John Simon: The Producer of The Band, Janis and Leonard Cohen “Vitalizes” His Career

JS-Slider1-2It’s difficult to list John Simon’s accomplishments as producer. You can start reeling off titles such as The Band’s Music from Big Pink, their self-titled second album, and The Last Waltz; Cheap Thrills by Big Brother And The Holding Company featuring Janis Joplin; Leonard Cohen’s debut album; Bookends by Simon & Garfunkel; The Electric Flag; The Child Is Father To The Man by Blood, Sweat & Tears … but after a while the names and the history surrounding them get a little overwhelming.

In the end, you have to stop and ask, “Really? The same guy produced all of these?” And the answer is, yes – and more. He has also written songs of his own, recorded a number of solo albums (with some very talented friends, as you might suspect), and plays a mean jazz piano. We won’t even get into his accomplishments in the worlds of television, movies, and on Broadway – then you’ll really be overwhelmed.

The point is, John Simon has been there and back – although up until now, he’s never talked a lot about it. That’s about to change, however, as Simon will be appearing at Joe’s Pub in New York City on April 25, debuting his one-man “No Band: John Simon’s Songs & Stories On The Road To Now”. (Details about Joe’s Pub and other upcoming gigs can be found here).

A blend of music and memories, Simon’s performances are bound to be entertaining – as was our recent conversation with him about the past, present, and future.

This is an impossible task, John – trying to cover your career in a single interview is crazy. It’s worthy of at least a three-part mini-series – (laughter) – or a book … which you should write.

You know, Brian, so many people tell me I should write one and who knows – I may sometime. But in the meantime, I’m just pulling memories out for these live shows like the one we have coming up.

Well, I wanted to ask you about your one-man performance at Joe’s Pub. What can folks expect to see and hear when they come for a night of John Simon?

It’s about 50/50: I’ve been writing songs all these years as well and I actually have people who are fans of those songs and come to hear them, so they won’t be disappointed. And then I know others will come to hear stories about the people I’ve worked with and have gotten to know, so they won’t be disappointed, either. It’ll be a mix.

To start with some of those folks you’ve worked with, I think it’s worth noting that as we speak it’s the one-year anniversary of Levon Helm’s passing. You were producer for The Band’s first two albums, along with being involved with The Last Waltz – both the album and the performance itself. How about we talk a little about some of your experiences with Levon and The Band?

Sure. Actually, I was musical director for the concert, but I wasn’t the only person who worked on finishing the record. My favorite part of The Last Waltz itself was at the dress rehearsal.


Yes, we were at the hall – Winterland – and I felt like the ringmaster at a superstar circus, you know? (laughter) I ran the rehearsal: “Okay, Joni – now you sing …” It was wonderful.

What a time! How did you first cross paths with The Band?

Rick Danko, John Simon & Levon Helm - Woodstock 1991 (Dion Ogost photo)

Rick Danko, John Simon & Levon Helm – Woodstock 1991 (Dion Ogost photo)

At that point, they were Bob Dylan’s backup band. When Bob had his motorcycle accident [in 1966] he put them on salary and put them up in a small house in Woodstock and they practiced in the basement. [In 1967] I was in Woodstock working on a movie called You Are What You Eat with Peter Yarrow and Howard Alk. Howard knew the guys in The Band and thought we’d be a good match.

Levon had just returned to The Band the day before I met them. When Dylan started using them as a backup band, he would do a solo acoustic set first and then do the second set with the full electric band. His diehard folkie fans were just so dismayed and felt betrayed because Bob had gone electric … and they booed. And Levon didn’t like to be booed.

He left and went back down South. When Levon showed up in Woodstock he’d just come from working on an oil rig in Louisiana.

He definitely was the real thing in so many ways. Do you have a favorite Levon story?

I think one of my favorite memories of Levon was when we both tried raw fish for the first time together. We had sushi out in LA at the Imperial Gardens restaurant next to the Chateau Marmont. He would often joke about that when he saw me: the time we took that courageous step to eat sushi together. (laughter)

Click HERE to read my entire interview with John Simon on

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