There is a lot of musical history and interesting trivia to consider when listening to Paul Simon’s shimmering “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” from the amazing 1986 album Graceland. Steeped in South African sound and tradition, “Diamonds” is a vital entry one of the most significant and important musical catalogs of the second half of the 20th century. First as key songwriter and guitarist of 1960’s folk rock due Simon and Garfunkel, then as a solo artist, Paul Simon has crafted beautiful stories wrapped around intricate melodies and rhythms for over a half century. The songs are tales of our time, and as Simon once beautifully sang, “What a time it was.”
It’s not the trivia though that makes this song perfect. In my humble opinion, “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” may be the finest produced and arranged song in the history of popular music. It’s perfect. Any talk of background information, or how this song has played a significant role in my life, would only serve to diminish this singular musical accomplishment.
At first, we only hear the sublime voices of the South African acapella group Ladysmith Black Mambazo singing in their native South African language. Some of the group sings lyrics, some of the group sings wordless sounds. They offset each other to provide a complete piece of music as introduction. After fifteen seconds or so, we hear Paul come in, singing in English, as Ladysmith continues singing in Zulu.
“She’s a rich girl, she don’t try to hide it
She’s got diamonds on the soles of her shoes.
He’s a poor boy, empty as a pocket…”
As Simon sings “empty as a pocket,” Ladysmith falls in behind him harmonizing the words in English with Simon, at which point we can all sing along “Te na na, te na na na. She’s got diamonds on the soles of her shoes” as he is joined word for word by the dozen or so Ladysmith singers. The lines repeat and then the singing slowly fades to quiet. There is a pause.
Then, the beautiful electric guitar of Ray Phiri comes in, playing a complex arpeggio that is soon followed by the rhythm section anchored by Youssou N’Dour on percussion and Bakithi Kumalo on the smooth, luxurious sounding fretless bass. This moment of the song, this moment when the quiet vocals have come to an end and the rhythm section carries the song to the first verse, for me, is one of the finest moments in recorded music.
As the rhythm section moves the song along, Simon sings the first verse. There is not much of a story here, if there is we might just be too busy imagining what diamonds might look like on the soles of someone’s shoes. How do they look as they walk down the street? What kind of sound do they make as they strike the pavement?
“She was physically forgotten
Then she slipped into my pocket with my car keys
She said you’ve taken me for granted because I please you
Wearing these diamonds”
And that bass reminds us it is there. Relegated deep in the background on most songs, this unique fretless sound adds a note of melancholy and sadness as the word “forgotten” is sung, a perfect marriage of lyric and music. The chorus comes next.
“And I could say oo oo oo
As if everybody knows what I’m talking about
As if everybody would know exactly what I was talking about
Talking about diamonds on the soles of her shoes”
The percussion is still carrying the song along. The guitar is weaving complex, beautiful lines, and as the mood of the song changes from Simon singing “forgotten” to the doo wop joy of “and I could say oo oo oo,” the bass follows along, playing delightful, jumpy triplets.
There is that image again. Diamonds walking on the ground, maybe dragging along the pavement. As Simon sings the last line of the chorus we hear that scraping we might have imagined. A drum stick being dragged along a cowbell? A soda pop can scuffed along the pavement? I don’t know, but it fits. It keeps us connected to the song. It works.
As the scraping comes to an end, the big band horns come in, accentuating the rhythm. An acoustic guitar ends and begins each measure with a double strum. Ray Phiri comes back in on guitar. Paul’s high pitched voice brings back the doo wop. And the bass. The bass bringing us back form the chorus to the verse playing velvety notes as compliment to Simon’s singing.
Simon’s voice continues its dance with the horns. The bass continues to emphasize key lyrics as color, as mood, as story. The electric guitar weaves through everything. The scraping sound reminds of the physicality of diamonds, and the horns make us want to dance.
And then, as the story comes to an end, we hear from Ladysmith Black Mambazo again, whose voices have not been heard since the introduction. “Ta na na, ta na na na.” Percussion accents Simon’s harmonizing while the bass swirls down below everything. Then the instruments slowly fade out, and once again we only hear Ladysmith and Simon accompanied by crazy percussive rhythms.
Our ears are inundated by sound and color we have likely not heard before. From the unique vocals of a twelve man a capella group, to the fretless bass, to the scraping sound emphasizing the lyrics of the song, everything fits. Everything serves a purpose. One sound brings us to the next. The lyrics support the music, and the music informs the lyrics.
There is nothing in this song out of place. Every chance Simon takes with arrangement, instrument and timing works. Every experiment with nuance, color and sound succeeds. “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” is one perfect song. Perfect.
“Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes”
Written by Joseph Shabalala and Paul Simon
Performed by Paul Simon
Released April, 1987