David Fleming
It's All Academic   www.davidflemingsite.com   
Day 54: Aretha Franklin (I Say A Little Prayer)

June 19, 2020

Having lived in the Detroit, Michigan, area for 15 years, I know how Aretha Franklin has become an almost larger-than-life figure for the community. Her public appearances singing National Anthems, whether for President Obama's inauguration, a Super Bowl, and World Series games were always can't-miss-t.v. moments, her personality captivating the crowd as much as her amazing voice.  Her national anthem for a Detroit Lions Thanksgiving game in 2013 is legendary, five minutes of "look-at-me" performance, fur coat and all, that no Lions team could ever measure itself against.  (Lions' fans tend to look away.)

Most of her greatest hits loom as big and as legendary as these public presentations. "Respect," "Think," "Chain of Fools," even later hits like "Freeway of Love" and "Who's Zoomin' Who" explode with an attitude equally enveloping as the voice. Yet, when Franklin contracts a bit in song, as she does with "I Say A Little Prayer," I appreciate fully all of her talents.

One of the beauties of that legendary five-minute long Thanksgiving Day National Anthem is watching Franklin play the piano, showing the world just how talented a pianist she is. The piano is one of the first things that jumps out on "I Say A Little Prayer."  Her piano dances through the opening, providing the core melody that the guitar and drums, especially, latch on to.

Her piano playing is a singular element of something greater that Franklin brought to that string of Top 10 hits she had in the 60's. Burt Bacharach and Hal David, the writers of "I Say A Little Prayer" sang the praises of Franklin's version of this song, emphasizing how her voice and arrangement elevated the song.  That word "arrangement" is so easily used by pros like Bacharach and David; for us common folks, it is a more elusive notion.

The easiest way for me to understand it a little better is to compare Dionne Warwick's version with Aretha Franklin's. Both feature fine lead vocals, but Warwick's lacks the emotional tenor in Franklin's range as well as the prominence of the background singers. Warwick seems in a rush to get through the chorus, while Franklin takes her sweet old time delivering the chorus. (Apparently, Bacharach thought the final Warwick version was rushed.) The piano and horn on Warwick's version come across as a tad cheesy, stamping the Bacharach/David name clearly on the product. Nothing against the great song-writing duo, but Warwick is clearly singing (very well) their song.

Franklin sings her own song that just happens to have a skeleton provided by the famous songwriting duo.  Franklin's dancing piano sets up the vocal gymnastics, her voice punctuating the key words in the chorus. Her vocal interplay with the background singers threatens to take her to the big stage in the same way that "Respect" and "Think," for instance, elevated the attitude.  Here, she taunts and teases us with the "forever," "ever," "together," but never takes over the chorus.  She has a perfect personal "mmm" in the segue from the chorus to the "my darling believe me." She teases us and no one complains.

The voice soars with the "answer my prayer" through the closing moments of the song. Warwick's version fades while Franklin's trails, leaving the vapors of her arrangement in our head for a long time.

I am not saying there is anything wrong with Warwick's. Depending upon the nuances of Top 40 charts, Warwick's did better (#4) than Franklin's (#10) anyway. Nevertheless, I always wondered why the Detroit Lions didn't just buy the rights to Franklin's version.  Millions of Lions' fans have been saying a little prayer for them for years. They just wouldn't be as ashamed doing it alongside Aretha.

"I Say A Little Prayer." Aretha Now. Aretha Franklin. Atlantic. 1968. Link here.

Day 53: The Breeders "Blues At The Acropolis."

Day 55: Supertramp "Hide In Your Shell." 

See complete list here.