Burt, Hal, Dionne and Aretha: A Tale of Two Prayers

Dionne Warwick and Aretha Franklin's "I Say a Little Prayer" singles
Photo Credit
Scepter Records; Atlantic Records

It's always fun when the biggest pop hits are ones nobody expects. Take "I Say a Little Prayer," a song that writer Burt Bacharach initially though was flawed in its execution yet became a Top 10 hit twice within the same year.

Written with longtime lyricist Hal David from the perspective of a woman thinking of a lover serving in the Vietnam War, "Prayer" was something of an anomaly when it was presented to Dionne Warwick to sing in 1966. Dionne had made hits out of several Bacharach-David compositions at the time, including "Don't Make Me Over," "Anyone Who Had a Heart" and "Walk On By." But something about the track never clicked to her producers - indeed, the pair found themselves asking for around 10 takes from Warwick, far more than the usual one to three they needed with her.

READ MORE: Dionne Warwick (The Singer) is Having a Moment on Twitter

"I never thought I made the right record on that," Bacharach later told Record Collector. "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." That overriding vote was from Scepter Records owner Florence Greenberg, who insisted it be released on 1967's The Windows of the World. To everyone's surprise, radio jockeys took to it naturally, and after it was properly released as a single, it would become Warwick's fourth Top 10, peaking at No. 4 - still the highest-charting work credited solely to her.

Months after Dionne's "Prayer" reached its peak, Aretha Franklin, in the midst of a recording session with gospel-soul group The Sweet Inspirations, amused herself between takes by singing the tune, slightly rearranging the rhythm as only she could. Though she'd later suggest it was just "foolin' around" in the studio, producer Jerry Wexler thought otherwise, and it would become part of the track list for her third LP for Atlantic, Aretha Now.

READ MORE: DAVID NATHAN'S DIARY - September 9, 2021: ARETHA - A Closer Look (Pt 3): I Say A Little Prayer

Ironically, Aretha's version of "Prayer" had a similarly uncertain journey to the uppermost reaches of the charts: it was initially relegated to a B-side to non-album single "The House That Jack Built." While that track would become her eighth Top 10 hit since 1967, peaking at No. 7 on the Billboard Hot 100, programmers could not resist the future Queen of Soul's take on "Prayer," and it would soon follow its flipside all the way to No. 10.

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