"Bridge Over Troubled Water" is the most celebrated song of celebrated songwriter Paul Simon's career and the most successful song associated with the very successful 1960s duo Simon & Garfunkel. Simon, who wrote nearly all the team's material, came up with it in the late '60s while composing songs for their fifth album. At the time, the combined success of their fourth album, Bookends, and the soundtrack to The Graduate (which featured their music) in 1968 had vastly expanded their commercial clout and given them time to prepare a worthy follow-up, which was good, since Simon was not a fast writer. Garfunkel, meanwhile, had turned to acting and been cast in Catch-22, directed by Mike Nichols, who had directed The Graduate. The film had a lengthy shoot in Mexico that kept Garfunkel from participating as fully as usual in the record. Simon, having written some up-tempo songs, decided to write a ballad.
He was particularly inspired by the work of the Reverend Claude Jeter and the Swan Silvertones, a gospel group, especially the song "Oh, Mary Don't You Weep for Me," on which Jeter improvised the line, "I'll be your bridge over deep water if you trust in my name." Writing on the guitar in the key of G, Simon came up with a stately melody and two verses in which a narrator (who could be God, a parent, a lover, or a friend) pledges to help someone in adversity, to be "like a bridge over troubled water." Later deciding the song was too short, he added a third verse in a slightly different style, beginning with the line, "Sail on, silver girl, sail on by." Commentators have since suggested that this was a reference to the Swan Silvertones or to Simon's prematurely gray fiancée, and one extreme interpretation held that it was a reference to heroin and that, in fact, the whole song was about drugs, a particularly fanciful case of late-'60s/early-'70s drug paranoia. Simon tried singing the song in falsetto, but decided it was better suited to Garfunkel's angelic tenor. Garfunkel, upon hearing the song, disagreed, and also disputed Simon's contention that it was the best song he'd ever written, another in the series of disputes that eventually broke up their partnership. But Garfunkel eventually agreed to sing "Bridge Over Troubled Water," which was then transposed into E flat for him. The recording prominently featured the piano playing of Los Angeles session musician (and later member of Bread) Larry Knechtel, though it built to a tremendous, string-filled climax. Simon & Garfunkel began performing the song at their concerts in 1969, and used it as the underlying music to a collage of newsreel footage of late-'60s political events in their network television special Songs of America, broadcast on November 30, 1969. Though they thought enough of the song to title their new album Bridge Over Troubled Water, it was CBS Records president Clive Davis who insisted it be released as the LP's leadoff single; the duo didn't think using a ballad as a first single was a good idea. "Bridge Over Troubled Water" was released as a single in January 1970, just in advance of the Bridge Over Troubled Water album. It was an instantaneous success, topping the charts by the end of February, going gold, and becoming the top pop single of the year; the album enjoyed identical success on the LP charts.
The song's lovely melody and generalized message of support, coming at the end of the turbulent 1960s, struck a chord with listeners. Indeed, it was one of a number of songs released in 1969-1971 that offered such comfort in the face of difficulties, including Peter, Paul and Mary's "Day Is Done," the Beatles' "Let It Be," and James Taylor's "You've Got a Friend" (the last written and also recorded by Carole King). But "Bridge Over Troubled Water" was the most popular of them. Also, at a time when record companies were encouraging middle-of-the-road artists to contemporize their repertoires, it was a perfect choice for covers, since, though current, it really wasn't a rock & roll song at all. At the same time, its gospel feel made it a natural for R&B performers, while its religious implications were not lost on country singers. Before 1970 was over, "Bridge Over Troubled Water" had appeared on 24 chart LPs, including ones by Johnny Mathis, Ray Conniff, B.J. Thomas, Peggy Lee, Andy Williams, Jerry Vale, Ed Ames, King Curtis, Quincy Jones, Jim Nabors, Paul Mauriat, the Jackson 5, Glen Campbell, Boots Randolph, the Ventures, Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, the Supremes, Nancy Wilson, Ferrante & Teicher, and Elvis Presley. In January 1971, Buck Owens released a cover of "Bridge Over Troubled Water" as a single that reached the Top Ten of the country charts. In February, the composition won the 1970 Grammy Awards for Song of the Year and Best Contemporary Song in a sweep that also saw Simon & Garfunkel win grammys for Album of the Year (the Bridge Over Troubled Water LP), Record of the Year (the "Bridge Over Troubled Water" single), and, along with Jimmie Haskell, Ernie Freeman, and Knechtel, Best Arrangement Accompanying Vocalist(s) ("Bridge Over Troubled Water"). In March 1971, Aretha Franklin released a cover single of "Bridge Over Troubled Water" that topped the R&B charts, just missed topping the pop charts, and went gold. Her version was featured in May on her Aretha Live at the Fillmore West album, one of 12 chart albums released in 1971 that featured covers of the song, including discs by Shirley Bassey, Ray Price, Perry Como, Tom Jones, the Boston Pops Orchestra, Roberta Flack, and Gladys Knight & the Pips. The flurry of covers eased somewhat after the first couple of years, but, over time, "Bridge Over Troubled Water" was recorded by hundreds of artists, including Chet Atkins and Jerry Reed, Betty Buckley, Richard Clayderman, Floyd Cramer, Linda Eder, Waylon Jennings, the Lettermen, Bill Medley, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Nana Mouskouri, Anne Murray, Willie Nelson, LeAnn Rimes, the Shadows, Jimmy Smith, Bonnie Tyler, Billy Vaughn, and Bobby Womack. In 1979, Linda Clifford scored a modest pop and R&B hit with her cover of the song, and the Dramatics got into the R&B charts with their version a decade after that. Naturally, Paul Simon, who wrote it, and Art Garfunkel, who sang it, have retained "Bridge Over Troubled Water" in their repertoires regularly since 1970. It appeared on their compilations Simon & Garfunkel's Greatest Hits (1972) and The Best of Simon and Garfunkel (1999), on their box set Old Friends (1997), and on their reunion album The Concert in Central Park (1982). Simon has performed it in concert, and his live versions appear on Paul Simon in Concert/Live Rhymin' (1974) and Paul Simon's Concert in the Park (1991); it is also on his box set, 1964/1993 (1993). Garfunkel put a version on his live album Across America in 1997.