In the wake of Aretha Franklin’s death last week, the song I found myself returning to again and again was her version of “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” It’s a glorious thing, exploring an emotional terrain far different from Simon and Garfunkel’s. Aretha’s version of “Bridge” was the most successful cover recorded in the immediate wake of that song’s success, but not the only one. It made good sense for music publishers and songwriters to extend the reach of their properties with cover versions that would appeal to different audiences. The trend reached a peak in the early 1970s, and it’s a trend we’ve mentioned here before.
Several country versions of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” were cut following its six-week run at #1 in the spring of 1970. Buck Owens scored the biggest country version: his “Bridge Over Troubled Water” went to #9 on the Billboard country chart in the spring of 1971. (It was the title song to an Owens album that included versions of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Homeward Bound” and “I Am a Rock,” as well as “Catch the Wind” and “Love Minus Zero—No Limit.”) Skeeter Davis, who was reaching the end of her country chart career, got a little bit of airplay with her version in the fall of 1970. Somebody named Betty Amos did it with Nashville heavyweight Pete Drake producing; that version charted at a single station in the ARSA database, WKCW in Warrenton, Virginia, in August 1970. A pop version by Hamilton Joe Frank and Reynolds—part of a medley with “You’ve Got a Friend”—also charted on a single station, WBAM in Montgomery, Alabama, in February 1972.
Several versions appear in the ARSA database but are not shown to have charted anywhere. The best-known performers to cut “Bridge Over Troubled Water” without chart success were country stars Waylon Jennings and Jessi Colter and jazz alto saxophonist Paul Desmond. A pop singer named Kaye Hart cut a version of it, arranged and produced by Peter Matz, who was also the orchestra leader on The Carol Burnett Show. The most noteworthy thing about Hart’s recording might be that Metromedia Records listed the time of the record as 2:91. Another non-charting pop version was recorded by Artistry in Sound, a project of songwriter and record producer Dick Glasser. The album Dick Glasser Presents Artistry in Sound featured several pop hits of the moment including “Hey Jude,” “Sugar Sugar,” and “Jean,” so I’m guessing it was an easy-listening record, for that would have been in style at the end of 1970. An outfit called the Universal Tabernacle Choir featuring Juliet Freeman recorded “Bridge” too; it would have to be a gospel version, don’t you think?
The weirdest version of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” came in 1973. Sam Ervin, the U.S. senator from North Carolina, became famous for chairing the Senate Watergate Committee, and he made a spoken-word album for Columbia called Senator Sam at Home. On the album, he opined about various topics over down-home musical backing. He talked about young people, freedom of speech, patrotism, religion, and Shakespeare (among other things), recited Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If,” and used “Bridge Over Troubled Water” as part of a meditation on friendship. His version was released as a single but didn’t chart, which will probably not surprise you.
“Bridge Over Troubled Water” proved irresistable to R&B performers, and not just Aretha. King Curtis recorded it, and so did Ernie Andrews, singing with the Fuzzy Kane Trio. Andrews’ version, which turns the song into a blues number and is pretty great, was a regional hit in Baltimore and Philadelphia, getting a little airplay at the end of 1970. In the spring of 1971, Aretha did what she did, with 384 chart entries at ARSA, including the #1 position at CKLW in Detroit as well as R&B stations KGFJ in Los Angeles, WVON in Chicago, and KOKA in Shreveport. “Bridge Over Troubled Water” returned for the last time in 1979, when a version by R&B singer Linda Clifford charted on a couple of stations.
“Bridge Over Troubled Water” wasn’t exactly an entry in the Great American Songbook, not like “Stardust” or “My Funny Valentine,” not a song that inspired a near-endless variety of interpretations over several decades. It was, however, enough of a shared cultural event to make other performers and producers think, “Hey, I wonder what would happen if we did it like this?” Nobody thinks in those terms about pop songs anymore.