I'm a white guy, so I sing this song more like Art Garfunkel . Everyone loves that Simon and Garfunkel recording, and it was a hit for them back in the day, but have you listened to it lately? The sound has not aged well. Phil Spector produced it, and the reverb makes it sound like the music is coming from the bottom of a well in the middle of a cathedral. The strings are a bit much too. Art Garfunkel sings his heart out, but the whole thing is too far away from the gospel that Paul Simon had in his mind when he was writing. No, Aretha's version is the canonical one as far as I'm concerned.
The history of American popular music is mostly a story of white musicians knocking off black music with varying degrees of fidelity. Sometimes black musicians appropriate their music back. The Blind Boys of Alabama recorded a gorgeous version of “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” and they wrote a new intro for it too. Aretha took the Blind Boys arrangement and recorded it slower, funkier, and smoother. Then, when she started playing it live, she took it even slower, even funkier, and way more intense. She was backed by an incredible band on the Fillmore version, including Cornell Dupree on guitar, Jerry Jemmott on bass, Billy Preston on organ, and Bernard Purdie on drums. The result is so far transformed from Simon and Garfunkel as to scarcely even be the same piece of music anymore. Aretha always remakes melodies to suit her own style, but here she pretty much rewrites it from the ground up. If I had to explain to an alien what the blues was, I might just play them Art Garfunkel and Aretha back to back and have them compare the two.
I’ve tried singing the song Aretha’s way, but that didn’t last long. I could imaginer her standing there saying, “No, Ethan, the point isn’t to imitate me, the point is to sing it how you sing it.” Besides, at the Fillmore, she was whipping a rock audience into a state of ecstatic transport, not putting a baby to sleep. So I’ve taken some of her feel and swing and applied it back to my less adventurous, more Garfunkel-esque interpretation. It’s good to have Aretha in the back of my head, though.
You can learn more about Aretha Franklin here:
About the Curator - Ethan Hein
Ethan Hein is a Doctoral Fellow in Music Education at New York University. He teaches music technology, production and education at NYU and Montclair State University. With the NYU Music Experience Design Lab , Ethan has taken a leadership role in the creation of new technologies for learning and expression, most notably the Groove Pizza . In collaboration with Soundfly, he has developed a series of online music theory courses . He maintains a widely-followed and influential blog , and has written for various publications, including Slate, Quartz, and NewMusicBox.