Putting together the career-spanning 4CD box set ARETHA with co-producer Patrick Milligan proved to be a daunting task, given just how many amazing recordings Aretha made over nearly sixty years! One of the highlights, undoubtedly is the long version of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” which Aretha in her inimitable way made her own…
It’s August 12th, 1970 and Aretha has wrapped up a three-song session at the Atlantic studios, 1841 Broadway which includes a version of “Young, Gifted & Black,” the Nina Simone-Weldon Irvine-written anthem of empowerment and inspiration which will go on to become the 1972 title track for Aretha’s ninth Atlantic album and her fifth gold LP in five amazing years at the label and provide her with another Grammy award. Also included are an astounding version of The Beatles’ “Long And Winding Road” (also destined as an album track for the ‘Young, Gifted & Black’ set); and “My Cup Runneth Over,” a song inspired by a quotation from The Bible that was a hit for pop singer/actor Ed Ames in 1967. Aretha’s version doesn’t make it to the ‘Young, Gifted & Black’ LP and it remains ‘in the can’ until I uncover it during tape vault research in 2005 and it finally sees the light of day on a Rhino 2-CD collection in 2007, also becoming a song Aretha liked to perform on occasion in the 2000’s.
Aretha reconvenes on August 13th with the same all-star cast of top musicians from the day before. There’s Billy Preston on piano and organ, who Aretha has known for many years and who is coming off his own hit record in the UK with “That’s The Way God Planned It” on The Beatles’ Apple label after performing on a number of sessions with the group. Also on hand are New York ‘A’ list players Cornell Dupree on guitar, Chuck Rainey on electric bass and Ray Lucas on drums. Aretha is also playing piano and there are background vocals provided by sisters Carolyn and Erma Franklin with Margaret Branch, who is a member of Aretha’s on the road vocal trio, The Sweethearts Of Soul; and session info also includes overdubsby The Sweet Inspirations.
Aretha’s brilliance as a unique interpreter of a diversity of material originally recorded by others is unparalleled: a glance at any of her Columbia or Atlantic albums reveals her inimitable ability to transform show tunes, out-and-out pop songs, R&B standards and contemporary hits of the day into her own. Whether it’s “Rock-A-Bye Your Baby With A Dixie Melody” in 1961, “Respect” in 1967 or Bobby Bland’s “Share Your Love With Me” in 1969, she simply knows how to ‘Aretha-ize’ a song from virtually any genre!
By March 13th, 1970, the duo Simon & Garfunkel are enjoying what will be a six-week run at the top of the US pop charts with their composition, “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” In keeping with her love of taking then-current hits by others and bringing her own musical magic to whatever the song is – think Dionne Warwick’s “I Say A Little Prayer” in 1968 – Aretha creates a unique arrangement of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” that turns it into virtually a gospel tune, which turns out not to be surprising when years later, Paul Simon reveals that he heard the phrase ‘I’ll be your bridge over deep water’ on a recording by renowned gospel quintet, The Swan Silvertones.
No doubt the success of Aretha’s Detroit friends, The Four Tops with the Smokey Robinson-Frank Wilson composition “Still Water,” the title track for the Tops’ April 1970 Motown LP “Still Waters Run Deep” may have inspired Aretha’s creation of the memorable background vocal refrain on her version of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” which adds a whole new flavour to it, complete with a lyrical reference to The Beatles’ “Let It Be” which Aretha recorded in October 1969; as pop music mythology suggests, the song was originally sent to producer Jerry Wexler for Aretha before The Beatles themselves recorded it but she initially passed on recording it thinking that the ‘mother Mary’ referred to in the lyrics was the Virgin Mary rather than Paul McCartney’s mother about whom it was written!
It appears that Aretha’s full (5:31) take of the “Bridge Over Troubled Water” is what is recorded on August 13th and is included commercially on Atlantic’s October 1971 “Greatest Hits” LP for the first time. A rare promo copy of that version (which includes a brilliant sax overdub by longtime musical friend King Curtis) is sent to radio stations, while the (digitally unavailable) single clocks in at (3:18). Included on the ARETHA box set is a (4:24) longer version of that single edit which has never been released until now.
For whatever reason, Atlantic chooses not to release Aretha’s stunning version of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” until April 1971, a full seven months after it’s been recorded. As it turns out, the timing is fortuitous. Aretha performs the song in March 1971 during her famous Fillmore West shows. Literally ten days later, she is attending the first ever live telecast of the Grammy Awards at the Hollywood Palladium in Los Angeles on March 16th. Not surprisingly, Simon & Garfunkel win Grammys for “Record” and “Song Of The Year,” categories that also include “Let It Be” by The Beatles. Aretha, herself a Grammy winner that night for ‘Best R&B Vocal Performance, Female’ for “Don’t Play That Song” majestically sits at the keyboards and delivers a show-stopping version of “Bridge Over Troubled Water”…
Atlantic releases the single at the start of April and it climbs to the top of the US R&B charts, giving Aretha her 10th No. 1 R&B and her 7th US pop hit. Just under year later, at the Grammy ceremonies in New York on March 14, 1972, Aretha nabs her 6th overall Grammy for “Best R&B Vocal Performance, Female” her fifth in that category, for “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” The waters of life may sometimes be troubled but Aretha reminds us all that still water runs deep, ‘yes, it do”!