The ’70s were off to quite an impressive start 50 years ago. Hitting #1 on the Billboard singles chart this day in 1970 was that year’s biggest hit… and one of the best of the era. Simon & Garfunkel hit the top for the third and final time with what would become their signature tune, “Bridge over Troubled Water.”
The single was the title track from their final studio album, and the second single off it after the solid “The Boxer”. “Bridge…” came in at just about 5 minutes, which was long for a single back then so Columbia initially balked at releasing it unedited for radio, but the pair insisted and Clive Davis of Columbia had seldom been disappointed by them, so he acquiesced. Rather a smart call as it not only quickly earned them a gold single and sat on top of the singles chart for six weeks, it also went to #1 in Canada (where it likewise was the top seller of the year) and New Zealand and came close at #2 in Britain. A year later it won the pair Grammys for both Song of the Year and Record of the Year.
The title was somehow symbolic of the childhood friends who were going through some troubled waters (and would part ways very soon after.) Rolling Stone which puts it among the 50 greatest songs of all-time mentioned the irony that “when Simon wrote this tribute to friendship, he and Garfunkel were fighting over everything.” It was written entirely by Simon, as was almost the entire album, while Garfunkel was turning his attention to trying to be a movie star. Garfunkel’s only notable contribution was to sing what Paul told him; which in this case was the lead on the whole song… something Simon regretted soon. He admitted to feeling jealous of it and often played it in his later solo shows saying he was “going to reclaim my lost child.”
He wrote the song quickly; in fact he remembers “it all came all of a sudden. It was one of the most shocking moments in my songwriting career. I remember thinking, ‘this is considerably better than what I usually write.’” Whether or not it was considerably better is open to debate, but it certainly is on a par with his better pieces which have come out through his five-decade career. He was vaguely inspired by a gospel song called“Mary, Don’t You Weep” which had the line “I’ll be your bridge over deep water if you trust me.” He said he envisioned the song as rather a gospel testimony.
When it was written, the music was put down in L.A. by the Wrecking Crew, including Hal Blaine on drums and Larry Knetchel on electric guitar. A string section was brought in to add to the big Spector “Wall of Sound” effect. Meanwhile, Art Garfunkel finally made his way to New York where he and Simon recorded the vocals – they tried for a Righteous Brothers sound – and some limited Simon acoustic guitar work. It was all done in about a day in each city.
While it became the already-popular pair’s biggest hit, and is ubitiquous, that hasn’t stopped others from interpreting it. It was one of the most covered songs of the ’70s, with Aretha Franklin and Elvis Presley being the more noteworthy artists who did so. Simon approved of Elvis recording one of his songs, but said “he sang it well but it would have been nice to have him do it gospel, because he did so many gospel albums.” But be it pop or gospel, “Bridge Over Troubled Water” is one fine track… and that’s the gospel truth!