Hello there! This week our blog features an iconic female pop song, I Say a Little Prayer. We will first discuss the original by Dionne Warwick. Next, we will review a cover of this song by Aretha Franklin, and we will finish with a cover by Natalie Cole and Whitney Houston. What a treat – we will showcase efforts by several of the greatest R&B divas of this era!
Dionne Warwick and I Say A Little Prayer:
Dionne Warwick is one of the most successful female pop singers of her time. She was born Dionne Warrick in 1940 in Orange, New Jersey. Her mother was manager of a gospel group called the Drinkard Singers.
While she was in high school, Dionne performed with a group called the Gospelaires, and they provided support for several soul and R&B groups. While Dionne was singing backup on a song by the Drifters, she was noticed by Brill Building songwriter Burt Bacharach. Bacharach thought that Dionne would be perfect for his rather sophisticated pop tunes, frequently written with lyricist Hal David.
So in 1962, Dionne Warwick was signed to a contract with Bacharach and David’s production company, and shortly afterwards she signed a record deal with Florence Greenberg, the owner and producer of Scepter Records.
Here is a photo of Dionne Warwick posing with the Grammy Awards she won in 1972.Embed from Getty Images
The first couple of singles that Dionne released in 1962 and 1963 made it onto the pop charts and identified her as a promising young artist (her name became “Dionne Warwick” following a spelling error on her first single). But her first really big hit was Walk On By in 1964.
That song made it to #6 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #1 on the R&B playlists. This Bacharach-David tune established Ms. Warwick as a rising pop superstar. In 1964, Dionne was named Bestselling Female Vocalist by Cash Box magazine, and she was subsequently named Top Female Vocalist by Cash Box in 1969, 1970 and 1971.
It is impressive that Ms. Warwick was able to withstand the British Invasion, which wiped out a significant segment of the American pop market. As a matter of fact, Dionne’s songs were quite popular in the U.K. as well.
The song I Say A Little Prayer was written specifically for Dionne Warwick by Burt Bacharach and Hal David.
The lyrics describe a woman who is constantly praying for her loved one, even through many mundane activities. Hal David intended that the lyrics refer to a soldier who was serving in the Vietnam War.
The moment I wake up
Before I put on my makeup
I say a little prayer for you.
While combing my hair, now
And wonderin’ what dress to wear, now
I say a little prayer for you.
[CHORUS] Forever, forever, you’ll stay in my heart
And I will love you.
Forever, and ever, we never will part
Oh, how I’ll love you.
Together, together, that’s how it must be
To live without you
Would only mean heartbreak for me.
I run for the bus, dear
While riding I think of us, dear
I say a little prayer for you.
At work, I just take time
And all through my coffee break time
I say a little prayer for you.
Dionne recorded the song in April 1966, but it then sat around for almost 18 months before it was included on Warwick’s album The Windows of the World. Apparently Burt Bacharach was unconvinced that the song would be a hit, and included it on this album only at the insistence of Florence Greenberg at Scepter Records.
The album was released in September 1967, and within a month DJs had begun to play that particular cut. So I Say A Little Prayer was released as the “B” side of a single record, with “(Theme From) Valley of the Dolls” as the “A” side.
Well, ‘I Say A Little Prayer’ shot up to #4 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts. And a couple of months later, the Valley of the Dolls theme hit #2 on the Billboard Hot 100!
So here is Dionne Warwick in a live presentation of I Say A Little Prayer.
You can see why Dionne Warwick was such a favorite for Bacharach – David tunes. Her voice is clear and strong, as she seems to effortlessly convey Hal David’s sophisticated lyrics and Burt Bacharach’s complex melodies.
Dionne’s vocals are quite lovely, and are set off very nicely by the backup singers. At one point she riffs along with a trumpet solo.
Note that Bacharach includes subtle variations in the time signatures in this song. The verses contain two measures in 4/4 time, followed by one in 10/4 and two concluding measures in 4/4 time; while the chorus is in 11/4 time.
Dionne Warwick continued to be a pop superstar, recording Bacharach and David songs on Florence Greenberg’s Scepter Records label, until 1971. At that point, Warwick left Scepter and was signed to a big contract with Warner Brothers.
Unfortunately, the Bacharach — David partnership dissolved in 1973 after their work on the motion picture Lost Horizon. This was a musical remake of the 1937 film directed by Frank Capra, which itself was based on the novel by James Hilton that introduced the fictional Himalayan paradise Shangri-La. Below, we show a publicity poster for the 1973 film.
