In The Best Sellers, I’m reviewing the best selling albums in the United States from every year since 1956. With this column, I’ll be examining the music that Americans have made popular over the years analyzing the musical and societal trends that influence what people want to listen to.
1970: Simon & Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water
One aspect about the turn of the ‘70s I’ve noticed is how many of the acts who came to define the ‘60s seemed to cease once the decade ended. Most tragically, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Jim Morrison all died in the early ’70s all at the age of 27 marking an end to the counterculture they helped to define. There was also Diana Ross leaving the Supremes, one of the biggest chart acts of the ‘60s who helped to bring Motown to the forefront of music. There were also a lot of breakups with the most famous being the Beatles who had been breaking up for a while with John Lennon announcing his departure in September 1969 before it became public in 1970. Another major breakup in 1970 was Simon & Garfunkel, the New York folk duo who went out with a bang thanks to their final album Bridge Over Troubled Water that in many ways reads as an ultimate farewell, looking back while also looking forward.
By the time Simon & Garfunkel made Bridge Over Troubled Water, they had been together for almost their entire lives. Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel grew up blocks from each other in the Forest Hills neighborhood of Queens, New York, and went to the same schools together. It was through school that Simon & Garfunkel came together bonding over the explosion of rock and roll in the ‘50s especially the harmonies of the Everly Brothers. They started as Tom & Jerry and got an early taste of success with 1957’s “Hey Schoolgirl” which got enough radio play to get into the Top 50 on Billboard during their pre-Hot 100 days.
Tom & Jerry wouldn’t last for long as Simon & Garfunkel graduated high school and focused on their college studies in case music didn’t work out. The two got back together in 1963 as a folk duo and performed at clubs in Greenwich Village in that neighborhood’s growing folk scene. Their performances caught the attention of Tom Wilson from Columbia Records who got the duo to audition and eventually signed them to his label. Simon & Garfunkel released their debut album Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M. in October 1964 to little success. With this disappointment, the two went back to their lives with Simon moving to London and Garfunkel continuing his studies at Columbia University. While they still dabbled in music, it was looking like they weren’t going to achieve their musical dreams. That is until a song from their debut album became a belated chart-topper.
Wilson noticed college radio DJs playing “The Sound of Silence” throughout 1965 and decided to release it as a single to accommodate its newfound popularity but he felt its spare acoustic original wouldn’t sell much. Inspired by the work he had done with Bob Dylan and his smash hit “Like A Rolling Stone,” Wilson got a few session musicians to record an electrified version of “The Sound of Silence” without Simon & Garfunkel’s input. Simon wasn’t thrilled when he heard it but it was what the duo needed to connect to a large audience as “The Sound of Silence” became a #1 hit on the Hot 100 in January 1966. Simon & Garfunkel were now stars and the new voice of the ‘60s counterculture.
The duo kept up their output landing consistently in the Top 10 for the latter half of the ‘60s and putting out two best-selling albums, 1966’s Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme, and 1968’s #1 Bookends. It was during all of this when director Mike Nichols approached the duo and Columbia about using their songs in a movie he was making at the time called The Graduate as he became obsessed with Simon & Garfunkel’s music wanting to put it together for a soundtrack. Simon gave Nichols a new song called “Mrs. Robinson” but strongly objected to a soundtrack feeling it would be seen as selling out. Columbia chairman Clive Davis was all in favor knowing how profitable a soundtrack could be to Simon & Garfunkel and successfully convinced them to use their music for the soundtrack.
Davis’ instincts proved right as The Graduate soundtrack became a big seller driven by the songs of Simon & Garfunkel and the success of the film, 1967’s highest-grossing film, beginning a new trend for the use of pop music in film. The soundtrack wound up as 1968’s #2 best-selling album behind Are You Experienced? and “Mrs. Robinson” became their second Hot 100 #1 hit which won a Record of the Year Grammy. All this alongside the success of Bookends dramatically rose the duo’s profile. This should have been a good period but it was far from it.
Simon & Garfunkel began to feel restless being in a duo and started drifting apart. Garfunkel pursued an acting career right starring in Nichols’ adaptation of Catch-22 which came out in 1970. Simon, as the duo’s creative force, began to experiment more with international genres. Their relationship didn’t recover with Bridge Over Troubled Water and to this day the two barely talk much to each other. Through all this, they came together to make one more album which wound up being the biggest thing they ever made.
