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I Say a Little Prayer - Aretha Franklin

When Burt Bacharach's death was announced in February, the tv and radio stations played his and co-writer Hal David's most famous songs which, as I have mentioned in previous posts, were not necessarily their biggest hits. In order of the frequency with which they were played "in memoriam" as it were, they are: "I Say a Little Prayer" by Aretha Franklin, "Do You Know the Way to San Jose?" and "Walk on By" by Dionne Warwick and "This Guy's in Love with You" by Herb Alpert respectively.

From 1962 to 1972, Warwick was the second most successful female vocalist on the US Billboard Hot 100 after Aretha Franklin, totting up 34 chart entries, 32 of which were written by Bacharach and David. (Franklin had 41 Hot 100 singles over the same period.) And maybe the difference between the two renditions of "I Say a Little Prayer" contains the reason why.

When the Bacharach / David songwriting team split up in 1972, Warwick successfully filed a law suit against them for breach of contract, obtaining a £5 million dollar settlement and rights to the recordings.

Even before that, she was often perturbed by Bacharach's frequently stated preference for other people's recordings of their songs as opposed to Warwick's, which was ironic as he and David produced them. Among these were versions by Sandie Shaw, Cilla Black and, last but not least, Dusty Springfield (see post ). Top of the list is Aretha Franklin's cover of "I Say a Little Prayer". Warwick's original reached number 4 in the US charts in 1967, as opposed to Franklin's at number 10 a year later.

In late 1967 Aretha was in the studios warming up to start recording her new album "Aretha Now" and started improvising around Dionne Warwick's current chart hit, "I Say a Little Prayer". The backing singers, hired for the album, were the legendary Sweet Inspirations, who had sung on the Warwick original, so they pitched in with gusto. Producer Jerry Wexler was so impressed by the result that he insisted they polished it up and included it on the album. It was subsequently released as the "B" side of the LP's single "The House that Jack Built", but was "flipped" when it was getting so many radio airplays.

Franklin's version is by far the best, with Aretha taking her cue from the word "prayer" and making the song an an extended gospel call and response interplay with backing vocal group, the Sweet Inspirations. Franklin's version is slower than Warwick's, but doesn't feel like it, her vocal climbing and dipping with barely controlled passion as the song progresses.

Hal David original conceived his original lyric as a woman praying for the survival of her man who was fighting in Vietnam, and, whether Franklin's heartfelt rendition deliberately reflects this or is just a sensual expression of her love, the sense of yearning in her vocal is transcendent: the "prayer" reflects an urgent, obsessive need, physical even. Warwick, by contrast, sings sedately, speeding up for the middle eight like a commuter hurrying for a bus, the "prayer" reduced to a habit that recurs throughout her day

It is ironic that the original line-up of the Sweet Inspirations included Dionne Warwick and her sister Dee Dee, the former leaving the group in 1962 on the occasion of her first solo hit "Don't Make Me Over", composed by - you guessed it - Burt Bacharach and Hal David (see ).


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