The Return Of Art Garfunkel

Eight-time GRAMMY winner discusses his road to recovery from vocal cord paresis: "My knees would buckle and I wondered when the voice was going to return”
  • Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images
    Art Garfunkel
April 01, 2014 -- 1:47 pm PDT
By J. Poet / GRAMMY.com

Art Garfunkel's angelic voice has been part of the American musical landscape since "The Sound Of Silence," his first hit as half of Simon And Garfunkel, went to No. 1 in 1965. The soaring high notes he delivered during the coda of "Bridge Over Troubled Water" remain one of pop's transcendent moments and earned the duo GRAMMYs for Record Of The Year and Best Arrangement Accompanying Vocalist(s) for 1970 at the 13th GRAMMY Awards. Although Simon wrote the songs, Garfunkel was the duo's vocal arranger and helped hone their trademark sound.

After Simon And Garfunkel disbanded in 1970, Garfunkel forged a career as an actor, appearing in films such as Catch-22 and Carnal Knowledge, earning a Golden Globe nomination for his performance in the latter. Garfunkel also forged a career as a solo artist, recording albums such as Breakaway (1975) with producer Richard Perry, Fate For Breakfast (1979), the GRAMMY-nominated children's album Songs From A Parent To A Child (1997), and Everything Waits To Be Noticed (2002), a collaboration with Maia Sharp and Buddy Mondlock.

Meanwhile, nearly 50 years have passed since the release of Simon And Garfunkel's debut album, Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M. In recognition of their classic output, the duo were honored with a Recording Academy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2003, and four of their recordings have been inducted into the GRAMMY Hall Of Fame.

Garfunkel's voice remains warm and supple despite being diagnosed in 2010 with vocal cord paresis. Though he faced the possibility that he'd never sing again, Garfunkel has returned to the concert trail, with select East Coast dates scheduled through July.

In an exclusive GRAMMY.com interview, the eight-time GRAMMY winner spoke about his vocal recovery, his current tour, the recent compilation, 2012's The Singer, and youthful memories of music and singing.

Vocal cord paresis sounds serious. Was it a frightening diagnosis?
I think the doctor made it up in the office while she was examining me. I told her I was having trouble singing and she told me one of my vocal cords was stiffer and thicker than the other. She asked herself, "What shall we call it?" and paresis was a nice [medical-] sounding [term]. All I know is that the Garfunkel mid-range got cruder and I don't know what brought it on. I do know I went to a restaurant and choked on a bit of lobster. A few days later, there was some numbness. The doctor said I might have broken a blood vessel in my throat, but within a few weeks, I couldn't finesse my notes. I had to stop singing, almost had to stop talking, for the next year or so.

Were there any exercises or disciplines you had to practice?
I just stopped singing. Slowly, I started again, singing to James Taylor songs on my iPod. In 2012 I went to an auditorium to work on using a microphone and getting used to the reverb and other effects. I was working to an empty house and the voice was terrible. My knees would buckle and I wondered when the voice was going to return.

My wife is a Buddhist and goes to meditation groups, so I'd go along and ask if I could sing a song or two at the end of the evening. It was very vulnerable and I told them not to expect too much, but I knew I had to get back on the stage and act as if I was OK. The adrenaline you get from performing helps in the mending and I knew I had to face the obstacles to get back to where I am now. I did shows at smaller spaces, just showing up and singing and slowly it built up.

I started doing real shows again last year. I have a singing tape [singer/songwriter] Stephen Bishop gave me. There were a lot of Indian chants on it with long, slowly intonated vowel sounds in different pitches that help you relax and get some lovely sounding tones going in your throat.

Your current concerts feature a small band, some spoken-word pieces from your 1989 book Still Water, as well as a post-show Q&A. How did the new format evolve?
When I went back to the stage, I only did a few songs. I felt like a beginner again. I was frightened about performing, so I made the shows easy. I'd do "April Come She Will" and follow it with one of the prose poems I've been writing for the past 30 years or so. Slowly I built up to a version of "Bridge Over Troubled Water" with just myself and Tab Laven on guitar. The band is smaller so I have to work harder, which is asking for trouble, but I like to put myself out there and it's fun to be able to sing like Arty Garfunkel again.

There are two new songs featured on The Singer, "Lena" and "Long Way Home" the first you recorded since dealing with your condition.
[That album is] my baby. It looks at my recordings in chronological order. Recording the new songs was tough, but successful, made easier by working with [producer] Maia Sharp. She's an excellent arranger, writer and producer, sings with a great jazzy, female rocker's voice, and plays one mean sax. She's one of the most musical persons I've ever met. It's thanks to her that we got good results from those two songs.

What got you interested in singing when you were young?
The car radio and my parents; both were amateur singers. We had a piano in the living room and they'd sing two-part harmonies in thirds, like the Everly Brothers. I remember them doing "Bye, Bye, Blackbird" and playing the Andrews Sisters and Bing Crosby on the Victrola; big, thick 78 rpm records. The wide open tones of Crosby singing "White Christmas" were so creamy and sounded so easy that I opened my mouth and found I could hold a good pitch and keep that open quality in my throat. I looked for no applause or response; I instantly sought privacy. At 5 years old, I'd walk to school and sing the rhythms I found in the cracks of the sidewalk. I liked inspirational songs like "You'll Never Walk Alone" and love songs that climbed to a peak like "Unchained Melody," perhaps foreshadowing what I'd eventually be doing on "Bridge Over Troubled Water." I'd practice harmonizing with Nat "King" Cole on the radio, singing just over or under his lead, trying to capture the essence of his tone. In junior high, I sang in a school talent show and Paul Simon was in the audience. We became fast friends when we were 11.

Before Simon And Garfunkel, when you and Simon performed as Tom And Jerry, you wrote together. Are you doing any writing these days?
While the voice was troublesome, I worked mostly on that. Songwriting is not my natural bent, although I do write prose poems and little autobiographical pieces. I'm working on another book of prose right now. … I like working and being creative, especially with music. I think it keeps you ageless.

(J. Poet lives in San Francisco and writes about Native, folk, country, Americana, and world music for many national and international publications and websites.)

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