I have been in a bit of Burt Bacharach mood musically lately. Nothing soothes the savage beast like the polished production of the Bacharach oeuvre and while going through my iTunes collection of Bacharach songs I have listened to many of the same song being interpreted by different artists and it is something how Bacharach’s songs lend themselves to reinvention without ever losing that quality that makes them so recognizable as a Bacharach song. One song in particular that I have been having an auditory duel with is “I Say A Little Prayer”.
The original version of “I Say A Little Prayer” was written for and sung by Bacharach’s muse Dionne Warwick and her version was a Top 10 hit for the two of them in December of 1967. Like she did for pretty much all of the Bacharach (along with his writing partner Hal David) songs written for her, Warwick glides over the lush orchestration and pretty much sounds like the marriage of her voice/phrasing with the song’s lyrics was something divinely inspired. I doubt there has ever been a more perfect pairing of producer singer than Bacharach/Warwick and this sublime bit of airy pop is a prime example to use when making that case.
Within a year’s time the Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin released her version of “I Say A Little Prayer” and the lithe pop single was re-imagined as a pure and soulful R&B track. Sung with Franklin’s frequent backup singers The Sweet Inspirations (a group which featured Whitney Houston’s mother Cissy), this version of “I Say A Little Prayer” bumped up the piano to a much more prominent position and was as much of a group effort as pretty much any song I have ever heard Aretha sing. The Sweet Inspirations did a lot of singing in this song making it seem like a total girl group song more than a solo recording.
Burt Bacharach himself has gone on the record as saying that the Franklin version is the best version of the song and I would have to agree with him it is features a great vocal and really builds as the song goes along unlike the Warwick version that seems to stay in one gear from start to finish. In contrast, by the time you get to the end of Aretha’s version you really do believe that she is so deeply in love with her man that she can’t go through a second of her day without thanking God for sending him to her.
The two legendary divas have had a bit of a spirited rivalry for years (which continues to this day apparently) so it was really cool that they once got together (on Warwick’s old 80’s TV show SOLID GOLD) to perform a duet of “I Say A Little Prayer”. The video is a bit wonky since it looks like it was lifted from a VHS recording but their performance still comes through well enough. Warwick more than holds her won with Franklin during the performance and Aretha shows a ton of restraint in her vocals by not attempting to drown out Warwick’s much lighter voice. It was a very respectful duet even though you could see that their was a bit of a frost in the air between the two of them.
This isn’t the only Bacharach song that Warwick and Franklin both recorded, they each have their own version of “Walk On By” with Dionne getting the win on that song because she completely owns every chord of it despite how enjoyable Franklin’s version is.