Between Bookends and Bridge over Troubled Water, Simon & Garfunkel had released the one-off single classic poverty tale “The Boxer” in 1969 and it continued the duo’s hit-making streak peaking at #7 on the Hot 100. The song eventually wound up on the album but when it was time to pick a song to really lead it off they went with the title track, a song that the two of them least expected to be considered as a lead-off single. Simon had written “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” as with most of the album, pulling its title from a lyric in “Mary Don’t You Weep” by the gospel group the Swan Silvertones. Simon wanted Garfunkel to sing it as he believed he had a more of a gospel range to pull off the song. Garfunkel liked Simon’s voice on the demo but gave in to singing it. (Simon would later come to regret it.) Garfunkel and their producer Roy Halee suggested Simon write a third verse to make the song feel complete which he did basing the verse on his wife discovering her grey hairs which is how we got “Sail on silver girl.”
In discussing a lead-off single, Davis was adamant about “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” The duo was surprised as they didn’t think it was a right move to lead off with a ballad especially in an era of hard rock thinking the more upbeat jam “Cecilia” would be the pick. But Davis knew how special of a song they had recorded, “Releasing a ballad seemed like a counterintuitive strategy. And partly for that reason, it also seemed like the smartest strategy: ignore the trend and let Simon and Garfunkel do what they do best—create beauty, touch people’s hearts, and define the cultural moment. And, most important of all, we had a stellar song that could accomplish all that. When you’ve truly got a great song, a potential all-timer, that trumps all the rules.”
As with The Graduate, Davis’ instincts were once again proven right. “Bridge Over Troubled Water” ended up as the biggest hit of Simon & Garfunkel’s career going to #1 on the Hot 100 in February 1970 and staying there for six weeks becoming Billboard’s #1 single for 1970. “Cecelia” would become a hit in its own right peaking at #4 later that May. Bridge Over Troubled Water, the album, was also a smash spending 10 weeks at #1 on the album charts selling over 8 million copies. At the 1971 Grammy Awards, Simon & Garfunkel were the big Grammy darlings as they swept the three main categories winning Album of the Year as well as Record and Song of the Year for “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”
Listening to “Bridge Over Troubled Water” 50 years later, you can easily hear what made listeners connect to it and why it was so big. It’s a calming song about reassurance during tough times which came out as America entered the ‘70s with the Vietnam War still raging and turmoil at home including the Kent State Massacre which resulted in the murders of four college students by the Ohio National Guard during anti-war demonstrations. Certainly, a song like this helped to calm America’s worries and provide a balm from the outside world. It still holds true today as we begin another decade under immense political and social turmoil.
Outside of its context, “Bridge Over Troubled Water” is truly a beautiful piece of music. It’s essentially an early version of the power ballad. It starts soft and quiet and builds throughout until it hits its loud climax at the end. Simon was right about Garfunkel singing. He doesn’t have the real showy gospel range but manages to sell the song regardless hitting all the big notes. You could lump the song in with a lot of the drippy easy listening and soft rock sounds that took hold in 1970 with acts like The Carpenters but that wouldn’t do it justice. “Bridge Over Troubled Water” doesn’t exist in any genre. It’s a thing all its own.
The song also exists as a bit of an outlier on the album in terms of sound. I mentioned at the beginning about the album being a departing act looking back while looking forward. The looking back aspect of the album comes through with many ‘50s/early ‘60s sounding throwbacks most obvious by their cover of the Everly Brothers’ “Bye Bye Love” which was recorded during a concert in Iowa during the making of the album complete with a rockabilly sounding guitar. It’s Simon & Garfunkel going back to their roots. This comes back in other album tracks which with some adjustments could have easily hit 5-15 years earlier. Songs like “Baby Driver” and “Why Don’t You Write Me” are mixtures of their folk production and harmonies with an old school rock and roll flavor thanks to its saxophone solos and even a car sound effect on “Baby Driver.”
If there’s one major production influence on Bridge Over Troubled Water it would be Phil Spector and his revolutionary Wall of Sound technique. This is shown by the session players on this album with a few of them coming from the Wrecking Crew, who played on Phil Spector recordings. From the Wrecking Crew we have bassist Joe Osborn, keyboardist Larry Knechtel, and drummer Hal Blaine along with several session players from Nashville all making up the main band. The Phil Spector influence shows up a lot in the title track and “The Boxer” with the echo-drenched vocals and cinematic style production thanks to its strings and Hal Blaine’s echo chamber drumming that at some points sound like someone shooting a cannon.
