When I was a teenager and wanted to be a musician, I had two distinct phases. First, I had a gentle folky phase, and then one day I suddenly switched to harder, high energy music. I stopped listening to a lot of my old favorites. (I tell this story in my book Street Song.) During my folky phase I was into Dylan’s more gentle songs (“Girl From the North Country,” “One Too Many Mornings”), Paul McCartney ballads like “Mother Nature’s Son,” James Taylor, Donovan, and Simon and Garfunkel. I didn’t care much for Simon and Garfunkel as singers. In fact, I actively disliked Garfunkel’s voice. I found it cloying. But I did like their harmonies. I was mostly into Simon’s songwriting and guitar playing.
I haven’t listened to Simon and Garfunkel in more than 40 years, but a week or so ago I got one of their songs into my head—”So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright”—and it wouldn’t leave. That led to my becoming obsessed with another tune—”Song for the Asking.” Both songs are from the same album, Bridge Over Troubled Waters. Eventually I needed a fix. So I went to YouTube where I found a video of Art Garfunkel doing a live performance of the song “Bridge Over Troubled Waters.” It amazed me. It’s one of the most remarkable performances I’ve ever heard—and fascinating to watch.
In September of 1981 Simon and Garfunkel agreed to do a free concert in Central Park, and half a million people showed up. They hired some heavyweight studio musicians to back them up. The pianist was Richard Tee. The original piano part on the record was played by Larry Knechtel, a white studio player and it sounds like white gospel piano playing: nice and filigreed. Tee is black and the piano part has a different feel. He plays it on an electric piano and he funks up the arrangement just a little. There are more percussive, block chords than in the original, but he plays them tastefully. The first two verses are just Garfunkel and Tee playing a duet. You can tell they’re really listening to one another. Garfunkel is doing his choirboy thing, but he’s so pure, so devoid of any show biz pretense, and so musical that it’s very beautiful to watch. He’s intense, but restrained. He doesn’t get into any histrionics, which it would be very easy to do with that song. The way the melody is constructed and the key it’s in, he has to put energy into it to sing it at all, but he walks a very fine line. And, as the person who put up the video says, “He nails it.” It’s quite moving. He delivers the heart of the song and doesn’t make any mistakes, doesn’t fluff any notes, which is something very few pop singers can pull off in concert. They’re usually not disciplined or well-trained enough. And he does it in front of half a million people. I can’t recommend it highly enough. Art Garfunkel won my respect with his performance, and you can watch it here.