Hello there! Our song this week is Bridge Over Troubled Water. This is a folk-pop song written in the style of a gospel tune. We will review the version by Simon & Garfunkel, and we will also discuss cover versions by Aretha Franklin and by Stevie Wonder. What a group of superstars we feature this week!
Simon & Garfunkel, Bridge Over Troubled Water:
Simon & Garfunkel were one of the greatest folk-pop groups of the 60s. Paul Simon wrote and arranged the songs, and he and Garfunkel shared the vocals. Several of their songs provided us with indelible memories of those times.
Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel grew up in the same neighborhood of Forest Hills, NY, and went to the same schools. They began singing together in middle school, and performed at school dances.
They then formed a pop music duo Tom and Jerry. Art Garfunkel was “Tom Graph” (the last name was chosen to reflect Garfunkel’s interest in math), and Paul Simon was “Jerry Landis.” Below is a publicity photo of Garfunkel and Simon as Tom and Jerry.
Paul Simon then wrote a song Hey Schoolgirl, that was recorded by Tom and Jerry. The song was a minor hit. Initially, it received airplay through the time-honored technique of payola to renowned disc jockey Alan Freed. The song eventually made it to #49 on the Billboard pop charts.
However, when subsequent releases failed to chart, the duo dissolved and both Simon and Garfunkel enrolled in college. They re-united as a folk duo in 1963, this time billing themselves as “Kane and Garr.” When performing at clubs in Greenwich Village, they were noticed by producer Tom Wilson, who signed them to a recording contract with Columbia.
In October 1964, Simon and Garfunkel released a folk album, Wednesday Morning 3 A.M. It contained a mixture of original Paul Simon tunes, a few traditional folk songs, and covers of a few pop tunes. In this album, the boys used their actual names rather than stage names. The album was a flop. At this point, Art Garfunkel enrolled in grad school, while Paul Simon took off for England to embark on a solo career.
When I was a graduate student in Oxford, I traveled to a folk club in London in fall 1965 to see a young American folksinger, who turned out to be Paul Simon. I greatly enjoyed his songs, his vocals, and his guitar playing. But I remember thinking “Music is a tough business. You can be quite exceptional, and never succeed without some breaks. Does this guy have what it takes to be a star?”
Later, some friends caught his act in London, and by that time he had been joined by Art Garfunkel. They raved about the duo; however, at that time Simon and Garfunkel had not yet had a breakthrough.
But back in the States a DJ in Boston was playing Simon and Garfunkel’s tune The Sound of Silence on his show. The song became popular, and stations along the East Coast began to play it.
At this point, producer Tom Wilson decided to re-mix the song. Inspired by the folk-rock sound made popular by The Byrds, Wilson assembled a group of studio musicians who created an instrumental backing for the Simon and Garfunkel tune.
Wilson turned The Sound of Silence into a folk-pop hybrid, and re-released the song. The good news is that this tune became a blockbuster hit. It reached #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 pop charts, and established a tremendous demand for Simon and Garfunkel songs.
The bad news was that Tom Wilson had not bothered to tell Paul Simon that Wilson was re-mixing his track. Simon was horrified to see his “pure” folk song turned into a folk-rock tune. However, he could not argue with the commercial success.
As a result of the success of the single, CBS rushed out an album called Sounds of Silence. Several of the songs on the album had previously been issued on an album titled The Paul Simon Songbook. That album had also been a commercial disappointment.
This time around, the success of their single The Sound of Silence, together with the fact that their songs were re-mixed in folk-pop style, produced a smash hit album. Folk purists didn’t like the sound, and were highly critical of Simon and Garfunkel’s commercialism, but by this point the duo were off and running.
Simon and Garfunkel further cemented their reputation when their music was used in the soundtrack of the 1967 movie The Graduate. This was one of the first films that integrated popular music into the fabric of a movie. In particular, the Paul Simon song Mrs. Robinson became forever linked with the success of Mike Nichols’ blockbuster movie that introduced Dustin Hoffman in his first starring role.
Bridge Over Troubled Water was the biggest single ever released by Simon and Garfunkel. It was the title tune of their 1970 album of the same name.
