Rock & roll was in full creative bloom, the film version of the Woodstock festival was about to open in theaters, and Led Zeppelin had overtaken the Beatles as favorite rock band in a U.K. poll. But 50 years ago, on February 28th, 1970, the song that would hit Number One and remain there for six weeks wasn’t a rocker but a ballad, and, it turned out, the ballad the country seemed to need at the moment as the tumultuous Sixties ended.
Musically, Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” would be a key moment in Simon’s creative development, demonstrating that he wasn’t simply limited to folk rock. A fan of gospel music, he had always loved the Swan Silvertones’ “Oh, Mary Don’t You Weep” and its opening line: ”I’ll be a bridge over deep water if you trust my name.”
As Simon later told biographer Robert Hilburn, the song was written quickly in his apartment on New York’s Upper East Side: The “essence” took 20 minutes, and he said “the first two verses were done in two hours” — all exceedingly efficient for the notoriously methodical Simon. The formative version of the song only had two verses. A third — starting with “Sail on, silver bird” — arrived later, inspired by the moment Simon’s first wife, Peggy, looked in the mirror one day and saw a few early gray hairs.
The Simon and Garfunkel’s loyal engineer Roy Halee and their manager Mort Lewis loved the song, but Art Garfunkel was initially cool on it, feeling it was, he said, “not his best song, but a great song.” As Simon told Rolling Stone in 1972, “He didn’t want to sing it himself. He couldn’t hear it for himself. He felt I should have done it. And many times I think I’m sorry I didn’t do it.”
During recording sessions in Los Angeles in the summer of 1969, pianist Larry Knechtel transposed the chords from Simon’s guitar to piano and wrote the introduction, further taking it into gospel territory. Then the work began: In an interview shortly before his death in 2009, Knechtel recalled playing at least 72 takes as Simon watched over him. It eventually took four days for the piano, although Simon would still think the last note of the orchestration went on too long.
Garfunkel eventually did sing the song, carefully adhering to the melody and transforming it from gospel to hymnal; at the song’s climax, he reached for and hit a high note that would be one of his defining moments on record. The next twist arrived when Clive Davis, head of Columbia Records, argued that “Bridge Over Troubled Water” should be the first single from the duo’s forthcoming album. They preferred the more rhythmic and upbeat “Cecilia,” but Davis felt there was something beautiful and universal about “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”
As they often did, Davis’ instincts served him well. Released during an uncertain time in the country, “Bridge Over Troubled Water” was the comforting balm that the culture, and the world, needed at that moment. It not only lorded over the U.S. charts but went Top 10 in South Africa, Malaysia, Lebanon, Denmark, Switzerland, and other countries. Everyone from Aretha Franklin and country banjo legend Earl Scruggs to cabaret star Peggy Lee covered it. Columbia claimed that the Bridge Over Troubled Water LP sold nearly 2 million copies in three weeks.
The song and album’s crowning achievement would arrive the following year, when “Bridge Over Troubled Water” won Song and Record of the year and the accompanying LP snagged album of the year. The song also won an arranging Grammy, Best Contemporary Song, and the award for best nonclassical engineering. At the ceremony, Franklin, whom Simon also had in mind when he wrote it, performed “Bridge Over Troubled Water” as Simon and Garfunkel looked on from the audience (here’s a clip of her performing it in 1971). After six weeks, the song was eventually displaced at number one by the Beatles’ “Let It Be” — also written with Franklin in mind.
And check out Aretha Franklin performing an arrangement again, in 1992, below.