‘The Concert in Central Park‘ featured the triumphant return of legendary folk duo Simon and Garfunkel. After 11 years of off-and-on separation, this concert would be recognized as a landmark event in the world of live concerts. The big show occurred on the Great Lawn in New York’s Central Park, on September 19, 1981.
The concert was free to attend live. However, all proceeds from merchandise, television rights, and home video sales went towards the restoration of Central Park. At the time, Central Park was grossly underfunded, and still had a reputation for being high crime, especially at night.
This performance is one of the most famous live concerts of the 20th century. What follows are a series of interesting talking points in regards to the classic concert. It certainly had its ups and downs.
10. The Show Set a Great Lawn Attendance Record
Simon and Garfunkel’s Central Park was predicted to be one of the largest gatherings ever to see music, and the result exceeded every expectation. The concert drew an estimated 500,000 fans. This unbelievably large turnout would have broken any previous records for attendance for a show on the Great Lawn up to that point.
The record would officially hold for seven years, as the 1990 Earth Day concert drew far more people, closer to an estimated 750,000 attendees.
However, it is quite possible that the record only stood for two years. Diana Ross’ 1983 Great Lawn performance was estimated to have drawn anywhere from 450,000 to 800,000 fans. The numbers vary with this show. Either way, the S&G drew far more fans than expected, and Garfunkel acknowledged that during the show, saying they knew it “would be crowded, but [we] seemed to have filled the place.”
9. It Was Not Originally Considered a Reunion Show
Although Garfunkel had sung on occasion with Simon in the 11 years since their much publicized breakup, they weren’t actively touring or recording new music.
Thus, the posters and promotional media for the concert had the concert branded as Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel separately. It wasn’t announced as a reunion show until a week beforehand. This theoretically would be followed by a worldwide tour and a potential new followup album. Which leads to…
8. Garfunkel was cut out of the Follow-up Album
Garfunkel lent his vocals to Simon’s new songs. The album in this state would be released as Think Too Much by Simon and Garfunkel.
However, the two realized they just couldn’t continue working together after constant disagreements. Thus, Art Garfunkel would be removed from the album entirely. The new songs would go on to become Paul Simon’s sixth solo album, Hearts and Bones. The album featured all new music, with one new song in particular that fans of the concert would know well…
7. The Late Great Johnny Ace
Midway through the Central Park show, Simon stated he wanted to sing a brand new song. The clearly unpolished song was called ‘The Late Great Johnny Ace.’
It was a notably dark, haunting song with incredibly personal lyrics about Paul Simon’s life.
I was reading a magazine, and thinking of a rock and roll song
The year was 1954, and I hadn’t been playing that long.
When a man came on the radio, and this is what he said…
He said I hate to break it to his fans…
But Johnny Ace is dead.
Well, I really wasn’t such a Johnny Ace fan.‘The Late Great Johnny Ace’ featured some of the most non-nonsense lyrics of any of Paul Simon’s works.
But I felt bad all the same.
So I sent away for his photograph, and I waited till it came.
The song was a very different beast from the rest of the mostly upbeat and optimistic tunes from the rest of the show. The ominous sounding third verse mentioned the death of John Lennon, which was still very fresh on the minds of the fans in attendance.
One fan infamously jumped up on stage, and was hauled off by security while yelling “I gotta talk to you, I gotta talk to you.”
Simon being the true pro didn’t skip a beat.
The entire experience of the performance and its aftermath was overall very bizarre. As a result, it was left off of the 1982 record release. However, it was later put back in on the official DVD.
6. Blown Away
Speaking of things left off of other versions…
Early in the show while addressing the crowd, a line of dialogue was cut from the 2004 DVD release. This was most likely due to it being insensitive after 9/11.
The line “I hope that the sound is good” was originally spoken as “I hope that the sound is good. I hope that we’re blasting Central Park West and Fifth Avenue pretty much away.” to a loud cheer.
With only two years after New York had experienced such unimaginable tragedy, this might have been the least the editors could do.
5. The Rehearsals Were a Disaster
In the weeks leading up to the concert, the group rehearsed extensively as a 13 piece band. But at what cost?
Paul Simon told Playboy in an interview that “The rehearsals were just miserable. Artie and I fought all the time.”
During this process, the two even discussed playing two separate sets for each performer. In the end, they decided that one shouldn’t be each other’s opening act.
Hello ego, my old friend.
4. The Stage Resembled a New York Rooftop
It’s hard to imagine shows today being anything less than walls after walls of LED screens playing bright visuals during concerts, even in 1981. However, this show, being in a natural environment was much more practical.
The set for this show resembled a NYC rooftop, really hammering home the close ties the performers, the crew, and the fans had for this particular show.
It’s not my favorite set for a musical act, but it is still fun to see in action, and it is obvious that a ton of work went into it.
3. There was Almost No Backing Band
Early in the planning phase, Art Garfunkel had the idea of having the show be nothing but the two of them on stage for the entire time playing their songs over the background of one guitar.
However, Simon said that due to an injury he suffered, and the full-band orientation of his newer songs, this wouldn’t be possible. Garfunkel then decided they should hire a second guitarist. But in the end, they played as a 13 piece ensemble.
The first encore did however feature just the two of them playing S&G classics ‘Old Friends’ ‘The 59th Street Bridge Song’ and ‘The Sound of Silence’
2. Simon and Garfunkel Did Not Think They Did Well
The duo was not thrilled with their own performance, as they believed they did not play to the level they could have for such a high-stakes show.
Earlier during rehearsals, Garfunkel admitted he had trouble learning Simon’s solo songs.
Nevertheless, the show was still very successful, and received generally positive reviews from critics and audiences.
1. The Catalyst for a Movement
This concert started a trend of popular artists playing in the park to raise money and awareness for the maintenance and improvements of Central Park.
Funding for the park is still heavily reliant on such donations, from musicians and other philanthropists alike.
So, the next time you take a stroll through the oasis in the big apple, and you comment on how good it looks these days, keep Simon and Garfunkel in mind. They very well might be the ones responsible.