The musical Lost Horizon was one of the great flops of the past 50 years. Savaged by the critics, it took in so little money at the box office that wags referred to it as “Lost Investment.” Movie critic John Simon alleged that the movie
“must have arrived in garbage cans rather than in film cans.”
The 1973 Lost Horizon is included in the book The Fifty Worst Films of All Time.
Burt Bacharach was convinced that his musical score was being revised and weakened by the producers, but when he attempted to exert more control over the film, he was banned from the editing process. This caused an irreparable schism with his long-time partner Hal David.
The Bacharach-David split left Dionne Warwick without her main source of songs. Eventually she sued Bacharach and David for breach of contract, and the suit was settled out of court for $5 million.
Florence Greenberg had great instincts for pop songs; however, her business practices left much to be desired. In 1975, Bacharach and David sued Scepter Records for royalties they claimed were owed them,
due to Scepter Records’ apparently lax accounting policies and the company policy of not submitting recordings for RIAA audit.
As a result of this lawsuit, Scepter Records eventually went out of business. Apparently this leaves considerable uncertainty as to how many records Dionne Warwick sold while with Scepter Records.
At the end of the 1970s, Dionne Warwick’s career had faltered. Without Bacharach and David, she had run through several producers with some success, but less than in her glory days.
However, in 1979 she signed with Arista Records, teamed up with producer Clive Davis, and her career took another upward bounce. In 1980, Dionne became the first woman to win Grammys for Best Pop Vocal Performance and Best R&B Vocal Performance in the same year.
Then in the 80s, Dionne Warwick became the host for the hour-long TV show Solid Gold. Over the remaining decades, she has continued to be a superstar, co-hosting programs such as the 2008 Divas II special with artists such as Rihanna, Pink and Leona Lewis.
Dionne Warwick has also been involved in a number of charitable activities. She was an early supporter of AIDS benefits, and has been named a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.
There are just a few stains on Ms. Warwick’s reputation. In 2013, she filed for bankruptcy because of financial mismanagement. At the time she owed almost $7 million to the IRS and another $3 million to the state of California.
Perhaps more concerning is Dionne Warwick’s association with New Age hucksters. That association began as early as 1971 when she changed her last name to “Warwicke,” under the advice of astrologer Linda Goodman, who foretold that it would bring Dionne much greater success. Unfortunately, the name change was associated with a significant dry spell in her record sales, so Dionne reverted back to “Warwick.”
But it certainly became more serious in the 1990s, when she became the spokesperson for the Psychic Friends Network. In a number of informercials, Ms. Warwick touted 900-number phone calls to “the best psychics.” Of course the service was a major scam, but the company lasted from 1991 until 1998 when they filed for bankruptcy.
Nevertheless, we salute Dionne Warwick. Her beautiful singing voice and sophisticated style has brightened our lives for decades. What an impressive career!
Aretha Franklin and I Say A Little Prayer:
What can we say about Aretha Franklin, the “Queen of Soul”? She was one of the most successful and iconic artists of her time. Aretha Franklin was ranked #1 in Rolling Stone magazine’s list of 100 Greatest Singers of All Time.
Aretha was the first female artist inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Her career was legendary: she sold over 75 million records; won 18 Grammys; and had over 100 songs listed on the Billboard charts, including 17 top-10 pop songs and 21 R&B singles that reached #1. No other female artist even approaches those numbers.
Aretha’s father was a highly charismatic preacher who moved to Detroit when Aretha was five. She began to sing in her father’s church and accompany him on gospel caravan tours. There she met Sam Cooke, who was in the process of switching from gospel to pop music, and who mentored Aretha and introduced her to music-industry executives.
Producer John Hammond signed Aretha to a record deal with Columbia Records where she enjoyed limited success. Although stardom for Aretha seemed like a “can’t-miss proposition,” Columbia seemed unable to determine a “niche” for the young artist, primarily because they had her singing old standards instead of exploiting her affinity to gospel music. Aretha herself was reluctant to apply gospel techniques in pop music, for fear of upsetting her father, her friends, and her faith.
