Dionne Warwick :: Still going strong (five decades & counting)

by Kevin Scott Hall

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday April 19, 2011

The Bistro Awards, one of cabaret world's top honors and biggest annual celebrations, will honor Dionne Warwick for Lifetime Achievement at the 26th annual ceremony on Tuesday, April 26th, at Gotham Comedy Club.

"Dionne Warwick had been one of my lists of favorite singers to honor for the last couple of years," said Sherry Eaker, the show's producer. "The '60s is my favorite era and her songs were always part of my upbringing, so she represents that era for me."

Eaker was able to reach Warwick by letter through musical director Alex Rybeck, a longstanding member of her fan club, who was attending Warwick's appearance at the Museum of the City of New York a few months ago. "She seemed pleased and the pieces of the puzzle came together," Eaker said. "I'm ecstatic that she is coming to accept her award!"

Not slowing down

Lifetime Achievement Award notwithstanding, at 70 years of age and with fifty years in the business behind her, Warwick isn't exactly slowing down. Her long-awaited autobiography, "My Life, As I See It: An Autobiography," came out last November and she just released her latest CD, "Just Trust Your Heart" (RED Distribution) featuring the songs of Sammy Cahn. It recently landed in the Top Ten of the Billboard Jazz Chart.

"I don't know how it charted in that fashion, but the jazz aficionados went out and supported it!" Warwick told EDGE. "The record company owns the rights to Sammy Cahn's songs and asked me if I'd consider a recording of his material. I hadn't done this kind of thing since my Cole Porter project, so I said yes."

Born Marie Dionne Warrick (the "w" was a misprint on the label of her first hit, "Don't Make Me Over," and she decided to keep it), the singer grew up in a gospel-singing family. She first started singing with the family group, The Drinkards.

Things were not always easy for the group though: "unfortunately, during that period, racism and segregation was running rampant, especially in the south where we were touring," Warwick said. "I'm from East Orange, New Jersey, so I was not accustomed to that kind of thing."

The Bacharach-David years

Later, after enrolling in the Hartt Music School in Hartford, Connecticut, she teamed up with her sister Dee Dee and a few friends to form The Gospelaires. The group went through personnel changes over the years, which also included Cissy Houston (Dionne's aunt and Whitney's mother).

After the group won a competition at the famed Apollo Theater, Dionne spoke up and volunteered her group to sing backup for Sam "The Man" Taylor. The Gospelaires (later the Sweet Inspirations after Dionne left to pursue her solo career) became a renowned backup group. In the studio, they sang with such big-name artists as the Drifters, Bobby Darin and Ben E. King.

"It was absolutely incredible to meet some of the major recording artists of the time, and we made some good money too!" Warwick recalled.

At one of those sessions, they sang "Mexican Divorce," written by Burt Bacharach and Bob Hilliard. When Dionne suggested recording some demos, an executive at Scepter Records set her up with Bacharach.

The rest, as they say, is history. Warwick went on to record dozens of songs with Bacharach and lyricist Hal David, including classics like "Walk on By," "I Say a Little Prayer," "Do You Know the Way to San Jose," and "I'll Never Fall in Love Again."

Although the three will be forever linked in pop history, some of her biggest hits written by others still get radio airplay as well: "Theme from Valley of the Dolls" (Dory and Andre Previn), "Then Came You" (Marshall/Pugh, produced by Thom Bell), "I'll Never Love This Way Again" (Kerr/Jennings, produced by Barry Manilow), "Heartbreaker" (The Bee Gees, produced by Barry Gibb) and, of course, "That's What Friends are For" (Bacharach/Bayer Sager), the top single of 1986 and of Warwick's career.

"You can't argue with great music," Warwick said. "My legacy of music is that it has been passed down from generation to generation. The early fans passed it on to their children, and they are passing it on to their children."

Her unique sound

Nedra Olds-Neal, a producer who supervised the mastering of "The Definitive Collection" (Arista, 1999), said, "The mark of a great singer is being able to recognize that voice within a few notes, and she has that. When she was coming through, everyone-Gladys, Diana, Aretha-had a unique sound."

Olds-Neal further pointed out, "She knows how to sing the melody and make it pop as opposed to riffing all over the place like they do today."

Warwick recalled pivotal moments in her life, such as being introduced onstage at the Olympia Theater in Paris by none other than Marlene Dietrich (Bacharach was her musical director). "I had already recorded 'Don't Make Me Over' at that point and was recording in London and touring, but she became a Mama figure to me."

