The story of “Bridge,” as it’s often referred, is one of a songwriting giant, a great collaborator, and a gospel icon; a cycle of doctrine to the masses and then back; and a message of comfort and hope to listeners worldwide.
Paul Simon, the compositional force behind his vocal work with Art Garfunkel, had already established the duo with classic songs like “A Hazy Shade of Winter”, "Scarborough Fair”, “America”, “Mrs. Robinson”, “The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feeling Groovy)”, and so many others. But as he began to work on a new tune’s initial line, “When you’re weary/Feeling small/When tears are in your eyes/I will dry them all,” he knew he had the start of something exceptional.
Simon had been taken by gospel music from an early age. He explained it this way:
“I loved the emotion of the singers and the songs, and there was something mysterious just about the word chapel because I didn’t know, at twelve or thirteen, what a chapel was or looked like.”
The Swan Silvertones had been of particular interest to him, and he reflected on a particular line the lead singer Reverend Claude Jeter had said, “I’ll be a bridge over deep water, if you trust in my name,” in the spring of 1969. It served as the inspiration for Simon to complete the song he’d been stuck on after its strong start.
Simon offered the lead to his vocal partner, as Garfunkel recalled:
“So when I heard it I said - it’s a killer. But you might consider doing it yourself because it gives you a chance to show off your falsetto. He said no, I wrote this specifically with you in mind. And I said immediately, cool, great, I’ll take it. And that simple little past that took 15 seconds of conversation has gone down in so many interviews…”
Among many covers of “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” Aretha Franklin’s version in 1971 stands out as taking the song to another level. Or perhaps, Franklin returned the song back to its gospel origin. Again, Garfunkel:
“Paul says he heard the phrase ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ sung as a Baptist riff. I took it to mainstream radio. Then Aretha so brilliantly brought it back to church.”