This all changed in 1967, when three great things happened for Aretha. First, she switched labels from Columbia to Atlantic Records; second, she was introduced to the Muscle Shoals musicians; and third she hooked up with producer Jerry Wexler. Below is a photo of Aretha from 1967.Embed from Getty Images
Aretha’s first big hit with Jerry Wexler was the Otis Redding song Respect. Aretha turned “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” into not only a gospel-blues classic, but a feminist anthem. After that beginning, Aretha Franklin released a series of hits, including Carole King’s song (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.
Here is Aretha Franklin in a live performance of I Say A Little Prayer.
Isn’t this wonderful? Aretha doesn’t just take on this song, she really steamrolls it. This is a terrific gospel-tinged version of the Bacharach-David classic. She provides a great call-and-response with her backup singers. In those days, Aretha frequently used her sisters Erma and Carolyn as her backup singers; I am not sure if they are performing here.
Here, we are able to experience the full range of Aretha’s voice. At times she is belting out a full-throated roar, and other times her voice is soft and warm. Since Aretha apparently never sang a tune the same way twice, we get a unique version of this song.
Even though Dionne Warwick’s version of this tune is classy and timeless, it is hard to compete with Aretha Franklin’s take on this song.
Over her lifetime, Aretha won nearly every imaginable honor in the music business, and she earned great respect from her peers. However, her personal life was marked by challenges and setbacks. Aretha had her first child shortly after turning 13 and her second at age 14, and rumors abound regarding the identities of the anonymous fathers.
Aretha dealt with some serious health problems over her career. She struggled with dramatic swings in her weight. This was combined with a long but eventually successful struggle to stop smoking – a habit that was clearly detrimental to her voice, though efforts to quit her two-pack-a-day habit were also correlated with rapid weight gain.
Aretha also suffered from rather violent domestic abuse at the hands of her first husband. And her sisters Carolyn and Erma died of cancer in 1988 and 2002, respectively.
Aretha Franklin died from a pancreatic neuroendocrine tumor in August, 2018. Her funeral attracted nearly every major R&B star, as it should have.
We miss Aretha terribly, and are hankful for the terrific body of work that the Queen of Soul bequeathed to us. Barack Obama beautifully characterized her legacy when she was feted at the Kennedy Center Honors in 2015.
“Nobody embodies more fully the connection between the African-American spiritual, the blues, R&B, rock and roll—the way that hardship and sorrow were transformed into something full of beauty and vitality and hope”
To which we can only say, “Amen.”
Natalie Cole and Whitney Houston and I Say A Little Prayer:
Natalie Cole was born in 1950 into a family she referred to as the “black Kennedys.” She was the daughter of Nat “King” Cole, the most successful black musician of the 50s and 60s. Below is a photo of Natalie Cole as a young girl, singing along with her famous father.Embed from Getty Images
Nat Cole was an extremely talented pianist and initially achieved fame as the leader of a jazz trio. He then became a singer and was known for his silky-smooth delivery. Starting in 1943, Cole had a series of pop hits over the next two decades, particularly his 1951 signature tune Unforgettable.
In 1956, Nat Cole became the first African-American performer to have his own nationally-syndicated TV show, The Nat King Cole Show, which was featured on NBC TV. Cole’s variety show blazed the trail for generations of African-Americans who followed him. He featured many great black and white musicians as guests on his program.
Growing up, Natalie Cole was familiar with some of the greatest soul, jazz and blues musicians; so it was no surprise when Ms. Cole decided to become a vocalist. However, she met some resistance when she preferred R&B and rock to jazz or pop music. But she was offered a recording contract by her father’s label, Capitol Records.
Natalie Cole’s first album, the 1975 release Inseparable, was a major success. The song This Will Be reached #1 on the R&B charts and was a top-10 Billboard Hot 100 hit. The song won Ms. Cole a Grammy for Best New Artist.
Some critics began labeling Natalie as the “new Aretha Franklin.” This was impressive for Ms. Cole’s image; but it was unfortunate because it irritated the temperamental Aretha, and caused a rivalry between the two singers.
Whitney Houston was another singer who came from “R&B royalty.” Her mother was gospel singer Cissy Houston and she was a cousin of Dionne Warwick.
As a child, Whitney tagged along to some of her mother’s gigs, so she was singing backup for artists like Chaka Kahn and Lou Rawls when she was 15. However, Whitney Houston’s first big breakthrough was as a model.
Before her 20th birthday, Whitney was appearing as a model in a number of magazines. She became a superstar model, and was one of the first African-American models to appear in publications such as Glamour and Cosmopolitan.
