I SAY A LITTLE PRAYER
LIANNE LA HAVAS
I suppose there are some music lovers who have never been attracted to the music of Burt Bacharach, but it’s really kind of hard for me to imagine. His writing is so inventive, so imaginative, and so felicitous that it just seems like anyone with ears would find it immediately pleasing.
Doing a panoramic survey of Bacharach’s songs will be the subject of another post—it’s too intimidating to take on right now. Together with his song-writing partner Hal David, Bacharach wrote hundreds of easy-listening songs from the 50’s to the 80’s. I’ll save my admiration (in writing) for him for later.
For right now, I just want to focus on one particular song, “I Say a Little Prayer.” Bacharach had developed a special (professional) relationship with Dionne Warwick, starting in 1962, when they recorded “Don’t Make Me Over.” For quite a number of years, Warwick’s voice, in hit after hit, was synonymous with Bacharach’s music.
I was in the middle of my tenth grade year of high school when “I Say a Little Prayer” was popular. I found both the melody, the rhythm (which is very interesting), and the lyrics all really attractive.
Hal David was Bacharach’s lyricist. They had already had ten years of song-writing success in 1967, when “Prayer” was released. The lyrics were timely: although not particularly evident when listening to the song, the lyrics are meant to convey a woman’s concern for her man who is serving in the Vietnam War—an extremely timely subject in the late 60’s.
“Prayer” was the fourteenth collaboration of Bacharach and Warwick which resulted in the release of a single. All of the previous recording sessions they had done were accomplished quickly—most of them in three successive takes, and many in just one. Bacharach insisted on ten takes of “I Say a Little Prayer.” Of particular concern to him was the tempo. The time signatures of “Prayer” were unusual in that they were continually varying: two measures of 4/4, a measure of 10/4, back to 4/4, and a chorus in 11/4 (which itself is subdivided into 4 and 3 and 4). Settling on a tempo that adequately reflected this varying meter, while also expressing the lyrics, was important to Bacharach.
Warwick’s version—the one that acquainted the world with the song, and still to this day is the version of the song that most listeners relate to or think of first—became a huge hit. It was certainly a song I loved. I can vividly remember having the song in the forefront of my mind during many a “homeroom” period—the first thing in one’s everyday life in high school—during the winter of 1968. But Bacharach was never fully satisfied with this version, feeling that, ultimately, it was just too fast.
“Prayer” was SO popular—whether you were relating to the contemporary (Vietnam etc.) lyrics or not—and most listeners, I am guessing, definitely were not. For most people, Prayer’s lyrics were timeless and simple and only concerned with love. And the music was infectious. The song was IMMEDIATELY covered—first by Sergio Mendes and then by the Baja Marimba Band—both of which illustrate the purely musical power—i.e. compositional, melodic and rhythmic—which the song held.
Aretha Franklin’s version of “Prayer” was released in the fall of ’68, not even a year after Warwick’s and it became yet another commercial success. Truer to the Bacharach’s feeling about the tempo, there was definitely something more real about her less upbeat version, something more soulful, something everyone could relate to. For many, Franklin’s version became the go-to version of Prayer.
I love them both, and am including links to both. But as you might expect from any well-written song, there are quite a number of covers of the song. It lends itself well to all manner of interpretations, from reggae to big band to calypso to soul to Sweet Adeline-type choral. The song was prominently featured in the 1997 Julia Roberts movie My Best Friend’s Wedding, which gave it a second life on the pop charts. “I Say a Little Prayer” is, among all Bacharach’s compositions, also one that did exceedingly well internationally, in other languages—in Mexico, in France, in Switzerland. Franklin’s version was a chart-topper in the U.K. as well.
Two of my favorite versions to appear well after Prayer’s initial success are those by Lianne la Havas and Trintje Oosteerhuis.
Lianne la Havas (born 1989) is a British singer and song-writer. Her exotic looks come from her Jamaican father and Greek mother. This particular video went viral years ago after it was recorded at Belgium’s Rock Werchter festival. Havas’ love for the song—which she says is “perfect in every way”—is evident in her delivery.
Trintje Oosteerhuis (born 1973) is a Dutch singer who I guess one could say specializes in doing covers—of Billie Holiday, George Gershwin—and of Burt Bacharach. Two of her albums—The Look of Love and Who’ll Speak for Love—are both collaborations with Bacharach, with whom she has a close professional relationship. Bacharach plays piano for her on each of these albums. Oosteerhuis can really get to the heart of Bacharach/David songs.
I think you will also like these two lesser-known “Prayer” versions, too.
LIANNE LA HAVAS