Even when times are good, you're going to see guys on the corner asking for money in return for the privilege of watching them struggle through "Free Bird." That's just how it goes. The guys on this list, however, aren't your run-of-the-mill bums who've decided to take up an instrument to help with their panhandling. These are the guys with acts superior to what you're likely to see on a stage. Guys such as ...
#5. Charlie Barnett, aka Dave Chappelle's Mentor
Get a picture of Eddie Murphy in your head. Young, hilarious Eddie Murphy, not fat-suit wearing, latex-faced, farting for laughs, CGI-donkey Eddie Murphy. Funny Eddie Murphy. Got it? Now replace that image with this guy:
That's street performer and comedian Charlie Barnett, and in 1980 Eddie Murphy took Barnett's slot on Saturday Night Live. Not because he was funnier or better at short-shorts wearing, but because Barnett was a little illiterate. Put a pin in that, because we're coming back to it.
Through the 70s, 80s and 90s, Barnett was a guy who could win over any crowd with his raunchy, racially inappropriate jokes. And also AIDS jokes. And he won them, whole Washington Square fountains full of them, without a microphone, stage or eighth-grade education. Don't even watch this if you're sensitive to the N-word, blatant racial stereotypes or tight red sweat pants:
Back in the day, comedians loved Charlie Barnett. People who saw him said he was lightning fast with ad libs, and since Richard Pryor was nursing a coke addiction, Barnett was supposed to be the next big thing. He got that SNL audition, which he failed because he couldn't read the cue cards, and a three movie deal from Universal. He also got the cliche behind every good '80s performer -- a crippling drug habit.
So when the movies didn't do well and TV auditions stopped rolling in, Barnett just kept killing it at the park. Day after day, year after year. Performing for random passersby.
Who were mortally afraid he might point at them next.
His reputation and footage alone were enough to get a spot on this list, but consider this: We wouldn't have the Dave Chappelle we know and love today if it weren't for Charlie Barnett. Because while Chappelle was developing his act, getting booed at the Apollo and just figuring out how to make audiences love him, Barnett was his mentor. He even let Chappelle practice his act on his own audiences, like some kind of standup godfather. By the time Barnett died of AIDS in 1996, Chappelle's career was on its way.
A lot of street performers start off with a hard luck story, and Thomas Louis Hardin, or Moondog, was no exception. He was blinded by dynamite at age 16 ... aaaaand that's where his hard luck ended. Because despite performing with made-up instruments and making his living on sidewalks, Moondog was apparently a really influential musician. And also a little bit of a genius.
This is not a still from Hair.
Moondog's career started in 1943 when he landed on 54th Street in NYC ready to perform. But instead of hitting the jazz clubs like the other musicians of the time, he stopped short a few steps and stuck with the sidewalk. In addition to performing on handmade drums, flutes and portable keyboards, he was also known for his made-up instruments, like the trimba and the ooo-ya-tsu. Here's Moondog and his "oo" in action:
Oh, and did we mention that Moondog wore homemade leather pants, a horned helmet and a cape? In the 1940s?
There's no word on whether he used that spear musically.
Despite looking like a Rasputin/Nordic Santa mashup, by the mid-1950s Moondog's biggest fan was a conductor at Carnegie Hall, and Walter Winchell was writing him up in his world-famous column. This street musician was so well known that early rock deejay Alan Freed swiped his name and song for his own show, "The Moondog Rock and Roll Matinee," presumably because he assumed blind people are incapable of listening to the radio. Moondog won a NY State Supreme Court case against the guy with the help of major musicians like Benny Goodman, who testified that Moondog was a serious composer and musician.
Moondog reached such a surreal level of fame that he even made a record of children's songs with, we shit you not, Julie Andrews.
We assume his viking soul stained the cover blood red.
Not bad for a dude who played on sidewalks. As for the music itself, it was jazzy, and not nearly as weird as you'd expect. It's not like he was flapping his penis on a bongo or anything. You even can hear it for yourself:
And for a nice little bedtime lullaby:
#3. Joshua Bell
Let's play Choose Your Own Adventure: The Mystery of the Secret Street Performer. Imagine you're on your way to work. Maybe you're running late. You pop into the subway station and there, in a corner next to a trash can, is a guy playing the shit out of his violin. He's got his case out, so you know he's playing for money. Do you:
A. Stop for a few minutes and appreciate a glimpse of sublime art on an otherwise ordinary day;
B. Toss the guy a bone and throw some pennies in the case;
C. Pretend like he's not there. He's probably a rapist.
It could be a banjo for all you know.
If you're one of the 1,097 people who had a chance to hear world-famous violinist Joshua Bell on January 12, 2007, you most likely picked C. As in, you kept walking without giving the guy a second glance. After 43 minutes of playing, Bell made $32 bucks.
That might sound like a nice chunk for less than an hour's work to most of us, but Joshua Bell is no ordinary homeless guy trying to turn his music skills into crack money. That violin he was playing? A 300-year-old Stradivarius worth $3.5 million. Under other circumstances, people pay $100 a seat to hear Bell play -- he's played with just about every major orchestra in the world. He even has a Grammy.
Here he is, beasting it at the Grammys to prove it.
The whole thing was an experiment set up by Washington Post columnist Gene Weingarten. The question was simple: What would happen if a world-famous violinist performed incognito in rush hour traffic? The music director of the National Symphony Orchestra thought a crowd would gather and that a virtuoso would earn $150, easy. Bell himself didn't admit any expectations, except that he was surprised when nothing even remotely resembling a hint of a crowd gathered during the performance. At all. Some willfully ignored him, like he was the Cootie Man there to hand out free cooties to all who looked his way. Others loudly talked over him on their cells as they passed him, like they were jackass jerkfaces. Very few bothered to stop. Most interesting of all? Some pedestrians didn't even notice he was there.
And we know this because about 40 commuters were stopped as they left the station and asked if they'd mind participating in a survey later in the day. The first thing they were asked was if they'd noticed anything unusual about their commute that morning. Of the 40 people questioned, only one guy, a postal worker named John Picarello, mentioned the violinist. Correction: He didn't just mention him, he gushed about him. Out of a subway station full of people, only one guy had the insight to be impressed by one of the world's greatest violinists, playing for free.
Congratulations John, you win at the universe.