Below is a photo of Whitney Houston singing the National Anthem at the Super Bowl in Houston in 1991.Embed from Getty Images
Even as a model in great demand, Whitney continued her singing, and in 1983 she caught the eye of Arista Records head Clive Davis. Davis signed her to a contract, but spent some time searching for the ideal producers and material for Ms. Houston.
Her self-titled album, released in 1985, propelled her to stardom. Three singles from that album were big hits and the album became the best-seller for the 1985-86 season.
This started Whitney Houston on a meteoric career. During the 1986-87 season, her success with albums and tours made her the top-earning African-American woman and the third highest African-American entertainer after Bill Cosby and Eddie Murphy.
So here are Natalie Cole and Whitney Houston teaming up to sing I Say A Little Prayer.
Well, this is a great treat! You can see why Natalie Cole and Whitney Houston were arguably the best of the female R&B singers to follow in the footsteps of Aretha Franklin and Dionne Warwick.
Here, the pair belt out this tune and vie with one another, pulling everything out of their bag of vocal tricks. Natalie Cole has slightly more power – you can see where the comparisons to Aretha arose. While Ms. Cole doesn’t quite have the vocal strength or range of Ms. Franklin – let’s face it, nobody does – Natalie has an impressive voice that she puts to great use here.
Although Whitney Houston has slightly less raw power than Natalie, her versatility and range are simply mind-blowing. Whitney seems to effortlessly switch from belting out notes to sweet, soft whispers. At the end of her career her voice suffered, presumably from the effects of drug abuse, but at this point she was an incandescent wonder.
Between 1985 and 2000 Ms. Houston continued her career as a pop superstar. She also was acclaimed as an actress, starring in such pictures as The Bodyguard, Waiting to Exhale, and The Preacher’s Wife.
Having achieved stunning success as a model, singer and actress, it looked like Whitney Houston had it all. Alas, she suffered greatly from her marriage to R&B singer Bobby Brown. Brown seemed to be constantly in trouble with the law, and was a terrible influence on Ms. Houston.
Perhaps worst of all, Whitney Houston’s association with Mr. Brown led to serious addiction issues for Whitney. By the year 2000, she had become an erratic performer – missing rehearsals and interviews, and cancelling concerts. Whitney was fired from a couple of projects, and rumors abounded about a disturbing loss of weight and possible physical abuse by Bobby Brown.
In 2004, Bobby Brown and Whitney Houston starred in a reality-TV show called Being Bobby Brown. The Hollywood Reporter described the show as
“undoubtedly the most disgusting and execrable series ever to ooze its way onto television”.
Don’t sugar-coat it, Hollywood Reporter, tell us what you really think of it!
Over the next 10 years, Whitney divorced Bobby Brown and subsequently attempted to re-start her career. She still enjoyed considerable commercial success, but this was combined with periodic stints in rehab.
Then on Feb. 11, 2015, Whitney Houston was found unconscious in her bathtub at the Beverly Hills Hilton. She could not be revived. Death was due to a combination of heart disease and drugs. In addition to cocaine, Benadryl, Xanax and cannabis were found in Whitney’s system.
Now back to Natalie Cole. The pinnacle of her career came in 1991 when she released the album Unforgettable … With Love. This album contained an ‘interactive duet’ that paired Natalie with her father’s voice on the song Unforgettable.
That ‘duet’ was, indeed, unforgettable. The album won a slew of Grammys for Natalie Cole, and re-booted her career. She followed up that triumph with a number of additional hit albums.
Despite Natalie Cole’s commercial success, she also fought a sustained battle with drug addiction. In 2008, Ms. Cole announced that she had contracted Hepatitis C as a result of her past use of intravenous drugs. As a result of this, she needed a kidney transplant in 2009.
On Dec. 31, 2015 Natalie Cole died of congestive heart failure. It is believed that this was a result of pulmonary hypertension resulting from her kidney transplant.
Natalie Cole and Whitney Houston were superb musicians. They produced impressive work and showed great versatility. Natalie Cole could move effortlessly from R&B to jazz. And Whitney Houston also showed great mastery of both R&B and pop.
Both artists had very similar backgrounds. They came from families of renowned musicians, and they created their own unique music. Alas, both of them struggled with addiction issues, and died much too early.
Their video reminds us of what we are missing now that these two superbly talented performers have left us.