Photo by Gary Behrens
Artie Stewart in Washington Square Park singing and sporting his Saturn “halo” hat.
BY SHARON WOOLUMS | It was a sad day on April 5 in Washington Square. Artie Stewart, the “Heart of the Park,” quintessential crowd pleaser, passed away into the park’s annals of those forever loved and never forgotten. His wonderful, zany antics will no longer make us giggle. Artie’s fellow park musician Sage Logan expressed what many felt: With Artie gone, it’s like showing up at the park and the arch is missing!”
Arthur “Artie” Stewart was born June 21, 1944, to George and Lady Stewart on Riverside Drive.
Al Heitzer, who knew and sang with Artie, told of the early years.
“Lady Stewart was a stereotypical stage mom, pushing her son into music,” he recalled. “Artie frequented the Inwood YMCA, where musicians rehearsed. In 1958, with Artie one of the leads, The Sinclairs, our doo-wop high school quintet of varied ethnicities — African-American, Jewish, Puerto Rican, Italian and Lebanese — was formed. Singing in courtyards, George Washington High School hallways and subways, finally we were hired for birthday parties, churches and Y’s.
“Later, donning dandy attire, we sang in Downtown clubs and venues — Tony Pastor’s, The Gold Bug and Trude Heller’s in the Village.
“Word of mouth traveled about our band,” he continued, “and in 1961 The Sinclairs were close to signing a recording contract with Dice Records. Thinking that recording recent covers was wrong, we returned the contract unsigned.”
In 1960 Artie began hanging out in Greenwich Village with the likes of Richie Havens and Joan Baez. He became a fixture in Washington Square Park, singing folk songs as a tenor with the new Sinclairs band. Artie lived in the East Village, then moved to Soho, where he resided for four decades.
At a memorial jam for Artie on April 7 in Washington Square Park, many spoke. What follows is a summation of their comments:
Colorful, fun-loving and creative, Artie, the most off-the-wall, high-spirited, energetic presence in the park, lifted spirits. When you heard the slide whistle, you knew “Artie the Party” was coming, and before you knew it, Artie had you swaying to his rhythm and you were smack in the center of Artie’s always amusing and entertaining world.
A unique, kind and wonderful person, Artie had a welcoming, positive, nonjudgmental, upbeat spirit, a pure energy. There was no pretense about the man. He was charismatic and charming, a Village character, but he also had character. If he happened upon a skirmish, Artie would exclaim, “Show a little love!”
Always in good humor, his indomitable spirit transcended any problem as he roller-skated and biked down life’s sometimes difficult paths.
“A free musical cat,” Artie moved to the music that was in him and around him. An inspiration to musicians, he coached, encouraged and supported them. Artie, whose heart beat to a different drum, could make any song his own, coming from the rhythm, embroidering on a theme and coming back to it. He wanted everybody to be happy and harmonize — in more ways than one!
Artie, you may rest in peace knowing that your music lives in all those lucky enough to have gathered round you: musicians who got to play with you; tourists from around the world who got even one glimpse of a true free “Village” spirit; all the little children who danced with sweet abandon to your playful, joyful noise; and all who saw — no, experienced! — you singing in the sun with colorful umbrellas, your utility belt with bells, whistles, tambourines — “the look”: goggles, Saturn summer hat — aviator glasses in winter and blinking lights.
Artie used to include splits in his act until the last split, when he ripped his pants. Someone has a photo of that somewhere since there are countless photos of Artie all over the world.
Talented musician friends sang an Artie signature song, “Have You Ever Seen the Rain.”
Karen Bartolo spoke for many, when she said, “My tears are like the rain coming down on a sunny day but I know he will be with us still at every jam — when he’s not directing the angels in song”…in his Saturn hat — Artie’s halo.
Artie Stewart’s siblings, George Jr. and Patty, both predeceased him. He is survived by his wife of 46 years, Mary Stuart.
Details about a memorial will be announced.
For a commemorative video of Artie, see http://youtu.be/KKj9PbQvd7k .