Apparently Paul Simon wrote the song quite rapidly. When the song was finished, Simon asked himself,
“Where did that come from? It doesn’t seem like me.”
Indeed, the song sounds more like a traditional gospel tune than Paul Simon’s usual compositions.
The singer assures his friend that he will stand by them, no matter what the circumstances.
When you’re weary, feeling small
When tears are in your eyes, I’ll dry them all
I’m on your side, oh, when times get rough
And friends just can’t be found
[CHORUS] Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down
When you’re down and out
When you’re on the street
When evening falls so hard
I will comfort you
I’ll take your part, oh, when darkness comes
And pain is all around
To further emphasize the gospel sound, Simon decided that the instrumental backing should be primarily piano, rather than the guitar on which the song was composed.
In the studio, Paul used “Wrecking Crew” session musicians Larry Knechtel on piano, Joe Osborn on bass and Hal Blaine on drums. For the recording, Simon and producer Roy Halee tried to emulate the style of Phil Spector’s “wall of sound.”
Bridge Over Troubled Water initially had only two verses – the verses listed above. However, both Art Garfunkel and producer Roy Halee believed that the song needed a third verse, so Simon added an additional verse (“Sail on, silver girl …”). However, he felt that the final verse was significantly weaker than the other two.
A crucial decision was who would sing the song. Simon felt strongly that Art Garfunkel’s “white choirboy” vocals would be perfect for the tune, and pushed for Garfunkel to sing it solo.
Here is Art Garfunkel singing Bridge Over Troubled Water.
Isn’t this beautiful? It is from the Simon and Garfunkel 1981 reunion concert in New York’s Central Park. The free open-air concert drew 500,000 people.
Of course, Paul Simon was correct: Art Garfunkel’s vocals are just perfect for this song. And the gigantic crowd at Central Park goes wild at the conclusion of the song. For many people, this was Simon and Garfunkel’s “signature tune.”
Columbia Records released Bridge Over Troubled Water as a single, even though at five minutes, it was significantly longer than the usual radio pop song. By then, Bob Dylan’s six-minute-long Like A Rolling Stone had become a monster hit, so there was not much hesitation about releasing Bridge Over Troubled Water as a single.
Columbia need not have worried about whether the song would sell. In 1971, Bridge Over Troubled Water won the Grammy Awards for both Record of the Year and Song of the Year. It sold over six million records worldwide, and there are currently over 250 covers of the song.
For a few years following its release, Bridge Over Troubled Water was the best-selling album of all time, until it was overtaken by Michael Jackson’s Thriller.
Unfortunately, Bridge Over Troubled Water would be the last Simon and Garfunkel album. For some time, there had been friction between Simon and Garfunkel, and apparently tensions were sufficiently high during the recording of the Bridge Over Troubled Water album that they agreed on a temporary separation.
The duo re-united a few times during the 70s. Below is a photo of Simon and Garfunkel performing at a presidential campaign event for George McGovern in June, 1972.
The occasional reunions did not manage to dispel the hostility between the pair. But the Sept, 1981 Concert in Central Park was such a phenomenal success that Simon and Garfunkel planned a subsequent tour in 1982.
However, that tour was cancelled, and although the pair recorded several tracks for another album, Paul Simon then decided to release the album as a solo project, the 1983 release Hearts and Bones.
Unfortunately, Bridge Over Troubled Water appears to have exacerbated the hard feelings between Simon and Garfunkel. Despite the fact that he had urged that Garfunkel sing it as a solo, when Simon heard audiences cheering wildly after Art finished the song, apparently Simon would say to himself, “Hey, wait a minute, that’s my song they are cheering for.”
I have seen Simon and Garfunkel performing together a few times on TV since their breakup. My impression is that while Art Garfunkel makes an effort to be civil, Paul Simon generally goes out of his way to behave like a complete jerk.
For example, when they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990, Art Garfunkel called Simon
“the person who most enriched my life by putting those songs through me,” to which Simon responded, “Arthur and I agree about almost nothing. But it’s true, I have enriched his life quite a bit.”
