Simon & Garfunkel song ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ is about as ubiquitous as a song can get and, like tracks such as The Beatles’ ‘Yesterday’, that means it has seen its fair share of cover versions. While the majority of them fail to capture the gentle, ethereal intensity of the original, some do a fantastic job of trying to match Paul Simon’s composition and Art Garfunkel’s pure vocal.
There have been over 400 different attempts to try and match the song, in a wide variety of different genres, most of which fall flat. But, below, we’re bringing you five of our favourite covers of the track. What began life as a simple gospel hymn has since turned into one of the most famous songs in the world and it all came about without Simon really knowing how. In conversation with the documentary The Making of Bridge Over Troubled Water, Simon said: “I have no idea where it came from. It came all of the sudden. It was one of the most shocking moments in my songwriting career. I remember thinking, ‘This is considerably better than I usually write.”
The track is fairly simple in structure. Despite being produced by the infamous producer Phil Spector — famed for his immersive ‘Wall of Sound’ approach — the song remained a simple piano ballad, allowing the gravity of the lyrics and the purity of Garfunkel’s vocal performance to truly shine through. Simon often lamented not singing the song himself: “Many times I’m sorry I didn’t do it.”
Of course, during his solo sets, he has picked up the track on many occasions and used it as one of his final moment under the spotlight in 2018. Speaking to the audience on his farewell tour, he introduced the song by saying: “I’m going to reclaim my lost child.” While the child may have been lost to Simon for some time, the song sure did find some great foster parents along the way.
The best covers of ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’
Aretha Franklin (1970)
Taken from Aretha’s Greatest Hits album, this delicate and touching folk song is given new life by Franklin’s vocal. It transcends from a simple but effective folkloric gospel number into a powerful performance.
Finding the gospel notes in this song allows Franklin to take control of the melody with her vocal gymnastics and really display it as something original and singular. Something entirely unique and utterly Aretha, it’s the kind of process she put on all her work but one can tell there’s a closer connection to this song more than most.
It’s hard to imagine Aretha Franklin not finding some solace in this song, much like the rest of the world. A gospel tune about helping out a friend in need, is exactly the kind of music the pioneering artist gravitated towards.
Merry Clayton (1970)
Another singer closely affiliated with gospel music is the astounding talent of Merry Clayton. However, this cover takes us a little way out of the church and discreetly pushes us into the back of the dive bar, puts a whiskey in our hands and lights our cigarette.
Put simply, there’s a danger to this cover that makes it feel like a unique proposition and it fits so seamlessly into Clayton’s canon of powerful tunes that you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s one of her own. As Clayton begins the third verse of the track, the verse Simon wrote while in the studio recording the track, she belts it out like no other.
It’s a pure piece of artistry that proves the ‘cover’ can be just as vital as the original.
Johnny Cash (2006)
Few people can handle a cover like Johnny Cash. The acclaimed country singer brought a gravel toned gravity to songs that nobody could match. The Man In Black doesn’t disappoint on this cover of ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ and produces perhaps the most original version of the song.
While Simon & Garfunkel’s tune relied on the humanity of society, the reaching hands looking to help you up off the floor, Cash’s version takes a somewhat more morbid turn. Nearing the end of his own life, Cash turns the narrator into a spectral spectator to the life of another. The hand is no longer reaching out to help but is instead, gently placing it on your shoulder from the other side of death.
It’s a truly poignant moment on his final studio album and, accompanied by Fiona Apple, it’s one of the most arresting tracks of his entire career.
Roberta Flack (1971)
Paul Simon knew that this song deserved special attention when he wrote it. While for some that might mean an over-extended production and a heavy-duty backing, what Simon meant was all the focus and attention of the listener on the song and lyrics at hand. The best way to achieve that was with a singular voice and a piano. Perhaps nobody does that better on our list than Roberta Flack.
Flack’s rendition of the track lands on her 1971 record Quiet Fire and it lands with aplomb. Vocally, as one might expect, she manages to toe the line between ethereal and heavyweight, choosing went to let her lungs do the imposing and when to let the lyrics shine.
It’s a mercurial recording that can make you cry, smile and shudder all at the same time. It’s undoubtedly one of the finest covers we’ve ever heard.
Elvis Presley (1970)
It must’ve been a real trip for Paul Simon in 1970. Not only had he written perhaps the best song of his entire career but he also got to witness his contemporaries rush to provide their own take on the track — there’s surely no higher praise for a songwriter. But perhaps the biggest thrill was seeing The King, Elvis Presley take the track on.
It’s hard not to enjoy the spectacle of this cover. Featuring on his 1970 LP Elvis – That’s The Way It Is, the song is given the Las Vegas treatment by the big man. It’s something Simon somewhat regrets, “It was in his Las Vegas period and done with conventional thinking. He sang it well, but it would have been nice to hear him do it gospel because he did so many gospel albums and was a good white gospel singer.”
Adding: “It would have been nice to hear him do it that way, to take it back – as opposed to the big ending; he seemed to end everything with a karate chop and an explosion. So he didn’t really add anything to the song. It’s not nearly as significant as the Aretha Franklin recording. It’s just a pleasure for me that Elvis Presley recorded one of my songs before he died.”
While Franklin’s cover is certainly superior, the spectacular positioning of this track at least stands it out among the rest of the 400 or so covers.