In yet another instance of Aretha Franklin seizing ownership of someone else’s song, we arrive at one of her most impassioned vocal performances: “Bridge Over Troubled Water”. The Paul Simon-written, Simon & Garfunkel smash hadn’t even collected its Grammy Awards when Aretha Franklin stormed the gates and made it her own, as only she could.
For those unaware, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel’s relationship as a duo was rocky. It still is, as a matter of fact. They’ve reunited from time to time, but in 1970, as they completed Bridge Over Troubled Water, the relationship seemed to be at an end stage. Even the rave reviews and accolades for Bridge Over Troubled Water couldn’t mend their rift; Bridge became their final album. Among those accolades were nominations in 3 of the “big 4” Grammy Awards categories (Record, Song, and Album of the Year). This attention presented a predicament when it came time for the Grammy Awards telecast (the first Grammy telecast in history). As the most nominated act in the big four categories, it would be strange for “Bridge” not to be performed, but Simon & Garfunkel weren’t performing together. What to do?
Luckily, Atlantic Records had one in the chamber, and a surefire shot at that. In August of 1970, when recording sessions commenced for what would become 1972’s Young, Gifted & Black, Aretha recorded a magnanimous cover of “Bridge Over Troubled Water”. A perfect replacement. Cut to March 5, 6, and 7 of 1971, less than 2 weeks before the Grammy Awards in Los Angeles. Aretha was in San Francisco playing for the flower children at the Fillmore West, and becoming the first African American woman to headline the venue. During those sets, which are some of her most impactful and powerful recorded performances, she introduced her cover of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” to much fanfare from an audience that some weren’t sure she’d even connect with.
Her vocals are in peak form. The performances at the Fillmore West are only second to 1972’s Amazing Grace LP in terms of Aretha’s voice. She gives an earth-shattering reading of “Bridge” each night, but there’s something particularly magical about night 3. Maybe it was Aretha switching from the piano on night one to the keyboard on nights two and three. Maybe it was just that after two nights, Aretha was really feeling herself and the energy her audience was feeding her. Whatever it was, Aretha served up magic.
Less than 2 weeks later, Aretha introduced her version to the world on that first ever televised Grammy Awards ceremony. To call the performance magnanimous would be downright disrespectful to the performance. She sings with such intensity, such urgency, especially “and pain is all around” and “if you ever need a friend”. Her emotion and power are staggeringly visible as she sings those notes. It’s overwhelming to see just how much she feels what she’s singing, and how it resonates through her entire body.
As she would do all the way to her final live performances, Aretha performed “Bridge” at the keyboard each night at the Fillmore and at the Grammys. Paul Simon’s less-than-5-minute gospel-influenced song transcends to become a nearly 8-minute gospel-charged opus, complete with a mesmerizing introduction led by an Aretha piano solo. It’s a beautifully arranged instrumentation, accentuated by the magnificent organ playing of Donny Hathaway (in the studio and at the Grammys, at the Fillmore West Billy Preston covers organ duties). It’s one of the best opportunities to truly appreciate the self-taught genius of Aretha Franklin as a pianist.
Beautiful as the piano solo is, it’s just the beginning of Aretha’s re-imagination of “Bridge Over Troubled Water”. There’s a timidness to the tenacity of Simon & Garfunkel’s original version, and Art Garfunkel’s vocal. It’s beautiful, and it has feeling. But Aretha did what Aretha does best: She took it to church. Aretha built on the gospel inspiration that drove Paul Simon’s composition and brought it fully into church, elevating “Bridge Over Troubled Water” to a holy level until it oozed with divine feeling, soul, and emotion.
She added an impassioned chant from the background singers to open and recur throughout her version: “Don’t trouble the water. Leave it alone. Why don’t cha’, why don’t cha, let it be. Still water run deep. Yes it do. Ohhh yeah-eah-eah-eah.” Additions like are steeped in the influence of the gospel music tradition. There’s also something magical about how she delays her delivery of the melody. Instead of landing right on the notes, Aretha’s vocal follows the instrumentation. It creates a tug of war between anticipation and satisfaction that singing a song straight just can’t match.
Three days after the Grammy performance, the 45 single of Aretha’s version of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” hit record stores. It also found a home on a compilation album Aretha’s Greatest Hits, released that May, alongside two other non-album hit singles “You’re All I Need To Get By” and “Spanish Harlem”. Aretha’s “Bridge” quickly notched her another number one on the R&B charts and peaked at number six on the pop charts. It sold two million copies, and won Aretha her own Grammy Award in 1972 for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance, as it damn well should have.
“Bridge Over Troubled Water” crept in and out of Aretha’s setlist over the years, typically occupying a place later in the set when Aretha would plant herself at the piano. If Aretha sat at the piano, it was fair to assume that the show was about to peak. There are simply too many performances of it to cover each. But there are a few that warrant mention. Other early recorded performances, such as 1971’s at Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland are crucial. The Montreux video is especially notable because it perfectly captures the brilliance of her fingers as they stunningly hammer out the solo. The 1972 performance in Philadelphia, found on Oh Me Oh My: Aretha Live In Philly 1972 also nicely showcases her pianowork, and she takes the song in another direction, momentarily merging it with a touch of The Carpenters’ “We’ve Only Just Begun”.
Then, there are the performances of the later years. Despite her voice’s inevitable changes over time, the feelings she evokes are still as dazzling, shattering, and inspiring as ever. And her piano work is powerful as ever. Watching her fingers move across the piano is mesmerizing. At some performances, such as this 2011 performance in Austin, Texas, Aretha caught the spirit and went on a full blown testimonial, further spiritualizing the song.
Funny enough, all the way to the end, Aretha always introduced her performances of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” as “from the songbook of Simon & Garfunkel.” This, despite her version being an R&B #1, million selling, Grammy Award winner, and holding a share in the song’s indisputable place in the pop music canon. Call it modesty from a Queen over one of her many conquered lands.
Listen to Aretha’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water”: