“Bridge over Troubled Water” was composed by Paul Simon very quickly, so much so that he asked himself, “Where did that come from? It doesn't seem like me.” The title lyric was inspired by Claude Jeter's line “I'll be your bridge over deep water if you trust in me,” which Jeter sang with his group, the Swan Silvertones, in the 1958 song “Mary Don't You Weep.” According to gospel producer and historian Anthony Heilbut, Simon acknowledged his debt to Jeter in person, and handed Jeter a check. Simon wrote the song initially on guitar but transposed it to the piano to better reflect the gospel influence and suit Garfunkel's voice.
Simon told his partner, Art Garfunkel, that Garfunkel should sing it alone, the “white choirboy way”. Garfunkel felt it was not right for him; he liked Simon's falsetto on the demo and suggested that Simon sing. At the suggestion of Garfunkel and producer Roy Halee, Simon wrote an extra verse and a “bigger” ending, though he felt it was less cohesive with the earlier verses. The final verse was written about Simon's then-wife Peggy Harper, who had noticed her first gray hairs (“Sail on, silvergirl”). It does not refer to a drug abuser's hypodermic needle, as is sometimes claimed. The verse was Garfunkel's idea, and Simon has never cared for it.
“Bridge over Troubled Water” was the final track to be recorded for the album but the first completed, with an additional two weeks of post-production. Simon initially composed the song in G major, but arranger and composer Jimmie Haskell transposed the song to E-flat major to suit Garfunkel's voice. The song was recorded in California, to make it easier for Garfunkel to go to Mexico to film Catch-22. Simon wanted a gospel piano sound, and hired session musician Larry Knechtel. Joe Osborn played the two bass guitars, one high and the other low. A horn section rounded off the song. The drums were played by Hal Blaine in an echo chamber to achieve a hall effect and Los Angeles session percussionist Gary Coleman played the Vibraphone. The arranger, Jimmy Haskell, labeled the string arrangement as “Like a Pitcher of Water”.
Simon and Garfunkel returned to New York to record the vocals. The vocal style in “Bridge over Troubled Water” was inspired by Phil Spector's technique in “Old Man River” by The Righteous Brothers. After two months the song was finished. Simon said it sounded like the Beatles' “Let It Be”, stating in a Rolling Stone interview: “They are very similar songs, certainly in instrumentation.” As their relations frayed preceding their 1970 breakup, Simon began to feel jealous that he allowed Garfunkel to sing it solo:
He felt I should have done it, 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…”
Despite the song's five-minute length, Columbia decided to service “Like a Bridge Troubled Water” to pop radio. Bob Dylan had previously landed a song past the three-minute barrier on AM radio with “Like a Rolling Stone” in 1965, which played into Columbia's decision. It reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100 chart on February 28, 1970, and stayed at the top of the chart for six weeks. “Bridge over Troubled Water” also topped the adult contemporary chart in the US for six weeks. Billboard ranked it as the No. 1 song for 1970.
The song was certified gold for over one million copies in the US by the Recording Industry Association of America, and the song has sold over six million copies worldwide, making it among the best-selling singles.
Elvis Presley recorded it in Nashville on June 5, 1970, and it was released on the 1970 album That's the Way It Is (with a false audience fade-out). He included it in his set list for his next engagement in Las Vegas, which included the filming of the 1970 documentary Elvis: That's the Way It Is, and the song was included in the original theatrical release (included version is from the August 11 dinner show). During that summer season in Vegas, Paul Simon attended one of the shows, and, after seeing Elvis perform the song, he was reported to have said, “That's it, we might as well all give up now.” Presley continued to use this song throughout his live performances, including his final live appearance in Indianapolis on June 26, 1977. Another live performance was seen in the Golden Globe-winning documentary Elvis on Tour, filmed at the Greensboro Coliseum in Greensboro, North Carolina, on April 14, 1972. Elvis even sang it at one of his Madison Square Garden Shows back in June 1972.
On the studio version, Robert Matthew Watson wrote in his book Heartbreak Hotel: “Presley's outstanding singing is not disguised. This is a fabulous version, burning with sincerity and power, and finding depths not revealed by the composers.”