“Like a Prayer” is a song by American singer Madonna, from her fourth studio album of the same name. Sire Records released it as the album’s lead single on March 3, 1989. Written and produced by Madonna and Patrick Leonard, the track denoted a more artistic and personal approach to songwriting for Madonna, who believed that she needed to cater more to her adult audience. The song is about a passionate young girl in love with God, who becomes the only male figure in her life.
“Like a Prayer” is a pop rock song and incorporates gospel music. It features background vocals from a choir and also a rock guitar. The lyrics contain liturgical words, but they have dual meanings of sexual innuendo and religion. “Like a Prayer” was acclaimed by critics, and was also a commercial success. It was Madonna’s seventh number-one single on the United States’ Billboard Hot 100, and topped the singles charts in Australia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Ireland, Italy, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, the United Kingdom and other countries.
Madonna wanted to have gospel music as part of the song, with virtually no instrumentation, only the sound of an organ and her singing. So she started experimenting using just her vocals, giving away to the bridge being composed. After the full song was finalized, Madonna and Leonard decided to record it alongside a choir around September 1988. Both of them met with musician Andraé Crouch and vocalist Roberto Noriega, and signed their choir to provide background vocals. Crouch scrutinized the lyrics as he wanted to “find out what the intention of the song might be. We’re very particular in choosing what we work with, and we liked what we heard.” At Jonny Yuma recording studio, he got his choir together and explained to them what they needed to do during the recording session. He had listened to the demo of “Like a Prayer” in his car, and directed the choir accordingly. The choir was recorded separately, and Leonard wanted it to be added during post-production.
Recording took more time than usual since Madonna and Leonard fought “tooth and nail” in the studio. According to author Lucy O’Brien, the singer wanted to prove that her second chance as a record producer (following her previous album True Blue) was not a fluke. Leonard started working on the chord changes for the verses and the chorus. He had hired guitarist Bruce Gaitsch and bass guitar player Guy Pratt to work on the track. Pratt had in turn hired some additional drummers. On the day of the recording, the drummers canceled, which irritated Madonna, and she started shouting and swearing profusely at Leonard and Pratt. The producer then hired British drum and guitar players such as Chester Kamens, David Williams and Dann Huff. He commented that the choice was deliberate since he was a fan of British rock, and wanted that kind of attitude and quirkiness of the musicians in “Like a Prayer”, as well as the other songs of the album. Pratt was not fired, but later he realized that Madonna did not forgive him; she would call him at late nights for his opinion, and urgently ask him to come to the recording studio, only to be dismissed.
Madonna had her own opinion of how the different musical instruments should be played to achieve the sound that she envisioned. Pratt recalled that after the middle chorus was recorded, she notified the musicians of some changes in the production. “Jonathan, do less of the high-hat in the middle eight, and more of a fill towards the end. Guy, I want duck eggs [semibreves] on the end, and Chester, bring in your guitar on the second verse,” she instructed. The team checked the instructions once more, and did a final recording with vocals and one with the strings. Gaitsch heard Madonna telling Leonard that no further recording was to be done for the song. Leonard then gave the track to Bill Bottrell for the mixing process. But the producer felt that the bongos and the Latin Percussion would sound really mismatched if Crouch’s choir was added, so he removed them. For the introduction, Leonard used some guitar recordings by musician Prince, who had been asked by Madonna to contribute to the track. He recalled in 2014 that no other music by Prince was used on the release, but some effects around the choruses might have been his.