In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
“I’m going to reclaim my lost child.” This year, when Paul Simon was on his big farewell tour, that’s what he would say before playing “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” “Bridge Over Troubled Water” had been bothering Simon for 48 years. He’d written this incredible song, this modern standard, and he’d given it to another guy to sing. He’d never quite forgiven himself.
Simon didn’t have to give “Bridge Over Troubled Water” away. When Simon wrote the song, he thought that his mostly-estranged bandmate Art Garfunkel should sing it. He knew he’d written a secular gospel song, and he thought Garfunkel had a better voice for something like that. Garfunkel didn’t agree. Garfunkel liked the way Simon had sung it on the demo. Garfunkel tried to convince Simon to sing it. Simon said no.
Garfunkel and Roy Halee, the song’s co-producer, also had to convince Simon to beef the song up, to add the extra “sail on silver girl” verse. Simon didn’t want to do that, and he thought it didn’t fit too well with the rest of the song. Simon also had to be convinced that “Bridge Over Troubled Water” could be a single. He thought it was too slow and ponderous for the radio. It turned out to be the biggest hit he ever wrote.
Somehow, mystically, everything worked out the way it should’ve. Simon was right about Garfunkel. Garfunkel was born to sing “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” It’s a vast, searching hymn of a song. It’s a pledge of devotion, a promise to do everything for a person in need. Simon had been writing with gospel in mind, and he’d unknowingly paraphrased the gospel group the Swan Silvertones, who’d sung about being a “bridge over deep water” on their 1958 version of “Mary Don’t You Weep.” (Simon reportedly handed Swan Silvertones leader Claude Jeter a big check once he realized what he’d done, and he featured Jeter on his 1973 solo song “Take Me To The Mardi Gras.”)
Simon wrote “Bridge Over Troubled Water” with a touching simplicity: “When you’re weary / Feeling small / When tears are in your eyes / I will dry them all.” And Garfunkel sang those words with an absolutely devastating stillness. He hit big notes, but he was never showy about it. “Bridge Over Troubled Water” has been covered countless times, and singers usually use its languid tempo and empty space to showcase vocal histrionics. (Aretha Franklin, who hit #6 with it in 1971, is the gold standard there. Her version is a 10.) Garfunkel doesn’t do any of that. He sings it with a stargazing solemnity. He sings it like he can only barely keep himself together. He sings it like he knows how great the song is, like he respects it too much to use it to show off.
But Garfunkel was right about adding that extra verse. Simon wrote the “sail on, silver girl” bit as a gentle rip on Peggy Harper, his girlfriend and future ex-wife. She’d just discovered her first grey hairs, and she wasn’t happy about it, so Simon was lightly teasing her. That shouldn’t belong in a song this simple and sweet. But when that verse lands, hushed and reverent, it’s a total goosebump moment. It builds the song up into something grander than it was. And there aren’t too many songs that hit the “grandeur” note as gracefully as “Bridge Over Troubled Water” does.
Structurally, “Bridge Over Troubled Water” is a power ballad through and through. It takes its time, it builds up to huge notes, and it starts out quiet before piling on the instruments and going for majesty. Simon wrote the song on guitar, but Larry Knechtel, the Wrecking Crew member who would join Bread a year later, figured out how to rearrange the song to be played on piano. And for much of the song, it’s just Garfunkel and Knetchel. And then the strings come in. Joe Osborn’s bass gets a grand entrance, murmuring and sidling in right before those strings hit. Hal Blaine’s drums, recorded in an echo chamber, mirror that Phil Spector Wall Of Sound. Really, the whole song does; Spector taught Simon (and pretty much everyone else) how to do epic within a pop-music framework. And yet “Bridge Over Troubled Water” hits those epic notes better than any of the songs that Spector produced that made it to #1.
Simon, of course, regretted giving Garfunkel the song. When they’d play the song live, he’d stand off to the side of the stage, stewing, while Garfunkel soaked in adulation for singing the song that Simon had written. The Bridge Over Troubled Water album would go on to sell more than 25 million copies. The song would win a fuckpile of Grammys and finish up 1970 as Billboard‘s #1 song for the year. But Simon & Garfunkel would break up less than a year later. They’d reunite a few times over the years, but the tension between the two of them would be the stuff of legend.
In the last moments of that partnership, they gave each other these incredible gifts. Simon wrote this beautiful song and, at least in the moment, recognized that Garfunkel was the man to sing it. And Garfunkel sang it about as well as it could be sung.
BONUS BEATS: There are so many different versions of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” that I could put in this space. Aretha Franklin, of course, sang the living shit out of it. Elvis Presley covered it, too, and he also brought the fireworks. Linda Clifford’s 1979 version, which Curtis Mayfield produced, is a 10-minute disco epic. Willie Nelson sang it at the closing ceremony of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. Mary J. Blige, Andre Bocelli, and David Foster covered it at the 2010 Grammys. Last year, a couple of dozen British pop stars recorded a version for a Simon Cowell-produced charity single, raising money for the victims of the Grenfell Tower fire.
But the version I’m going with is a sentimental favorite: A near-death Johnny Cash doing a stripped-back, funereal version of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” on 2003’s American IV: The Man Comes Around, the last album that he released during his lifetime, with Fiona Apple singing backup. Here it is:
THE NUMBER TWOS: Creedence Clearwater Revival’s yowling retro-’50s rock ‘n’ roll choogler “Travelin’ Band” peaked at #2 behind “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” It’s an 8:
The Jaggerz’ giddy, cowbell-happy bubblegum jam “The Rapper” also peaked at #2 behind “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” It’s another 8: