This is the 13th post in a weekly, yearlong series. Read about it here and see the list of previous songs here. A new post about a different song will be posted each Monday throughout 2016. You can listen to the songs in a Spotify playlist.
Burt Bacharach and Dionne Warwick recorded “I Say A Little Prayer” in 1966, but shelved it because Bacharach didn’t think they had gotten it right, despite the multiple takes. He has said he was never satisfied with it, saying that the tempo was “too fast” and he “blew it.” But the following year, when Scepter Records released Warwick’s “The Windows Of The World,” the company put “I Say A Little Prayer” on the album and paired it on a single with “(Theme From) Valley of the Dolls.” The single was a hit and “I Say A Little Prayer” became a signature song for Warwick, peaking at Number 4 on the Billboard Hot 100.
On the surface, “I Say A Little Prayer” was a woman’s profession of love, it and seems likely that audiences in 1967 assumed she was singing to a husband or boyfriend. But Hal David and Bacharach wrote the song a show of support for the troops in Vietnam, and that context provides a different understanding of the lyrics:
I run for the bus, dear
While riding I think of us, dear
I say a little prayer for you
At work, I just take time
And all through my coffee break-time
I say a little prayer for you
Forever, forever, you’ll stay in my heart
And I will love you
Forever, and ever, we never will part
Oh, how I’ll love you
Together, together, that’s how it must be
To live without you
Would only mean heartbreak for me
With the Vietnam War as a backdrop, “I Say A Little Prayer” no longer sounds like a stream-of-consciousness ramblings of a codependent partner, but an expression of worry and concern. The narrator lists off the activities of her day to demonstrate how even during the mundane activities, she’s thinking of her loved one in the war, praying that he’s safe. “Together, together, that’s how it must be/To live without you/Would only mean heartbreak for me” seems like standard pop song lyrics, but these words become poignant when sung to a soldier whose life could be taken at any moment.
Who knows whether audiences knew the Vietnam inspiration behind the song. The lyrics are subtle and the meaning would have to be explained for a listener to make a connection. Regardless of whether listeners connected it with “I Say A Little Prayer” because of the war, listeners certainly connected. For all his initial opposition, Bacharach came around and admitted his initial instincts had been wrong. “I never thought I made the right record on that,” he told Record Collector magazine. “I think I made the tempo a little too fast, a little bit too nervous with Dionne. I didn’t want the record to come out but got overridden. I’m glad that I got overridden.”
Backing Warwick on that track was a group of singers called The Sweet Inspirations, one whom was Warwick’s aunt Cissy Houston, the mother of Whitney Houston. After recording “I Say A Little Prayer” with Warwick, they sang backup for Aretha Franklin on her “Aretha Now” album. In rehearsals, Franklin and The Sweet Inspirations would sing “I Say A Little Prayer” just for fun. Producer Jerry Wexler heard this, and thought they should record it. Thus, what started off as goofing off in between recordings became a song on the album. Franklin’s “I Say A Little Prayer” was a B-side to the 1968 single “The House that Jack Built,” but ended up eclipsing that song in popularity. “I Say A Little Prayer” reached Number 10 on the Billboard Hot 100 and Number 4 in the UK. It was her biggest hit in the UK until her duet with George Michael, “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me),” reached Number 1. For comparison, her iconic cover of “Respect” peaked at 10 in the UK. Let that sink in for a second.
Franklin’s version, with its reworked arrangement, had a more of a soulful, gospel sound. Bacharach has said he preferred this slower version to the one he recorded with Warwick.
Martha Reeves and the Vandellas also released a version of “I Say A Little Prayer” in 1968. Appearing on the album “Ridin’ High,” the song sounded like a note-for-note remake of Warwick’s version. If Bacharach thought the Warwick version was too fast, he must have thought this version was ridiculously fast. Reeves’ peppy voice sounded overjoyed, and once you know that the song was inspired by the conflict in Vietnam, it’s hard to not think Reeves sounded too enthusiastic.
In the Stuart Rosenberg comedy “The April Fools,” in which Jack Lemmon and Catherine Deneuve played people trapped in loveless marriages, singer Susan Barrett sang “I Say A Little Prayer” in the middle of a fancy dinner dinner party. Her campy, over-the-top rendition serves not just as comic relief, but as the backdrop for important interactions that set the course for the rest of the movie.
In 1971, Anne Murray and Glen Campbell released an album, appropriately called “Anne Murray / Glen Campbell.” The album included a medley of “I Say A Little Prayer” and “By the Time I Get to Phoenix.” Campbell had covered “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” in 1967. This medley was a call-and-response, in which lines from Campbell’s “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” were placed in between Murray singing verses of “I Say A Little Prayer.” The slow, gentle strings are total 1970s cheese, but it’s a great pairing.
