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At 77, Art Garfunkel Still Loves To Sing - And Put On A Show


Art Garfunkel comes to Rockford's Coronado Performing Arts Center Thursday night. 

Art Garfunkel is perhaps best known as one half of Simon and Garfunkel. He says his on-again, off-again association with Paul Simon actually started when they were kids.

He says he taught Simon how to sing, and sing harmoniously, at age 11. But this middle child of three boys in a middle-class Jewish family in Queens said he started much earlier than that, in the 1st grade.

"I found myself singing for my own ear's delight," he said, "and it soon took me to rooms with tiles and reverb. And then I started thinking, 'I'm as good as the people on the radio. I really like what I'm hearing. Thank you Lord, You gave me a nice gift here.' And I would sing for my own ear's sake and refine, refine, refine. Push the keys higher. Sing the song and then do it again one key higher. Years of that stuff."

He sang along with singers on the radio like Nat King Cole, who became role models for him.

"I loved Bing Crosby singing. The ease of 'I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas' was without parallel," Garfunkel said. "There are certain singers that are better than anybody I ever heard. And they became super special, [like] Johnny Mathis: 'They Tried to Tell Us We're Too Young.'"

Despite those influences, and despite the folk ballads he became known for, Garfunkel said he never saw himself as a crooner.

"I would never have had a career if I didn't know how to record grooves, wonderful sexy grooves," he said.  "You have to know what's going on with the drum and the bass, the guitar and the piano, so that it grooves --  makes the girls want to pull the guys on to the dance floor. I love slow dancing. And I like folky acoustic style to my rock-and-roll. But I'm a rock-and-roller who loves poignant lyrics and who really goes for the goose bumps."

Garfunkel pursued both solo projects and collaborations, but it was his partnership with Paul Simon, with huge hits like "Bridge over Troubled Water," that remain fixed in many peoples' minds.

He said he's OK with that now. But in the early 70s, it was all too much, and he quit the business for a couple of years. He moved to Connecticut and taught sophomore math at a high school.

"I think I had so much noise that went with the success of 'Bridge over Troubled Water' in 1970," he said, "that by '72, turning the noise off was really my point of view. Go private. I met a gal from the south and I wanted to live with her, and we found a house in Connecticut. And the notion of turning my back on the record business, and all business, and the heat of it all -- It was my most popular time, and I wanted to cool it. So I lived in Connecticut, I taught school there for a while. The teaching of the class was not a success. The marriage was not a success. And this two year period was kind of a trial and error. Mostly error."

More rough patches followed -- several failed marriages, a girlfriend's suicide -- not to mention the ups and downs of a music career, and, in recent years, physical issues that go along with getting older. 

So why, at age 77, go on tour? Why not do cameo appearances at group concerts, such as those blast-from-the-past PBS specials? The "In Close-Up" tour is a solo show -- just him singing and reading from his poetry and autobiography on a big stage, backed only by a guitarist and pianist. I had to ask: Doesn't he feel a little... exposed?

"Or 'vulnerable' is a word I use. 'Pretty naked.' 'Less is more.' These are the words I use," he said. "You got right to the essence of the bravery of the show. Like I can't believe I'm doing this -- death swoon, leaping into the pool hoping it has water this time. It seems to always have water, thank God."

He's put himself and his vocal chords out there for an audience his whole career, he said, and he's not going to quit now. It's who he is. And while he'll be trotting out hits from his long career, he wants the audience to leave the show with more than a sense of nostalgia about him or the music.

"It's up tempo, and it gets literary for a while, and then it gets jokey," he said. "It's balanced nicely. The line that runs through the night is well done. And the feeling of satisfaction in the gut. You're left with that feeling at the end of, 'This show works.' I want them to say, 'This is the best show I ever saw, Honey.'"

He said he's always wanted that, and always will. And, in his words, he's "burning with the fun of performance" like never before.

Guy Stephens produces news stories for the station, and coordinates our online events calendar, PSAs and Arts Calendar announcements. In each of these ways, Guy helps keep our listening community informed about what's going on, whether on a national or local level. Guy's degrees are in music, and he spent a number of years as a classical host on WNIU. In fact, after nearly 20 years with Northern Public Radio, the best description of his job may be "other duties as required."