‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ has been recorded by over 500 different artists since its first release, with everybody from Johnny Cash to Stevie Wonder reimagining the classic track in their own guise. For Paul Simon, however, the song’s creator, Elvis Presley’s version sits comfortably in a league of its own.
Due to its lyrical nature, the song will always be a deeply personal one to Simon, even though it continues to take on a new life whenever an artist puts their unique stamp on it. Poetically, ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ was the final track that Simon & Garfunkel would record together, and the collapse of their creative partnership plays out throughout their last hoorah.
Although the root of the song begins with their tumultuous relationship, it soon deviates, and as Simon once said, it “goes away from memoir. It comes from my imagination”.
There’s something undeniably inimitable that bleeds out of ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ thanks to Simon’s masterful storytelling, which also explains why it remains so ripe for a cover.
Johnny Matthis was the first artist to record an alternate version of the track, one which he shared less than a month after the original was released by Simon & Garfunkel. This cover then started a chain reaction, and in December 1970, it was time for ‘The King’ to put his Southern drawl on ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’.
Simon was startled to discover that Elvis had taken on a song he’d written, although he did say it was a “touch on the dramatic side, but so was the song”. He continued, stating: “When I first heard Elvis perform ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’, it was unbelievable. I thought to myself: ‘How the hell can I compete with that?'”.
Years later, after Simon found himself unable to remove the line “I’m going to Graceland” from his head and felt compelled to make a pilgrimage to the site. The experience was one he described as a “religious thing”, and it had a lasting impact on the singer-songwriter.
“I went to Graceland, and I didn’t tell anyone I was coming, I didn’t get any special treatment. I went there walked around and I was unimpressed. Until you finish the tour and come outside. And then there’s his grave,” he once remembered.
Simon continued, “He had a God-given talent that he shared with the world. And without a doubt, he became most widely acclaimed; capturing the hearts of young and old alike. And I just started to cry, and I thought it’s really true. This guy was loved by everybody. Being in the crowds at Graceland… it’s almost like a religious thing.”
Despite their vast musical differences, in an unlikely turn of events through this cover and his emotional voyage to Graceland, Simon’s career will always be inextricably linked to Elvis. From the moment The King put his take on ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’, Simon no longer had ownership of the track, and eventually, Presley would repay the favour from beyond the grave.