Each Summer, Central Park opens its gates early for the Good Morning America Free Summer Concert Series. Each Friday at 7am, a park that is known for being a quiet oasis in a city of chaos turns into a raucous concert hall, hosting tens of thousands of concert goers who were waiting in a crowd before dawn for a chance to get up close to their favorite artist for free. Since its inaugural season eight years ago, the GMA Summer Series has hosted free concerts by some of the world’s biggest artists. Beyonce, Green Day, Celine Dion, John Legend, and Florence and the Machine are just some of the acclaimed audiences that have filled the park with fans. With just four shows left in this summer’s lineup (Keith Urban on August 12th, Jason Aldean on August 26th, Jason Derulo on September 2nd, and a still to be determined mystery guest on August 19th) we here at Central Park Sightseeing wanted to take a look back at some of the most iconic concerts with the largest turnout that Central Park has ever seen. While the tens of thousands of early rises that attend these 7am concerts are nothing to scoff at, history has shown that there are some artists that can truly fill a room, or in this case, a park.
5. Elton John, 1980 (400,000 attendees)
On September 13th, 1980, Elton John (now Sir Elton John) performed what is arguably the biggest show of his career. The energy in the crowd was electric- due to both the fact that John was at the height of his career, and that the rumors that John Lennon, who was living at the nearby Dakota Building, would make an appearance (Despite Elton performing a cover of Lennon’s ‘Imagine’, The Beatle never showed. Despite this, the fans stayed for his nearly three-hour set, even waiting for John to return for an encore for almost 15 minutes off stage. It’s a good thing they did, because the encore is where John, notorious for his incredible flamboyant outfits, debuted what is perhaps his most iconic outfit of all time- The Bird Suit.
Fashion designer Bob Mackie, was a style icon of the 1970’s, creating fabulous looks for Diana Ross, Cher, and of course, John. When he mentioned to John, a close personal friend, that he wanted to design a Donald Duck suit for his dear friend to wear at his big show, John immediately accepted. The intricate suit took over 10 minutes to put on, resulting in what John later described as “the longest costume change of my life.” While he thought the fans were bound to leave, he emerged back on stage to find the crowd still intact, and ready for his encore.
4. Simon and Garfunkel, 1981 (500,000 attendees)
The 1970’s was not a fantastic time for Central Park. The industrial Baby Boomer generation had ignored the environmental needs of such a vast stretch of nature, and by 1980, it was deemed that over $3,000,000 was necessary to save it. This led to the founding of the Central Park Conservancy, the members of which made the bold choice to hold a free concert to raise money. It was proposed that merchandise and television sales of a highly anticipated concert could amount to enough money to save the park (a theory based on the Central Park concerts of James Taylor and the above Elton John). When deciding on who the artist to headline this charity event should be, only one name seemed right for Conservancy members: Simon and Garfunkel.
Simon and Garfunkel were a New York based band that sang of the beauty of America, New York, and Nature in general. They represented a generation of hope, and were thought to be able to bring hope back to the park. While the duo had separated over a decade earlier, they put professional and personal differences aside to help the greater good. Little did they know, this became the most legendary event in both of their career. The concert was aired on HBO, and the album is one of the highest selling live recordings of all time. And, as anyone can see, the plan work and the proceeds did help save the park.
3. Diana Ross, 1983 (Over 500,000 attendees)
Diana Ross took over Central Park for a full work in 1983, with a stretch of concerts lined up. Miss Ross, who performed her final show with girl-group The Supremes in the park thirteen years earlier, saw this as the biggest week of her career, and the notoriously confident singer worried that she may not be able to fill the crowd with fans.
The first night of the concert was poised to be the largest, but no one knew it was also be the most iconic. As the concert began, what “seemed like buckets” of rain poured from the sky, and Diana was sure that the crowd would leave. However, the Diva persevered, exclaiming “It took me a lifetime to get here. I’m not going anywhere.” She performed until the stage manager deemed it “too dangerous” due to electricity, but the energy of that performance set the tone for the string of performances.
2. The New York Philharmonic, 1986 (800.000 attendees)
The iconic New York city orchestra began performing in the iconic New York park in the early 60’s. After over two decades, the Philharmonic played its biggest show in history, when 800,000 concert goers gathered on The Great Lawn for the centennial celebration of The Statue of Liberty. Over 22,000 NYPD officers were on standby, and the concert still holds The Guinness World Record for largest Classical Concert in History.
1. Garth Brooks, 1997 (980,000 attendees)
In 1997, Garth Brooks was in the midst of a record breaking, two year world tour. When he announced that his only New York date would be a free concert in Central Park, people believed he and his promoter were crazy. They believed a million people would show up for the event, while Mayor Rudy Giuliani guessed only about 300,000 would attend. No one believed a country artist could fill a New York park, despite the massive fame Brooks experienced at the time. It’s funny how wrong smart people can be.
When people started lining up a week before the day of the show, people began to realize this may be a bigger event than expected. When the day of the concert arrived, and nearly one million country fans flooded the Great Lawn, it wasn’t Brooks and his team who were eating their cowboy hats- it was Giuliani, and the nay-sayers of New York. With surprise guests including Billy Joel (a New York institution) and Don McLean, this concert, which was released on DVD and CD, became legendary, and the largest in Central Park history.
(There are no videos of this concert on YouTube, so enjoy this delightful clip of Brooks and Justin Timberlake performing ‘Friends in Low Places!’)