Say a Little Prayer

If you think of music in the 1960’s you might think of Bob Dylan. I think of Burt Bacharach.

What was playing on our family stereo or on the radio in those days was Mantovani and the Living Strings and Percy Faith and Andy Williams or, when things really got crazy, Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. And Bacharach was always in the mix either in songs he produced himself or in covers.

So yesterday when it was announced that Bacharach had died in Los Angeles at age 94 I wanted to pull on my turtle neck sweater, throw a yellow cardigan around my neck, and heat up some fondue in a burnt orange pot, pour myself a sangria and put some Dionne Warwick on the hifi.

One of the things that was great about Burt Bacharach was that, while he always wanted to write hit songs, he wrote them on his own terms. When the British invaded he didn’t meet them at the landings. When everything turned political he stuck with romantic ballads. He never showed up on network primetime wearing a psychedelic suit and trying to relate to the kids, as Frank Sinatra did in 1968 to his everlasting embarrassment.

I’ve been researching a book about Wisconsin Gov. Tony Earl. His public career began in 1964 as a district attorney in Marathon County and then as Wausau City Attorney and as a state legislator from that area. When I search on his name in the Wausau Daily Herald, life looks like a series of speeches to the Rotary and the Holy Name Society and Boy Scout meetings and “testimonial” dinners. Mrs. Anthony Earl (never Sheila) is very active in the Junior League. Tony is named an Outstanding Young Man of America.

It’s only when the cursor slips that you stumble on the adjacent story which might be about the build-up in Vietnam or the race riots down in Milwaukee or Martin Luther King’s assassination or the killing of Bobby Kennedy. Those worlds collided in October of 1969. Earl had won a special election for the Assembly while never, as far as I can find, saving anything about the war or race relations. He drove down to Madison to be sworn in, but National Guard troops blocked him from entering the Capitol Building. Father James Groppi and open housing protestors had just been removed from their occupation of the Assembly Chambers.

While you couldn’t totally ignore the cultural and political upheaval of that era you could choose to live in a parallel universe where it was possible to be surprised by all of that ferment. Burt Bacharach’s soundtrack for the ’60’s subtly set a mood of optimism and security and upward mobility. In its obit yesterday, the New York Times wrote that his music and Hal David’s lyrics, “evoked a world of jet travel, sports cars and sleek bachelor pads.”

Of course, you can argue that there’s no such thing as being apolitical, that to choose to write about romantic breakups as the country is breaking up is a political statement in itself.

But it’s good for those of us who live and breath politics to remind ourselves that most normal people don’t. There are other things going on in their lives and it is not set to the soundtrack of Janis Joplin. The music and lyrics of Bacharach and David are a much better fit for the lives of most Americans. And they always will be.

His was much better than elevator music, but Burt Bacharach will always be playing in the elevators of our lives. He’s gone now. Say a little prayer.


Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

4 thoughts on “Say a Little Prayer

  1. I think ‘What the World Needs Now Is Love’ was an acknowledgement of the turbulent times. What a tremendous talent. RIP Burt.


  2. Thanks for the memories. The ’60s and ’70s certainly had their cross currents: hippies and guys in plaid suits; feminism and Playboy. The 101 Strings Orchestra (think Muzak) covered Simon and Garfunkel and the Beatles along with “Strangers in the Night” and “Moon River.” They even did Bob Dylan, but I couldn’t confirm it. The war in Vietnam was both raging and ignored. Pray for peace and load the B-52s — an important war for someone else to fight and for soldiers to blame when they got home for a war they didn’t want to fight in the first place. I can still get upset.

    I just read that the lyrics for “I Say a Little Prayer” were “intended by lyricist Hal David to convey a woman’s concern for her man who’s serving in the Vietnam War”. Try reading the lyrics with that in mind.

    Dionne Warwick played a huge role in making Burt Bacharach / Hal David the phenomenon they became, and vice versa. She said the songs weren’t hard to sing because they were written expressly for her. And Bacharach said he had the confidence to write some of those songs because he knew he had someone who could sing them.

    When we were young, a lot of the pop music we loved was performed by Black artists. The race riots were on the other side of town; the war was a world away and most kids’ prized possession was their stereo system. Drugs were considered cool, but consisted mostly of Pabst Blue Ribbon. You’re right that politics wasn’t a driving force in people’s lives, but it sure was a backdrop.

    A New Yorker article I read recently said the roots of today’s polarization stem from the Viet Nam war era: the 1968 Democratic convention, the inability of the news media to take a critical look at increasingly absurd national policy. People became radicalized. The media turned to “he said, she said”. Today the media is distrusted by many, especially among the right wing.

    And out of all this turmoil you somehow got both Burt Bacharach and Dylan or Crosby Stills and Nash. Maybe we’ll be alright despite no one having a monopoly on the truth, but more likely we’ll be alright because of it. The bumper sticker stated “Question Authority;” it didn’t say create an alternative reality.

    And “What the World Needs Now is Love” seems like a hippie, pro-civil rights paean to me. But a sweet one. For nice people.


  3. The best version of “I Say A Little Prayer” was recorded by Aretha Franklin. Listen and you will agree.
    My favorite Burt Bacharach story involves his former wife, Carol Bayer Sager, and Neil Diamond. The three of them went to the movie “E.T.” in the summer of 1982. They walked out, sat down and together wrote Diamond’s hit “Heartlight”. Another of my favorite songs, which climbed to #5 on the “Hot 100” list. (The last time a Neil Diamond tune ranked that high to this day.) MCA/Universal sued Diamond for “property infringement” or something like that, even though neither the movie nor E.T. is mentioned in the song, and Diamond ended up settling out of court for $25,000.


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