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

Dionne Warwick and Aretha Franklin on 'Solid Gold'
Photo Credit
video screenshot/CBS Television Distribution

Aretha Franklin is in the midst of a mammoth five-day-long series of recording sessions at Atlantic Studios, 1841 Broadway, New York City, April 15-18, 1968.  This is her first time back in the studio since December 1967, when she caps a non-stop year of hits, gold records, touring like she’s never done before.  Her life is a whirlwind of hotels, airplanes, packing, re-packing and she’s undergone a complete career shift since signing with Atlantic Records in November 1966 and, starting literally two months later, making a historic one-time only trip to Muscle Shoals, Alabama to record her debut single for the label…

Taking advantage of a brief respite from life on the road just weeks before she will head to Europe for the first time ever to wow audiences from Stockholm to London, Paris to Amsterdam, Aretha is on a creative streak for those five days in April when she cuts a total of twelve songs, a feat for even the most hardened recording artists of the day…

Two of those tracks – with big band accompaniment from some of the top players in the world of jazz – will end up on the LP, “Soul ’69.”  Most of the material will find its way onto “Aretha Now,”  released in June 1968, her third gold album…

During the five-day marathon, Aretha is at the piano with The Sweet Inspirations – Cissy Houston (notably Dionne Warwick’s aunt), Estelle Brown, Sylvia Shemwell and Myrna Smith.  The Sweets have been touring with Aretha on selected dates over the previous months and have sung behind her on many of the tracks on the albums “I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You),” “Aretha Arrives” and “Lady Soul.”  The group (now also recording artists for Atlantic in their own right) harmonize with Aretha beautifully.  They share a common background in gospel and the combination of Aretha and The Sweet Inspirations epitomizes soul singing at its best…

Aretha is rehearsing in the studio, quite possibly on April 16th, after cutting Sam Cooke’s “You Send Me” and Don Covay’s “See Saw.”  So the story goes, she’s prepping for the next day’s session which will include a version of “The House That Jack Built,” originally recorded by R&B vocalist Thelma Jones in 1967.  Thelma’s version, with The Sweet Inspirations on background vocals, doesn’t quite achieve the chart status it deserves and as Jones herself will recount years later, Cissy Houston brings the song to the attention of Aretha’s producer Jerry Wexler…

Aretha and The Sweets are “foolin’ around” with “I Say A Little Prayer,” a song recorded in April 1966 by Dionne Warwick, then enjoying her own run of non-stop hits at Scepter Records.  The lyrics of the song, penned by Hal David, are intended to express the concerns of a woman for a man serving in the Vietnam War. The finished track produced by Burt Bacharach & Hal David – supposedly after ten takes with Warwick – remains unreleased until September 1967 when it is added, almost as an afterthought to Dionne’s eighth studio album…

“I Say A Little Prayer” is issued as the original ‘B’ side to the single “(Theme From) Valley Of The Dolls,” in October 1967 and U.S. radio disc jockeys begin playing “Prayer,” turning it into a Top 5 hit in December and leading to gold certification in January.  It becomes one of Dionne’s biggest hits…

Using the call-and-response technique that is a gospel music hallmark, Aretha and The Sweet Inspirations are having fun with Cissy’s niece’s hit song. Pop music lore has it that producer Jerry Wexler hears what they’re doing in the studio rehearsals (likely on April16th) and suggests Aretha record it... 

With Tom Dowd engineering and along with Arif Mardin arranging, the 'A' list of musicians who have played on several Aretha Atlantic sessions - Jerry Jemmott (electric bass), Roger Hawkins (drums) and Tommy Cogbill (guitar) - are ready as Aretha plays the memorable intro on piano... 

April 17th, “I Say A Little Prayer” becomes the third recording at the Atlantic session right after “The House That Jack Built,” issued as a single in July 1968 as a follow up to the single “Think.”  Radio DJs once again decide to give airplay to the flipside of “The House That Jack Built” and “I Say A Little Prayer” becomes a double-sided hit for Aretha much like Dionne’s original version did months earlier as the flipside of “Valley Of The Dolls”…

While Dionne’s recording remains a stellar favourite for decades, it is Aretha’s soaring performance with the back-and-forth vocals by The Sweet Inspirations which becomes etched in the global public’s consciousness, Hal David’s original lyrical intent long forgotten…

Fast forward to January 980: Dionne Warwick is riding the crest of a wave of renewed success after signing a new deal with Arista Records.  Label head Clive Davis has masterminded her return to chart favour in 1979 with “I’ll Never Love This Way Again” and “Déjà Vu” and Warwick’s first platinum album “Dionne.”  She’s now hosting a weekly music show, “Solid Gold” and on April 12th 1981, the guests include her now-labelmate, one Aretha Franklin who has herself signed with Arista in 1980 and is in fact the co-host for the episode…

As part of the “Solid Gold” tradition, Dionne duets with one of the guests. What better choice of song than the song that started life as a ‘B’ side of a single for Warwick, then a ‘B’ side for Franklin within the space of a year, giving both women unquestionably a classic in their respective repertoires. 

While the “Solid Gold” performance (available on YouTube) itself tells its own story, body language notwithstanding, the audio duet included on the “ARETHA” box set remains a remarkable once-in-a-lifetime ‘moment’ in music history, never to be repeated…

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