Some covers are more equal than others. Good, Better, Best looks at three covers and decides who takes home the gold, the silver, and the bronze.
There was nothing that preceded it. I didn’t have those words. I didn’t have that melody. And I was playing chords and all of a sudden, I sang that. And I couldn’t believe it. I was dumbstruck…. I have no idea where that came from. It was far about the level I was writing at the time…. I was sort of conscious that it was a gift. And I was very emotionally moved by it.
Paul Simon knew he had something special when he wrote the first two verses of “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” Since Simon wrote the song in a higher key than he was used to singing, he also knew the song was meant for one man and one man only to sing. Art Garfunkel demurred at first (“You have a nice falsetto, Paul, why don’t you sing it?”), out of a giving spirit more than anything else; it didn’t take long for Simon to talk him into it. The song needed a third verse in order to properly build up (Simon whipped one up in the studio), and it took seventy-two takes to record, but “Bridge” came together beautifully. Simon may have felt that Garfunkel’s gospel touch was “more Methodist than Baptist,” but Clive Davis, head of Columbia, knew what they had immediately. Even at a longish (for a single) five minutes, he announced that it would be the first single, first track, and title song of their next record.
When “Bridge Over Troubled Water” was released, there was a veritable stampede of singers rushing to cover it; Second Hand Songs lists more than four dozen versions in 1970 alone. Like “Yesterday” half a decade before, the recognition of greatness was immediate, and the need to be a part of that greatness was strong. That response diluted the power of the song for at least one person: “Now it’s been sung so many times by so many people that I have no feeling whatsoever for it,” Paul Simon said. “But at the time of creation, it was huge.” Another party has a different take on all the repetition: “I’ve sung it 6,400 times,” Art Garfunkel once said. “And every time, I get a little visitation of the power of a great song. To say: ‘Whoever you are, if you need some solace, I will try to be a moment of sweetness for you,’ this kills me. To be the lucky one to express that, it moves me every damned time.”
So which of the song’s many, many covers rose to the top? Well…
The Elvis Presley cover is good.
The Roberta Flack cover is better.
And the Aretha Franklin cover is best.
Hail to the King, who recorded his cover of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” less than six months after S&G released it. The live version became a showstopper, well illustrated in the concert film That’s the Way It Is. Elvis’s deep understanding of gospel gives the song true grace to go with its power, making it richer, turning it from milk to cream. The story goes that Simon went to one of Presley’s Vegas shows, and after Elvis performed the song, Simon said, “That’s it, we might as well all give up now.”
“Blasphemy!” shout the legions of Elvis fans. “How is this better than the King’s?” Well, it’s because the tremendous Presley vocal follows the path of the original fairly closely, whereas Roberta Flack altered the path. It’s not just her re-arrangement that helps us hear the song with new ears; it’s the fact that Flack comes at the song from a woman’s point of view. In a patriarchy, the man is expected to be a pillar of strength; to hear Flack stepping up to take on that role makes the song even more moving.
In 1971, the first year the Grammys were telecast, “Bridge Over Troubled Water” was up for Song of the Year. The show’s producers decided that each of the five nominated songs should be covered, and tapped Aretha to perform “Bridge.” Her version knocked it out of the park, and the studio cover (with Donny Hathaway on organ) went on to win a Grammy of its own. It’s not hard to see why. She brings in true gospel, complete with the call and response vocals so often sung in black churches. She doesn’t just sing “Bridge,” she testifies, turning the narrator from close friend to God Him/Herself.
The unforgettable original version of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” can be found on Amazon.