In 2000, Paul Simon was inducted into the Rock Hall of Fame as a solo artist, and he said “I regret the ending of our friendship. I hope that some day before we die we will make peace with each other,” then after a pause “No rush.”
I have no idea what went on backstage between the two, but I am not optimistic that they will ever perform together again. What a shame – on their best songs, Simon and Garfunkel shared a magical chemistry. They were a brilliant pop duo, and they enriched our lives with their music. Why can’t we all just get along?
Aretha Franklin, Bridge Over Troubled Water:
What can we say about Aretha Franklin, the “Queen of Soul”? She is one of the most successful and iconic artists of her era. Aretha Franklin is ranked #1 in Rolling Stone magazine’s list of 100 Greatest Singers of All Time.
Aretha was the first female artist inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Her career is legendary: she has sold over 75 million records; won 18 Grammys; and had over 100 songs listed on the Billboard charts, including 17 top-10 pop songs and 21 R&B singles that reached #1. No other female artist even approaches those numbers.
Below is a photo of Aretha Franklin, near the start of her performing career.
Aretha’s father was a highly charismatic preacher who moved to Detroit when Aretha was five. She began to sing in her father’s church and accompany him on gospel caravan tours. There she met Sam Cooke, who was in the process of switching from gospel to pop music. Cooke mentored Aretha and introduced her to music-industry executives.
The great John Hammond signed Aretha to a record deal with Columbia Records. At that point, stardom for Aretha seemed like a “can’t-miss proposition.” But Columbia seemed unable to determine a “niche” for the young artist, primarily because they had her singing old standards instead of exploiting her affinity to gospel music. Aretha herself was reluctant to utilize gospel techniques in pop music, for fear of upsetting her father, her friends, and her faith.
This all changed in 1967, when three great things happened for Aretha. First, she switched labels from Columbia to Atlantic Records; second, she was introduced to the Muscle Shoals musicians; and third she hooked up with producer Jerry Wexler. Below is a photo of Jerry Wexler and Aretha Franklin in the process of recording a song.
Wexler had been a successful journalist whose beat included black music. He turned out to have a fantastic feel for the music, the good fortune to hook up with record executive Ahmet Ertegun, and an ability to spot and nurture great musical talent. In addition to Aretha, he produced artists such as Ray Charles, Wilson Pickett, Dusty Springfield, Bob Dylan, the Allman Brothers, Led Zeppelin and Dire Straits.
Aretha’s first big hit with Jerry Wexler was the Otis Redding song Respect. Aretha turned “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” into a gospel-blues classic and a feminist anthem. After that beginning, Aretha Franklin churned out a series of iconic hits.
Here is Aretha Franklin singing Bridge Over Troubled Water at the 1972 Grammy Awards.
Wow, how terrific! It is as though Aretha was saying, “You want to hear how a gospel song should sound?” One can imagine her back in her father’s gospel choir in their Detroit church.
This is a really powerful rendition of this song. Backed by a girl-group gospel chorus, Aretha belts out the song in a slow, powerful cadence, backing it up with an impressive performance on piano. A lovely organ part accentuates the gospel feeling.
It’s impossible not to be strongly moved by Aretha’s performance. Her 1971 cover of Bridge Over Troubled Water made it to #1 on the Billboard R&B charts, and to #6 on the pop charts. Aretha Franklin won the 1972 Grammy Award for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance for this song.
Upon hearing her sing, it’s hard to imagine anyone else beating out Aretha for that award.
We are fortunate that Aretha has overcome some serious health problems and is still performing today. Several of her health issues are related to dramatic swings in her weight over the years. This was combined with her long struggle to stop smoking – a habit that was clearly detrimental to her voice. Unfortunately, the efforts to quit her two-pack-a-day habit were also correlated with rapid weight gain.
Today, Aretha has won nearly every imaginable honor in the music business, and she receives great respect from her peers. However, her personal life has been marked by challenges and setbacks. Aretha’s father C.L. Franklin had a scandalous reputation as a womanizer and there are allegations that he fathered a child by a 13-year old girl. Aretha herself had her first child shortly after turning 13 and her second at age 14, and rumors abound regarding the identities of the anonymous fathers.
