Simon started recorded this song in South Africa, where he worked with local musicians and experimented with their sounds. He recorded with many different musicians while he was there, and he loved the work of the guys from a local group called Stimela, whose guitarist Ray Phiri came up with the riff for this song during one of their jam sessions. These recordings were edited together in New York by Simon's producer Roy Halee - a monumental task in the age of analog recording, since in South Africa, they rolled a lot of tape that Halee had to sort out with a series of splices.
The lyrics contain some intricate wordplay that Simon wrote very carefully around the track, and the character in the song symbolic of his South Africa experience. At the time, South Africa was divided by Apartheid, a policy that separated blacks and whites, and a cultural boycott was in place (check out the Songfacts on "Sun City
"). Simon defied this boycott and went anyway, taking a lot of heat for his actions - even though his intentions were good, many black leaders in South Africa felt that any violation of the boycott hindered their cause. Because of the boycott, music from the area was secluded, and when Simon released Graceland
, he brought the music of the country to the world. In the documentary Under African Skies
, Simon explained: "'You Can Call Me Al' is really the story of somebody like me, who goes to Africa with no idea and ends up having an extraordinary spiritual experience."
This song is about a self-obsessed person becoming aware of his surroundings. In a 1990 interview with SongTalk magazine, Simon explained: "'You Can Call Me Al' starts off very easily with sort of a joke: 'Why am I soft in the middle when the rest of my life is so hard?' Very easy words. Then it has a chorus that you can't understand. What is he talking about, you can call me Betty, and Betty, you can call me Al? You don't know what I'm talking about. But I don't think it's bothersome. You don't know what I'm talking about but neither do I. At that point.
The second verse is really a recapitulation: A man walks down the street, he says... another thing.
And by the time you get to the third verse, and people have been into the song long enough, now you can start to throw abstract images. Because there's been a structure, and those abstract images, they will come down and fall into one of the slots that the mind has already made up about the structure of the song.
So now you have this guy who's no longer thinking about the mundane thoughts, about whether he's getting too fat, whether he needs a photo opportunity, or whether he's afraid of the dogs in the moonlight and the graveyard."
So where did "Al" and "Betty" in this song come from? That stems from a 1970 party that Simon hosted with his wife, Peggy Harper. Simon's friend, the composer Stanley Silverman, brought along another composer named Pierre Boulez, and when he made his exit, Boulez called Simon "Al" and his wife "Betty." Boulez was French, and he wasn't being rude - it was just his interpretation of what he heard - Paul=Al Peggy=Betty.
Silverman's son is Ben Silverman, a television mogul who was executive producer of the American version of The Office. In 2011, Ben commissioned a work composed by his dad called "Les Folies d'Al," which includes variations of "You Can Call Me Al" and is a send-up of the incident.
This was the first single off Graceland, which won a Grammy for Album Of The Year in 1988. It was Simon's first hit since 1980, when "Late In The Evening" went to #6 in the US.
The best we can tell, this is by far the biggest hit containing a penny whistle solo. It was played by Jy Morr (Morris) Goldberg, a white South African who was living in New York.
Simon arranged for some of the musicians who played on this song, including guitarist Ray Phiri, bass player Bakithi Kumalo and drummer Isaac Mtshali, to came to America, where they worked on some other tracks for the album and backed Simon when he appeared on Saturday Night Live, where he performed this song on May 10, 1986, a few months before the album was released. These musicians later accompanied Simon on his worldwide tour for Graceland.
The video featured Chevy Chase lip-synching the vocals while Simon pretended to play various instruments. Most videos at the time were "Performance Videos," meaning the bands would pretend to be playing the song. This video did a great job mocking them. The clip was also notable for its simplicity - it was shot in a small, unadorned room using a single camera.
When they recorded the tracks for this song in South Africa, Simon and his producers were sure they had a hit with this song. Even though the Graceland album did very well, this song was a slow starter. The single did well in the UK, where it made #4 in September, 1986, but in America, it stalled at #44 in October. After the album and video gained momentum, the song was reissued with more promotion in March, 1987, and this time it went to #23 in the US. It was Simon's last Top 40 hit in America.
Al Gore used this while he was running for Vice President in 1992. Simon has played at various Democratic fund raisers.
This echoes a line from the folk song, "Brother Can You Spare A Dime," about a guy who has fallen on hard times:
Say, don't you remember?
They called me Al
It was Al all the time.
Say, don't you remember?
I'm your pal.
Brother, can you spare a dime? (thanks, Andy - Los Angeles, CA)
The University of Florida band plays the tune to "You Can Call Me Al" at every basketball game and has done so for a number of years. It serves at an unofficial theme for the basketball team. The student section at the O'Connell Center (where the basketball team plays) is called the Rowdy Reptiles and while the song plays students sing along with "Da da da da, da da da da..." waving their hands with the music. (thanks to Gator fan and alumnus Sarah Burchfield)