Since their 80s breakthrough, Bon Jovi catapulted from their humble Jersey roots to one of music’s biggest rock bands. The act was originally comprised of lead singer Jon Bon Jovi, guitarist/co-songwriter Richie Sambora, bassist Alec John Such, keyboardist David Bryan, and drummer Tico Torres. In 1984, they released their self-titled debut featuring the Top 40 hit “Runaway,” and followed it up a year later with 7800° Fahrenheit. While both albums went Platinum, it was Slippery When Wet that transformed the band into global superstars.
Released in 1986, the album remains Bon Jovi’s best-seller: it topped Billboard’s 200 chart for eight weeks and has a rare Diamond certification. It features three songs that ruled the decade’s end: “Wanted Dead or Alive,” “You Give Love a Bad Name,” and, of course, “Livin’ On A Prayer.”
A motivational anthem for the working class, “Livin’ On A Prayer” captured the economic hardship of the era. It focused on fictional couple Tommy and Gina who try to hold on to their faith as they struggle to make ends meet. While the song has become ubiquitous at festivals, karaoke nights, bars, and arenas worldwide for decades, it wasn’t initially favored by the band.
“I remember walking out of the room with Richie and I said, ‘Eh, it’s okay. Maybe we should just put it on a movie soundtrack,’” Bon Jovi told The Irish Times. “Richie looked at me and said, ‘You’re an idiot. It’s really good.’ I said, ‘I just don’t know where it’s going.’ But it didn’t have that boom-boom-boom bassline yet, so it sounded more like The Clash.” One listen to the demo, which was featured as a hidden track on the 2004 box set 100,000,000 Bon Jovi Fans Can’t Be Wrong, and you can hear what Bon Jovi means. The track is void of the pounding drums, ripping guitars, and that quintessential robotic talkbox effect.
“We had sort of written it like this spooky, moody, sensitive thing,” co-songwriter Desmond Child recalled on a podcast in 2019. Along with his work with the band, Child is behind Top 40 smashes like Joan Jett & the Blackhearts’ “I Hate Myself for Loving You,” Aerosmith’s “Dude (Looks Like a Lady),” and Ricky Martin’s “Livin’ La Vida Loca.” Child continued: “Jon didn’t think it was going to be right for the direction that they were going into, which was like, hard rock, stadium rock. The song was so good that Richie Sambora and I literally got on our hands and knees, half-joking, half-serious, and begged him to record it.”
The final version of “Livin’ On A Prayer” was an instant smash. The video, directed by frequent collaborator Wayne Isham, was on constant MTV rotation. The song itself became their second consecutive No. 1 single following “You Give Love A Bad Name.” They were the first hard rock band to ever top the Hot 100 with back-to-back singles.
But the song has had an impact far beyond the charts. Following the September 11 attacks, Bon Jovi performed a celebrated acoustic version of “Livin’ On A Prayer” for the America: A Tribute to Heroes special. At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, meanwhile, Jon Bon Jovi joined a city-wide Chicago singalong. The track has also inspired other artists. In 2010, Rihanna joined the band during a Madrid concert and later covered the song during her 2016 The Ellen DeGeneres Show appearance. And, in 2019, Michelle Williams covered it on The Masked Singer.
Bon Jovi’s success continued long after “Livin’ On A Prayer”: they’ve secured five more No. 1 albums, made a Y2K comeback with 2000’s Crush album (“It’s My Life” gives a nod to Tommy and Gina’s tenacity), Jon Bon Jovi and Sambora were inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2009, and the band joined the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2018.
Bon Jovi have solidified their rock legend status, and it’s thanks to signature hits like “Livin’ On A Prayer” that will continue to blow the roof of stadiums for decades to come.
Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ On A Prayer” appeared on 2017’s Now That’s What I Call Tailgate Anthems, alongside other jams like Queen’s “We Will Rock You and Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’.” Looking for more stories behind music’s biggest hits? Check out the Now! That’s What I Call Music page.