Aretha was the victim of reportedly rather violent domestic abuse at the hands of her first husband. And her sisters Carolyn and Erma died of cancer in 1988 and 2002, respectively.
In addition, as outlined in David Ritz’ unauthorized autobiography, Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin,
Aretha can be suspicious and unpredictable; working with her can be difficult. Well, duh – isn’t that the definition of “diva?”
Anyway, we are delighted that we still get to hear Aretha Franklin live these days, and wish her good health and a long life.
Stevie Wonder, Bridge Over Troubled Water:
Stevland Hardaway Morris, better known as Stevie Wonder, is one of the premier R&B artists of all time. He was born in 1950 in Saginaw, Michigan. Because he was born six weeks premature and left in an incubator with an oxygen-rich environment, he developed a condition called retinopathy of prematurity, which resulted in his becoming blind very shortly after birth.
Stevie was a true child prodigy. His musical talent was realized extremely early, and he was signed to a Motown Records contract at the tender age of 11. His first two albums, released when he was 11 and 12, respectively, were not commercially successful.
However, Stevie’s live performance as part of the Motortown Revue was recorded and released in May, 1963 with the title Recorded Live: the 12-Year Old Genius. That album contained the single Fingertips, a song featuring Stevie on harmonica.
Below is a photo of Stevie Wonder at the keyboards, circa 1972.
Fingertips took off like a rocket. It reached #1 on both the Billboard Hot 100 and the R&B charts, making Stevie at age 13 the youngest artist ever to have a #1 hit.
Given Stevie Wonder’s universal fame, one might have assumed that he rose to the top and remained there ever after. However, Wonder’s career did not follow that trajectory.
After Fingertips, Stevie experienced a down spell. His voice was changing, and his next couple of albums bombed. Apparently several Motown executives were in favor of dropping Stevie from their label.
However, Stevie was given another chance to prove himself, and he carved out a number of hits during the mid and late 60s. In addition, Stevie co-wrote several Motown classics, including Tears of a Clown with Smokey Robinson, and It’s a Shame which became a big hit for the Spinners.
When he reached his 21st birthday, Stevie Wonder ended his contract with Motown. However, he re-signed with them in 1972, to a new contract that gave him greatly expanded autonomy, in addition to much more favorable royalties.
This began Stevie Wonder’s “classic period.” In 1972 he released the album Talking Book, which contained the single Superstition. This song hit me like a bombshell, as Stevie introduced us to the Hohner Clavinet keyboard, which in his hands produced amazingly funky, novel sounds.
Here is Stevie Wonder performing a medley of songs. He begins with his own A Time To Love, and then morphs into Bridge Over Troubled Water.
This was part of a charity benefit for Haiti relief following the disasters in that country. Stevie invariably produces a classy, creative take on any song that he performs.
Here, he is backed by a large choral group. They enter at the 2:30 mark, and help to accentuate the gospel atmosphere inherent in the song.
Stevie is a consummate musician. In addition to his mastery on keyboards, he has an absolutely beautiful voice, which he applies to these two songs. Listen carefully to the lovely and intricate melisma that he produces in this song. What a treat to watch Stevie Wonder take on this medley!
Stevie Wonder is a true musical genius. He takes us into new territory, pushing the envelope of rhythm & blues. He is the greatest harmonica player I have ever heard, and one of the most creative on keyboards.
In addition, he has been a social activist. Stevie spent a great deal of energy pushing to make Martin Luther King Day a national holiday. In 1985, upon winning an Academy Award for his song “I Just Called to Say I Love You,” Stevie accepted his award in the name of Nelson Mandela, thus getting all of his songs banned from South African radio by the apartheid government.
He has won 25 Grammy Awards, more than any other individual artist, and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989. You can read his extensive Rock and Roll Hall bio here. Stevie was also awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama in 2014.
Our wish to Stevie Wonder is that life’s blessings always be at his fingertips.
Wikipedia, Bridge Over Troubled Water (song)
Wikipedia, Simon & Garfunkel
Wikipedia, Aretha Franklin
David Ritz, Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin (Back Bay Books, 2015)
Wikipedia, Stevie Wonder
Stevie Wonder bio, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame