Aretha Franklin was always quick with a cover. If she heard it and liked it enough, she was going to put her mark on it. Dionne Warwick’s “I Say A Little Prayer” is a prime example. Dionne Warwick’s original was released as a single in December of 1967, and hit its peak in February of 1968. Aretha cut her cover on April 17, 1968, and released it on Aretha Now on June 14, 1968.
As the story goes, according to David Ritz’s Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin, Aretha was in the studio with Cissy Houston and The Sweet Inspirations. The girls were singing “I Say A Little Prayer” for fun during rehearsals, and it was soon realized that the song could be a good track to cut.
Aretha’s producer Jerry Wexler felt differently: “I advised Aretha not to record it,” he told David Ritz. Wexler had a 2-pronged opposition to Aretha recording the song. “First, to cover a song only twelve weeks after the original reached the top of the charts was not smart business. You revisit such a hit eight months to a year later. But more than that, Bacharach’s melody, though lovely, was peculiarly suited to a lithe instrument like Dionne Warwick’s- a light voice without the dark corners or emotional depths that define Aretha. Also, Hal David’s lyric was also somewhat girlish and lacked the gravitas that Aretha required.”
However, Aretha’s argument had a notable ally: Cissy Houston was Dionne’s cousin. Cissy took Aretha’s side on the matter based on the strong background arrangement Aretha created for The Sweet Inspirations, and Jerry caved.
Good thing he did. Aretha’s version, driven once again by her genius piano playing with the Muscle Shoals boys backing her and Sweet Inspirations lending their voices to the backgrounds topped Dionne’s version. That background arrangement creates a call-and-response-esque dynamic between Aretha and The Sweet Inspirations. Their echoes on her verses solidify her words, and their lead on the chorus permit her to take vocal liberties with the melody and soar to soulful heights. It’s the nuances of her arrangements like those background vocals that complete the song.
But there’s something in the groove that further solidifies Aretha’s version as superior. An anticipation takes hold as the song mellows before it’s final crescendo. It almost implies “it’s not over yet, and she’s about to blow the roof off the place.” Once the song returns to that pre-crescendo mellow which concludes her version, she could easily turn it back around again (and again) and it would satisfy the same yearning as the first time around. As Jerry Wexler said after they cut Aretha’s take: “She blew the fuckin’ doors off the song… She redefined it, restructuring the sound and turning what had been delightful fluff into something serious, obsessive, and haunting.”
Even the song’s composers agreed: “It’s more natural.” Burt Bacharach told NPR’s Terry Gross in an interview in 2010. “It’s better than the record we made (with Dionne Warwick)”. Hal David agreed: “…we did a great record, but she topped it.” That was something you could always count on (or fear) about Aretha. She knew how to make a great record greater than.
Funny enough, the same year Bacharach and David gave that interview, Aretha added another layer to the song. A bipartisan one, so-to-speak. During a performance with the Philadelphia Orchestra at The Mann Center in Philadelphia, lifelong Democrat Aretha invited perhaps the most unexpected person in the world to accompany her on the piano: George W. Bush’s former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
“Didn’t think she could play it, did you?” Aretha quipped as fmr. Secretary Rice began to play the opening notes on that balmy summer night. It doesn’t quite stay together the way it does with literally anyone else at the piano, Condoleezza appears to get lost at one point. But they do get back on track and finish it off.
Here’s audio I took of the Queen of Soul and fmr. Secretary of State performing “I Say A Little Prayer”, which has previously unheard in its’ entirely:
And while Aretha and Dionne famously had a little tiff in recent years, for many years they were very cordial to one another. On one occasion during a 1981 episode of ‘Solid Gold’ the two even performed “I Say A Little Prayer” together. It’s interesting to watch the two lean heavily into an arrangement that’s much more Dionne’s than Aretha’s, though Aretha still incorporates vocal trademarks of her own version.
“I Say A Little Prayer” perfectly encapsulates Aretha Franklin’s talent. She took a run-of-the-mill pop song and completely transformed it. With the incorporation of a soulful groove, a background arrangement which echoes her verses and dominates the chorus allowing her singular voice freedom to demonstrate it’s range, pop becomes soul.
Stream “I Say A Little Prayer” below, and check out a few of the classic performances, as well as one I was lucky enough to catch:
“Years Of Years.” Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin, by David Ritz, Little, Brown & Company, 2014, pp. 195–196.