Paul Simon on Aretha Franklin’s version of ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’

Aretha Franklin, shown performing in Los Angeles in 2015, delivered what songwriter Paul Simon said is "maybe the best cover of any of my songs that anyone ever did" with her rendition of "Bridge Over Troubled Water."
(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)

Like millions of other music fans, Paul Simon had Aretha Franklin on his mind Aug. 31, on the day of her star-studded memorial service in Detroit.

He spoke softly as he reflected on her rendition of his spiritually minded pop-rock classic, “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” frequently cited among her greatest recordings.

In an interview with The Times about his new album “In the Blue Light,” in which he revisits and sometimes rewrites songs chosen from his various solo albums, Simon spoke of the thrill he felt as a songwriter when Franklin chose to record one of his compositions.

Then he bristled, in a low-key way, about a writer who, while listing it among her essential performances, suggested that Franklin brought something to it that Simon & Garfunkel’s recording “could only hint at.”


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As much as Simon admires Franklin’s take, he, perhaps unexpectedly, feels a deep attachment to the original.

“I thought, that’s actually not an accurate description,” he said. “First of all, the Simon & Garfunkel recording was really at least as good as Aretha’s. The piano on that — Larry Knechtel’s piano — is a beautiful gospel piano, absolutely beautiful. I’m sure when Aretha heard it, she heard that.

“Her recording is brilliant — maybe it’s the best cover of any of my songs that anyone ever did,” Simon stressed.

He added, “In this particular case, the Simon & Garfunkel record was just as beautiful — equally spiritual to the Aretha record, even though its roots really do come from black gospel [music].

“The way [Art Garfunkel] sang it was sort of choirboy, which was very much Artie — that’s what he was when he grew up,” he said. “We weren’t hinting at anything. We knew what we were doing. I will say this: What Aretha did was, she did explain it to a black audience and made that song relevant in a way that it was always meant to do.”

Simon didn’t even sing “Bridge” on the first several dates of his Homeward Bound farewell tour. But a half dozen or so stops in, he added it to the set list.

He’s given it a new arrangement featuring New York’s yMusic instrumental sextet backing him, and bringing a West African rhythmic accent to the song, since Simon isn’t about to try to replicate the angelic purity Garfunkel brought to his original vocal.

“One of the great pleasures of this tour is singing ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water,’ which I can’t ever say I had a good time singing before,” he said. “I didn’t [ever] sing it very often, but when I did, I never felt like I found the right way of doing it.

“But this felt good, with yMusic and that West African [element],” he said. Introducing it at his Hyde Park show in London in July, he told 60,000 fans on hand that it felt like “being reunited with a long-lost child.”

“That was true, too,” he said. “My relationship to that song is very odd, because I gave it away so quickly. Even as I wrote it, I said, ‘Oh, this will be for Artie.’ ”

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