The meeting boosted her international following, with the French press nicknaming her "The Black Pearl."

What was unusual was that Warwick's music blossomed in the '60s at a time when the British Invasion rock groups, led by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, dominated the charts. "Bacharach and David and I were the oddballs of the industry," Warwick noted.

In the early '70s, Bacharach and David parted ways after a failed movie soundtrack, which left bad blood between all three of them, resulting in lawsuits and ultimately the end to Scepter Records.

By then Warwick became Warwicke for a time (adding the "e" on the advice of an astrologist), but her career floundered at Warner Brothers. Other than "Then Came You," her hit with the Spinners, she had a long dry spell and the so-called experts declared her career about over.

"You have to be prepared and have broad shoulders and be able to accept rejection now and then, which a lot of kids can't do today," Warwick said, reflecting on her ups and downs.

Warwick's career was resurrected when she teamed up with Barry Manilow, who produced her album "Dionne." It went platinum and brought her two Grammy awards.

An anthem for the AIDS crisis

That success led to a hosting gig on "Solid Gold" for a couple years, a successful teaming with Barry Gibb and-rift now repaired-a recording project with her old friend and collaborator Burt Bacharach.

"I was in the process of looking through some of Burt and Carole Bayer Sager's songs for my next project anyway," Warwick recalled. "One night I was watching television very late and I saw the film Night Shift. There was this great song that Rod Stewart was singing and when I watched the credits, I noticed that Burt and Carole had written it!"

A few days later, she approached the songwriting duo (the two were also married at the time) and told them of her discovery. "Well, now four of us have heard it," Bacharach told Warwick. "You, me, Carole and Rod!"

"Friendship is a very big part of my life, it runs through my veins, so I thought it would be a great song for me and a few friends," Warwick said. "So I called Stevie and told him, 'This is what you're doing next week!' Then I ran into Elton at the grocery store and, of course, Gladys has always been a great friend."

Elizabeth Taylor, a friend of Bayer Sager's and already a pioneer in the fight against AIDS, happened to be at one of the early recording sessions and suggested "That's What Friends are For" would be a perfect anthem for the AIDS crisis.

"It was easy for all of us to agree," Warwick said. The song remains identified with the cause and raised millions of dollars for AmFAR.

Dionne Warwick has won dozens of awards, including five Grammys, and is second only to Aretha Franklin in number of singles on Billboard's Hot 100 by a female artist.

As for the music industry today, Warwick commented, "In today's idiom, all you have to do is wear a short skirt and a low-cut blouse. It's no longer an audio arena, it's visual. It's not like what Gladys and Patti and I went through, which was all about talent."

She went on. "It has become clone city. I don't think it's about the artist anymore. The record company says, 'I want you to sound like that and I want you to look like that.' I was lucky enough not to have that kind of pressure because I had first-class songwriters."

Jose Gomez had his song, "If I Let Myself Go" (co-written with Sheree Sano), recorded by Warwick and Chuck Jackson in 1998. "When Chuck called me to tell me she was going to record the song, I didn't believe it. As a songwriter, I always dreamed of having someone famous record one of my songs, but to have a legend like Dionne Warwick was so big I never gave a thought to it. I was speechless."

Gomez recalled meeting her a couple of times then, including spending four hours with her in the studio helping her record the Spanish version. "She was always sweet and gracious and told my mother she should be proud of me," Gomez said.

After her recent stint on Celebrity Apprentice, the Los Angeles Times quoted her as saying, "My legacy has already been built." Warwick decried the lack of opportunities on television to promote talent. "We don't have those variety shows anymore," she said. "Even today, I get people coming up to me and saying, 'I wish Solid Gold was back on.' Those were family shows and these reality shows today are anything but."

Although Warwick has talked of one day retiring to Brazil, she still has projects in mind. "There was a time when Bacharach and David were writing incredible songs, one after the other," she said. "There are so many hidden, golden gems, and one of these days I'm going to go through them and re-record them and show the world what they missed the first time!"

As to what brought her to this stage of her career, Warwick said, "I am a good deal of the influence of so many people. From the very beginning right up to the present moment, there have been so many influences."

The Bistro Awards will be presented at Gotham Comedy Club on Tuesday, April 26th. Go to www.bistroawards.com for ticket information. Go to www.dionnewarwick.com for more information about the singer and to hear clips from her latest CD.

Kevin Scott Hall is the author of Off the Charts! (2010, iUniverse) and the memoir, A Quarter Inch from My Heart (2014, Wisdom Moon).