Al Green recorded “I Say A Little Prayer” for his 1978 album “Truth n’ Time.” Green played around with phrasing, changing the cadence and pacing of how certain words were sung. He also sped the song up, adding jazzy horn parts and disco-flavored drum beats. The “ooooh oooh oooh” and “ahh ahh ahhh” backup vocals give it a 1960s Motown feel. Green changed “Before I put on my make-up” to “Before you put on your make-up.”
Gloria Gaynor’s version of “I Say A Little Prayer” has a distinctly early ’90s piano/bass sound that feels less like the iconic Gaynor sound (read: “I Will Survive”) and more like Cece Peniston or Crystal Waters. It has no resemblance to anything Bacharach himself ever recorded, but damn, it’s a great jam. I promise you’ll listen to it at least twice before going onto the next version.
You listened to that at least twice, yes? Three times? Good!
Natalie Cole and Whitney Houston performed “I Say A Little Prayer” on a TV special in 1990. When Cole introduces the song, she calls it an “Aretha Franklin classic,” neglecting to mention that Houston’s aunt or mother had sung it as well. Cole and Houston play off each other throughout, making vocal asides such as “That’s right” and “Oh, yes!” Their voices are the most dominant part of this slowed-down version, which has airy keyboards and “Careless Whisper”-esque saxophones.
Natalie Cole also recorded a studio version. It had the same tempo as the live version she performed with Whitney Houston, but traded the steamy sax parts for handclaps and a guitar instrumentation that sounded a lot like Extreme’s “More Than Words.” In this recorded version, Cole’s voice sounds restrained in comparison to her live performance, as her voice never builds to any energetic climax.
In 1997, a version by Diana King appeared on the soundtrack for “My Best Friend’s Wedding.” It had the reggae-inspired beats that were popular in the mid-’90s (see: Cyndi Lauper’s reggae-flavored update of “Girls Just Want To Have Fun”) but with emotional vocals that sounded antithetic to the laid back reggae arrangement.
But the most memorable — and the best — version from “My Best Friend’s Wedding” was sung by Rupert Everett with (almost all of) the rest of the cast as his backup singers. Everett, playing Julia Roberts’ character’s gay friend George, was posing as her fiancé, creating a love quadrangle that included Roberts’ love interest (Dermot Mulroney) and his fiancée (Cameron Diaz). In the style of a stage musical, Everett seamlessly transitioned from speech right into singing. It was the defining scene of the movie, making George (and Everett) the standout star. But originally, the character only had three lines. Everett later told The Guardian that the character was introduced as “George, a middle-aged gay man, sits at a table with a flute of champagne… I thought I had finally arrived at the end of the road.” The role of George was rewritten and beefed up, including this scene. The movie revitalized Everett’s career, such that he went on what he called his “Evita victory tour.”
The 2010 revival of Bacharach’s and David’s musical “Promises, Promises” featured a version of “I Say A Little Prayer” by Kristin Chenoweth. The revival also included Sean Hayes and Tony Goldwyn. The arrangement sounded similar to the Warwick version, though the “Promises, Promises” version had splashier instrumentation, particularly in the horn parts.
British DJ and pop singer Sonique recast the song as a synth-heavy dance track. Dripping in robotic keyboards and bass, “Say A Little Prayer” appeared on her 2011 album “Sweet Vibrations.” The wall of sound lets up about two minutes into it, as Sonique sings “Answer my prayer now” over minimal drum beats. This not only demonstrates her vocal talents, but also distinguishes the song from other bass-heavy dance tracks. Like M People’s cover of “What A Fool Believes,” Sonique’s “Say A Little Prayer” gives it club music update in a thoughtful way that doesn’t come off as formulaic or gimmicky. The rest of “Sweet Vibrations” is diverse, toggling between hip-hop, dance, and soul.
“I Say A Little Prayer” is a great song because the people wrote it were in sync with each other. Like so many other songs that Bacharach wrote with Hal David, “I Say A Little Prayer” is so flexible that it could be performed in just about any style and still work. Bacharach’s arrangements were genre-agnostic in that they were never dependent on one particular instrument. And David’s lyrics were specific enough to set the mood and tell a story, but not so specific that the song would feel like a period piece. The medley by Anne Murray and Glen Campbell might sound quintessentially early ’70s, and the performance by Natalie Cole and Whitney Houston might seem painfully late ’80s, but “I Say A Little Prayer” is timeless.
You can listen to these songs and previously discussed cover songs in a Spotify playlist.