How ‘Livin’ on a Prayer’ Solidified Bon Jovi’s Rock Chart Success
There's no question Bon Jovi's "Livin' on a Prayer" has rocked the world since appearing on the band's third album, 1986's Slippery When Wet. But it also gave the group a strong foothold in the rock, and particularly rock radio, world.
The LP's second single, "Livin' on a Prayer" was Bon Jovi's second No. 1 hit on the Billboard Hot 100, following its immediate predecessor "You Give Love a Bad Name" in February 1987. But, notably, it was also first the quintet's first No. 1 on the Billboard Mainstream Rock chart, a distinction not lost on the Bon Jovi members.
"Yeah, we were excited about that," guitarist Richie Sambora, who co-wrote "Livin' On a Prayer" with Jon Bon Jovi and Desmond Child, told this writer some time later. "I mean, No. 1 on [the Hot 100] was great, don't get me wrong. But a No. 1 rock song...We were a rock band, y'know? That felt really good."
Hard as it is to believe decades later, Bon Jovi did have to slug their way to the top of the rock world. The group was famously born after Jon Bon Jovi won a spot for his song "Runaway" on a local music compilation album from New York radio station WAPP ("The Apple"). The outlet gave the track a major push and shared it with corporate sister stations around the country, which helped it eke into the Billboard Top 40 and give Bon Jovi some national notoriety. But it also generated a whiff of hype that created skepticism in some corner.
"I think rock radio kind of divided," Fred Jacobs of Jacobs Media, the Detroit consultant who created the Classic Rock radio format in 1985, tells UCR. "I think some people took it seriously; other people just looked at it like, 'Yeah, whatever. He won a contest...' Some stations embraced it; others didn't."
Listen to Bon Jovi's 'Livin' on a Prayer'
Bon Jovi kept the singles coming — "She Don't Know Me," "Only Lonely" and "In and Out of Love" among them — and built a following over two albums and heavy touring. But, Jacobs recalls, even "You Give Love a Bad Name" "was not an instant, 'Oh, we've gotta play this thing.'" He adds, "My recollection is it had to prove itself." It did, of course, reaching No. 9 on the Rock chart in addition to its Hot 100 success. And that made the path a little easier for "Livin' On a Prayer."
"All of a sudden, it's like, 'Look at this guy! He can write hits! And, by the way, women like 'em, too,' which in rock radio is not a done deal," Jacobs notes. "Everything just lined up."
"Livin' on a Prayer," of course, went on to become a multi-format, triple-platinum smash with decades-long legs. As of this writing, its music video is nearing 900 million views on YouTube, and you still can't attend a sporting event without hearing it played by the venue DJ. When fans were asked to choose a song for the band to play during the 52nd Grammy Awards telecast in 2019, "Livin' On a Prayer" was the choice by a landslide.
Jon Bon Jovi, meanwhile, surprised fans during a Q&A session on the 2019 Runaway to Paradise cruise, confessing that he almost didn't put the song on Slippery When Wet. "The song was so unique," he explained. "'Livin' on a Prayer' didn't sound like anything, so I was sort of indifferent. I thought, 'Well, it's different, but is it a rock song? Is it us?'"
Who could have guessed how rhetorical that question would become.