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On This Day In Music… February 21, 1970: 'Bridge Over Troubled Water' Hits No. 1 in the U.K.

Simon & Garfunkel's magnum opus would spend 331 weeks in the chart and over 30 weeks at No. 1 – and lead to the breakup of the songwriting partnership.

simon and garfunkel bridge over troubled water
Source: mega

'Bridge Over Troubled Water' was Simon & Garfunkel's most successful record.

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On February 21, 1970, Simon & Garfunkel’s fifth album, Bridge Over Troubled Water, entered the U.K. charts at No. 1. It would stay at the top spot until mid-May, before dropping down to No. 2 for three weeks… and then reclaiming the No. 1 position for a further 12 of the following 20 weeks. In total the album would spend 331 weeks in the charts (33 of them at No. 1) – the equivalent of nearly six and a half years.

The title track itself would also top the charts on both sides of the Atlantic, sell some six million copies worldwide, and be covered by artists including Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Aretha Franklin. It was also the very last song that Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel recorded as a partnership, and its message of hope and companionship would, ironically, become the catalyst for the fracturing of their own friendship.

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simon and garfunkel
Source: mega

'Bridge Over Troubled Water' would spend the equivalent of nearly six and a half years in the British album charts.

Simon wrote the song alone in New York in 1969, while Garfunkel was filming Catch 22 in New Mexico. By his own admission he was feeling “weary and small”, and had sought solace in gospel music – most specifically, the Swan Silvertones’ 1959 song “Oh Mary Don’t You Weep”. As he listened, night after night, one line kept jumping out: “I’ll be your bridge over deep water, if you trust in my name”.

Speaking on the Dick Cavett Show in 1970, Simon revealed: “It was the music that was in my mind most of the time, and every time that I came home, I put that record on, and I listened to it. I think that must have subconsciously influenced me, and I started to go to gospel [chord] changes.”

He began writing, with the lyrics initially inspired by his strained relationship with Garfunkel. Friends since elementary school, they had started recording together as teenagers and found huge success with their first four albums… but with that success had come tensions. In particular, Garfunkel’s newfound film career had left Simon feeling underappreciated, left alone to write more hits.

“I like the first lines of a song to be truthful, and those were,” he later said. “I was feeling weary because of the problems with Artie and other things. I was also feeling small.”

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simon garfunkel studio
Source: mega

The duo had been friends since elementary school, but by 1969 the strains were showing.

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But it wasn’t only Artie that was preying on Simon’s mind. America in 1969 was a country in crisis: the Vietnam War, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, the Nixon administration, race riots… in “Bridge Over Troubled Water”, Simon looked for a way to harness that national disaffection and political gloom into an intensely personal lyric – and use the Gospel roots that inspired it to fashion a message of hope.

Somehow, he managed it. “I have no idea where it came from,” he recalled in the 2011 documentary The Harmony Game. “It just came, all of a sudden… I remember thinking, this is considerably better than I usually write.”

simon garfunkel
Source: mega

Paul Simon later came to regret insisting Garfunkel take the lead vocal on the song.

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He also insisted that it should be Garfunkel who sang it – a decision he later regretted, when he had to watch as his partner took the plaudits and standing ovations for a song written without him. The gnawing irritation of this was made worse by the fact that initially, Garfunkel wanted Simon himself to take the lead vocal.

“He felt I should have done it,” he later said, “and many times on a stage, though, when I'd be sitting 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...’”

To be fair to Art Garfunkel, one of the song’s key features – its soaring, unashamedly epic, Phil Spector-like climax – was Garfunkel’s idea, after he and producer Roy Halee insisted it should have an ending “like an airplane taking off”. Simon duly scribbled down a third verse almost on the spot in the studio during recording.

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The resentment continued, despite the song’s – and especially the album’s – huge success. “We didn’t really fight until Bridge Over Troubled Water,” Simon later said, adding that “something was broken between us”. On July 18, 1970, after a concert at New York’s Forest Hills tennis stadium, Simon and Garfunkel finished the Bridge Over Troubled Water tour, and with it, their partnership.

And yet, the song endures, its message of hope, solace and redemption as powerful as it ever was. In 2005, Simon & Garfunkel reunited to sing “Bridge Over Troubled Water” to help raise money for those affected by Hurricane Katrina. And in 2017, a new version of the song, remixed by British artists for the Artists for Grenfell charity single, reached No. 1 in the UK, 47 years after it first topped the charts.

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