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Carly's family album

Carly Simon's coming around again. And this time her musician kids are along for the ride.

June 01, 2008|Randy Lewis | Times Staff Writer

CARLY SIMON isn't the first name you'd expect to find on a list of classic-rock superstars who keep tabs on "American Idol." "I tune in whenever I get a chance," she says in that signature dusky voice. "How could I not, when this season Brooke White sang 'You're So Vain' and did such a nice job on it, and Carly [Smithson] was named after me?"

But even two recent manifestations of the sincerest form of flattery aren't enough to make a complete "Idol" believer out of the woman who long ago defined female rock-star cool and who helped usher in a new era for female singer-songwriters in which they were no longer simply attractive voices and faces for music largely written and produced by men.

The most powerful music platform in today's world trots singers of both sexes out before a panel of all-seeing, all-knowing judges so that millions of unseen viewers can choose one for career molding by an all-powerful veteran -- and male -- music-industry titan, Clive Davis. In that sense, "Idol" seems the antithesis of the time in the early '70s when Simon, Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Laura Nyro and their sister artists were achieving greater autonomy in their art.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, June 03, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 33 words Type of Material: Correction
Carly Simon: A profile of Carly Simon in Sunday Calendar's Arts & Music section misidentified Gene Rumsey as the Concord Music Group's senior vice president of marketing. He is the company's general manager.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, June 08, 2008 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 28 words Type of Material: Correction
Carly Simon: An article about Carly Simon last Sunday misidentified Gene Rumsey as the Concord Music Group's senior vice president of marketing. He is the company's general manager.

"There's no question that through 'American Idol' we've gone back a couple of eras into the Berry Gordy/Supremes pulling-the-strings kind of thing," said the jet-setting onetime paramour of Warren Beatty and Kris Kristofferson who later married -- then divorced -- folk-rock star James Taylor. This is the same woman who won a Grammy for best new artist after her conventional-marriage-questioning 1971 ballad "That's the Way I've Always Heard It Should Be" and who went to No. 1 with one of pop music's most hotly gossiped-about celebrity comeuppances ever, the 1973 hit that turned up prominently on celebrity-worshiping "American Idol."

Today, Simon still questions the status quo -- whether musical, social or political. But her main interest, the way it always was even when she was helping alter the outer world, is understanding and expressing her inner world. That can come out in a new album, like "This Kind of Love," which was released in April, or through projects such as "Romulus Hunt," the family opera she wrote in 1993 and which has been revived this year in Florida. And now she's going about it with the help of the two things she prizes most from her days as one of the queens of rock: her children (with Taylor) Ben and Sally.

A different recollection

SIMON remains impeccably rock-star chic at 62 in a black leather jacket covering a flimsy burgundy dress slipped over a black body- stocking. Thick wedge sandals the color of wet sand push her already rangy frame over the 6-foot mark. She's every bit as slim as she was on the covers of her earliest albums, despite her assertion that "I never exercised a day in my life."

She's not one to suggest that everything magically turned gender-blind during the "sexual revolution" of the '60s and '70s. Her role as a musician-turned-feminist pioneer is recounted, and celebrated, in Sheila Weller's new book "Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon -- and the Journey of a Generation" (Atria Books).

"I've read it -- a little," she said, suggesting that Weller may be overlionizing a period in which Simon recalls little overt awareness of the shifting landscape within the music industry.

"I don't think there was a halcyon time" for women, she says. She had her own encounters with rampant sexism -- one of Weller's anecdotes intimates that a noted rock engineer once refused to work on one of her albums unless she slept with him. But as the '70s unfolded, "There was somehow an innate respect that the heads of the record companies and producers had for the three of us as artists.

"It might have been because of the success that we were winning for them, or that [musicians'] contracts changed a little bit. But there was a little movement -- it just wasn't a movement that changed anything for keeps. It was a movement that led into imitators who were not respected except as people who could sell records and look good."

Simon, like most of those who ruled the charts in decades past, has turned over the glare of the public spotlight to newer faces. But when she puts out a new album, it still sells respectable quantities, as many baby-boomer rock acts do. Her latest has sold 68,000 copies since its release.

This year she joined peers including Mitchell, Paul McCartney and her ex on the Hear Music label, Starbucks-Concord Records' joint venture. But just before "This Kind of Love" was released, Starbucks went through a major shake-up in which founder Howard Schultz put the emphasis squarely back on selling coffee. Part of that included dumping most of the music staff that had nurtured Simon's record toward release.

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