Welcome to our “Psychedelic Lunch”series, where we find out how deep the rabbit hole really goes and explore music and musicians from the 60’s to today. Enjoy the trip!
Paul Simon wrote this about providing comfort to a person in need. It started as a modest gospel hymn but became more dramatic as he put it together. Speaking in the documentary The Making of Bridge Over Troubled Water, Simon said, “I have no idea where it came from. It came all of the sudden. It was one of the most shocking moments in my songwriting career. I remember thinking, ‘This is considerably better than I usually write.”
Art Garfunkel sang this alone, although he thought Simon should have sung it. Said Simon, “Many times I’m sorry I didn’t do it.”
Simon often sang it at his solo shows; at the last concert of his 2018 farewell tour, he introduced it by saying, “I’m going to reclaim my lost child.”
At first, Simon thought the opening lyrics were too simple: “When you’re weary, feeling small.When tears are in your eyes, I will dry them all.” He later realized that it was this simplicity that helped give the song a universal appeal.
Simon wrote this song with just two verses, considering the song “a little hymn.” Garfunkel and producer Roy Halee heard it as more epic, and convinced him to write a third verse, which Paul did in the studio (the “Sail on, Silvergirl part”). This was very unusual for Simon, as he usually took a long time writing his lyrics. Simon’s “little hymn” got a grand production, and after hearing it, Paul thought it was too long, too slow and too orchestral to be a hit. Clive Davis at Columbia Records is the one who heard the commercial appeal of the song, and insisted they market it like crazy and use it as the album title.
This is one of the most-covered songs ever. In the ’70s, so many people sang a version that it became a bit of a joke, the punch line being that most renditions were terrible, as the song is very hard to sing with any competence. Years later, the Lynyrd Skynyrd song “Free Bird” reached a similar level of musical ubiquity.
Elvis Presley did a version of this song that helped win over many critics who claimed he was not a great vocalist. It appears on his 1970 album That’s The Way It Is.
Paul Simon said this about the Elvis recording: “It was in his Las Vegas period and done with conventional thinking. He sang it well, but it would have been nice to hear him do it gospel because he did so many gospel albums and was a good white gospel singer. It would have been nice to hear him do it that way, to take it back – as opposed to the big ending; he seemed to end everything with a karate chop and an explosion. So he didn’t really add anything to the song. It’s not nearly as significant as the Aretha Franklin recording. It’s just a pleasure for me that Elvis Presley recorded one of my songs before he died.”
The production was modeled on Phil Spector’s “Old Man River” by The Righteous Brothers. Spector is famous for his “Wall Of Sound” production technique, and when he did “Old Man River,” he kept it mostly piano through most of the song but had it end with a flourish of instruments.
Simon wrote this song on guitar, and it took about two days to come up with the piano part, which was played by Larry Knechtel, who later joined the soft rock group Bread. Simon, Garfunkel, Knechtel and the album’s producer Roy Halee worked together to transform it into a piano piece. Knechtel, who was best known as a bass player, had a background in gospel music and was able to come up with the gospel piano sound they were looking for.
The line “Sail on, silver girl” is often reputed to refer to a needle (meaning the song is about heroin) but it actually refers to Simon’s girlfriend (and later wife) Peggy Harper who found a few gray hairs and was upset. The lyric was meant as a joke – Simon calling her “Silver Girl” because of her hair.
Around the time he wrote this, Simon had been listening to a lot of music by the gospel group The Swan Silvertones, which he says subconsciously influenced his decision to put gospel changes in the song. A Swan Silvertones song called “Oh Mary, Don’t You Weep” contains the line “bridge over deep water,” which may have seeped into Simon’s subconscious as well. In 1973, Simon had the group’s singer Claude Jeter sing on his UK hit “Take Me To The Mardi Gras.”
Simon started writing this In 1969 at a summer house that he and Garfunkel rented on Blue Jay Way in Los Angeles (Garfunkel was in Mexico acting in the film Catch 22 at the time). It was the same house where George Harrison wrote The Beatles song “Blue Jay Way.”
The string section was arranged by Ernie Freeman. After listening to Simon’s demo, he made up the arrangements for the musicians, and wrote the song title as “Like A Pitcher of Water.” Simon got a kick out of how Freeman didn’t even bother listening to the words, and made a framed copy of one of the music sheets with Ernie’s title.
Simon played a stark version of this at the 2001 “Tribute To Heroes” benefit telethon for the victims of the terrorist attacks on America. Other performers included Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, and Mariah Carey. Almost 60 million people watched the show in the US. To put that in perspective, the Super Bowl draws about 80 million viewers.
In 2008 it was reported that Paul Simon sued a musical clock company for using this song without permission. His lawyers claimed that Rhythm Watch Co Ltd and its subsidiary had used its tune on 40,000 clocks, making a profit of around $3.7 million.
Some of the top Los Angeles session players performed on this track: Joe Osborn on bass and Hal Blaine on drums. Blaine’s drums were muted for most of the song, but recorded in an echo chamber for the last part of the song to get the crashing effects. Garfunkel’s vocals were added last.
Before this song was released, Simon & Garfunkel performed it on a six-city tour in 1969 they embarked on with the session musicians who played on the album as their band. Art Garfunkel would introduce it as a new song, and by the end of each performance there would be rapturous applause. Recordings from this tour were eventually released on their Live 1969 album.
This was included on the 2001 Columbia Records benefit CD God Bless America. Proceeds from the disc went to the Twin Towers Fund.
Bridge Over Troubled Water was the last album Simon & Garfunkel released before they split up. It is the biggest selling ever for Columbia Records.
In 2010, the Songwriters Hall of Fame honored this song with its Towering Song Award. At the ceremony, Art Garfunkel said: “Well, here we are, years later, I’m still singing it from town to town, and it’s completely alive and fresh to me. There is nothing dated, or any feeling of the past – I love doing it. Thank the Lord the feeling – the goose bumps – constantly checks in every time I do it.”
Aretha Franklin’s version, a #1 R&B hit, won the Grammy Award for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance. While most of her hits from the era featured Muscle Shoals musicians, this one brought in a different group of noted session players, including Billy Preston (organ), Chuck Rainey (electric bass), Cornell Dupree (guitar), Ray Lucas (drums) and King Curtis (tenor sax).