In looking forward, Bridge Over Troubler Water foreshadows what Paul Simon would bring in his solo career experimenting with international genres and instrumentation. This is most obvious as shown by “El Condor Pass (If I Could)” which is based on a Peruvian folk song dating back to the 1910s. It does a fine job with its marching band-esque flute and Latin guitar. The rest of the album is full of eclectic musical choices that you wouldn’t expect on a big-selling album including a xylophone on “Cecilia,” tubas on “The Boxer,” and a bossa nova rhythm on the tribute “So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright.”
Bridge Over Troubled Water wasn’t the only big album in 1970 that could be seen as a farewell to the ‘60s. The year’s fourth-biggest album, Abbey Road, also reflects the ending of an era being the Beatles’ final album recorded together. While Let It Be would be the group’s final release in May 1970, much of it had been recorded before Abbey Road and it arguably sounds like a perfect ending for the biggest musical act of all time. (Though “Let It Be” like “Bridge Over Troubled Water” is another gospel like classic about reassurance and wound up replacing it at #1.)
Like Bridge Over Troubled Water, Abbey Road contains some of the group’s best work in classics like “Come Together,” “Something,” and “Here Comes The Sun.” And it also looks forward to the future being an early adopter of the Moog synthesizer. Abbey Road is the better album to me but Bridge Over Troubled Water is a solid fun work of its own. As other big albums that year from the works of Led Zeppelin, Chicago, and Santana showed, a new guard was coming in to dominate music as the old guard faded.
While Bridge Over Troubled Water became Simon & Garfunkel’s biggest album ever, it did little to calm the tensions between the two who would confirm their breakup shortly after the album’s success. After that, the two have reunited sporadically over the years including for a well-received 1981 free concert in Central Park. They also released the single “My Little Town” in 1975 which turned out to be their last major hit peaking at #9. They last performed together in 2010 at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.
In terms of solo careers, Paul Simon easily enjoyed greater success in the decades ahead. In the decades after Simon & Garfunkel’s breakup, Simon continued his experimentation with worldwide genres while also remaining a consistent hitmaker with Top 10 hits including “Kodachrome,” “Loves Me Like A Rock,” and his only #1 solo hit 1976’s “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover.” Simon’s albums were also big sellers. He continued his Grammy streak winning Album of the Year in 1976 for Still Crazy After All These Years interrupting Stevie Wonder’s impressive three-album winning streak which Simon acknowledged thanking Wonder for not releasing an album that year. He also hit it big in the ‘80s with his massive selling and acclaimed 1986 South African influenced Graceland which was 1987’s #2 best-selling album behind Bon Jovi’s Slippery When Wet. It also won the Album of the Year award and its title track won Record of the Year.
Simon has continued to release albums and tour on the oldies circuit until 2018 when he announced his retirement from performing. He married actress Carrie Fisher for a little while in the ‘80s before his current marriage to singer Edie Brickell. Garfunkel meanwhile has lived a more quiet life outside of the group. He’s continued acting, releasing music, and performing on his own but not to the huge success that his former partner Simon has enjoyed.
Honorable mention: Led Zeppelin II, the #2 best-selling album of 1970, is probably the most Led Zeppelin of the band’s albums. Everything you’d associate with the band is present with every one of its nine tracks a certified banger continuing their heavy take on blues and folk while developing hard rock and heavy metal in the process with its catchy riffs and musicianship.
Next time: Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice manage to use the concept album and bring musical theater into rock with Jesus Christ Superstar
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5 thoughts on “1970: Simon & Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water”
I have two unpopular opinions about this album:
1. The title song is one of the weakest tracks.
2. The best song is “The Only Living Boy in New York.”
Also, I wanted to mention the hilarious coincidence that two films named after songs from this album (“The Only Living Boy in New York” and “Baby Driver”) came out within months of each other back in 2017.
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Great review. Simon & Garfunkel are some of the best. Agree with everything. Speaking of 1970, I had a request with O-O-H Child by The Five Stairsteps. I figured it’s a perfect song giving a lot of the troubles people were feeling in the late 60s/early 70s similar to how we’re feeling today with COVID-19.
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Thanks! I’ve actually thought about reviewing Ooh Child among other songs that speak to our world now. Definitely be on that soon!