa is a supercharged subject surrounded with a tremendous emotional velocity. I knew I would be criticised if I went…I was following my musical instincts in wanting to work with people whose music I greatly admired.”

Select a country or region

Africa, Middle East, and India

Asia Pacific


Latin America and the Caribbean

The United States and Canada