Carly Simon

ME, A PIONEER? Simon says her ’70s inroads for female singer-songwriters didn’t really last. “It was a movement that led into imitators who were not respected except as people who could sell records and look good.” (Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles Times)

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?"
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. —

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.

"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.

"It's always very disconcerting to have been signed by someone, and then when your record comes out, that person's not there," Concord's senior vice president of marketing Gene Rumsey said in a separate interview. "You feel like 'I no longer have a sponsor, a champion.' But at Hear Music, all signings have been jointly made decisions, and she certainly does have a sponsor and champions, in our company as well as at Starbucks."

Day-to-day operation of Hear Music has been handed over to the jazz-oriented Concord label. Simon said the transition has renewed her confidence, but only after some trauma.

"I was very angry at first," she said, perfectly postured on a sofa, a teacup and saucer positioned politely on her left knee, deftly crossed over the right. Such poise was honed over a lifetime of social gatherings, stretching back to her childhood at home in Manhattan on through years of retreats to the family compound "on the Vineyard" -- standard nomenclature among denizens of Martha's Vineyard, Mass. (She socialized regularly with Lillian Hellman, William Styron, Katharine Graham and columnist Art Buchwald, whose personalized musical eulogy from Simon, "Too Soon to Say Goodbye," closes her new album.)

"I went through all the stages: anger, denial, acceptance," she said. "But we had a big meeting at Concord where I got to meet all the new people, and I got the confidence that people had either done their homework or were initially fans." She liked former Starbucks-Hear Music talent development exec Alan Mintz so much that she recently hired him to stay on as her manager.