Richard Nisley


One of the Wonders of Pop Music–the making of "Bridge Over Troubled Water"
Pop Culture Released - Mar 12, 2021
Singer-songer writer Paul Simon had been reading the Bible when the words to "Bridge Over Troubled Water" began to come to him, and he didn't stop writing until he had composed two verses and a chorus.

(Verse 1)

When you're weary / Feeling small
When tears are in your eyes / I will dry them all
I'm on your side / When times get rough
And friends just can't be found

(Verse 2)

When you're down and out / When you're on the street
When evening falls so hard / I will comfort you
I'll take your part / When darkness comes
And pain is all around

(Chorus)

Like a bridge over troubled water / I will lay me down
Like a bridge over troubled water / I will lay me down

After the words came the music, which he began strumming on his acoustic guitar. When the song was finished, he knew he had written one of his greatest songs of his career, and couldn't wait to share it with his friend and singing partner, Art Garfunkel. Garfunkel was stunned. Excited, the pair took the song to their producer at Columbia Records, Roy Halee.

They all recognized that what Simon had composed was a very special gospel song, one that required a very special studio treatment, and began thinking about how best to arrange it for their next album. One song came to mind, which would serve as the model–a show tune called "Old Man River".

"Old Man River" was a three-verse song composed by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II, for the 1927 Broadway Musical "Showboat". The version they sought to emulate was rearranged by famed record producer Phil Spector as a highly-charged gospel tune for the Righteous Brothers, that appeared on their fourth album, "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling."

As Spector arranged it, the song begins slowly, sung by Bill Medley in his deepest, bluesiest voice, accompanied only by piano. For the second verse, the tempos increase slightly, with the piano joined by muted drums. For the third verse, the tempo increases, and horns are added, for the rousing finale of layered vocals and full-out orchestra.

The only problem was that Simon had composed his song in two verses. To capture the full of impact of Spector's climatic close, Simon would have to write a third verse, which was something he did not want to do. With a little coaxing, that is what he did. However, he never much liked it, feeling it failed to match the cohesive depth of the first two verses.

(verse 3)

Sail on, Silver Girl / Sail on by
Your time has come to shine / All your dreams are on their way
See how they shine, oh / If you need a friend
I'm sailing right behind

With the third verse completed, Simon and Garfunkel (and Roy Halee) flew to Los Angeles to create their masterpiece. They did so with the cream of West Coast studio musicians (known collectively as the Wrecking Crew), including Larry Knechtel, who composed the piano accompaniment, and Joe Osborne, who played not one but two bass tracks, one high and one low. The vibraphone that gives resonce to the second verse was performed by Gary Coleman. To further enhance the big sound they were after in the third verse, they placed drummer Hal Blaine inside an echo chamber, and urged him to pound away. The orchestral arrangement that opens the third verse and builds to a climatic close in a wonderful crescendo of shimmering strings, was composed by Jimmie Haskel (not in the key of G Major in which Simon had composed the song on guitar, but in the key of E-flat Major, to better suit Garfunkel's choir-like voice (more about that in a moment).

After the instrumental tracks were laid down, the question then became, who is going to sing it? Paul insisted Art's choir-like voice was better suited and therefore he should sing it; however, Art demurred knowing the song was Paul's vision, and destined to be their biggest hit ever. However, Paul held his ground, Art indeed did the lead vocal, and Paul, bless him, lived to regret it.

Years later, he lamented, "I'd be sitting (on stage) off to the side and Larry Knechtel would be playing the piano and Artie would be singing "Bridge", people would stomp and cheer when it was over, and I would think, "That's my song, man . . ."

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