A long line of fans poured into the Warner Theater in downtown D.C. on Thursday, Sept. 8 – all of them anxious to hear the vocal stylings of Dionne Warwick – 81 years old “young” and still one of the world’s most celebrated entertainers with a career that has spanned more than 60 years.
And as this writer expected, Warwick took charge from the very first downbeat, weaving her tales about life, and love, joy and sorry – even pointing to reasons to maintain hope despite being caught in the maelstrom of the society. Warwick’s voice danced with the lyrics and sashayed to the beat provided by her very talented four-piece band, illustrating why millions of fans – some young, some not so young – continue to be moved and encouraged by her songs.
“I want you to have a good time tonight and we’re (she and the band) going to have a good time, too,” she told the crowd who stood to their feet as she stepped onto the stage and gave her first words of welcome.
“Feel free to sing along, or get up and dance if you feel the urge,” she added which many fans took to heart almost immediately, singing along with Warwick as she took us down memory lane with her first selection, “Walk On By.”
Yes, the Warner Theater was filled because we all wanted to spend an hour or so with Warwick as she took us back in time – helping us reflect upon moments and years gone by which we have never forgotten.
As she moved to “Anyone Who Had a Heart,” which hit the Top Ten in the U.S. in 1964 (as well as in Canada, South Africa, the Netherlands and Australia), I could not help but be reminded, given the wave of emotions that seemed to envelop Warwick as she sang, of Luther Vandross with whom Warwick shared a tremendous friendship.
Some may recall that Vandross put his own unique spin on the same titled song in 1986 on his album, “Give Me The Reason.” His respect for Warwick could be seen from the start of his career when he chose another standard of hers for his debut album, “A House is Not a Home,” which became his signature piece.
Warwick, dressed stylishly in a bejeweled, two-piece pantsuit, sat delicately on a stool throughout most of the concert, almost making me believe that we had been transported to a smaller and more intimate venue, like Blues Alley in Georgetown or Baker’s Keyboard Lounge back in my hometown of Detroit.
Fans fortunate enough to hear Warwick during her four-month tour should not expect every song to sound exactly as they remember from year’s past. Vocalists know that with the passage of time and the frequent demands on their “instrument,” the range, texture and power of their voice will undoubtedly change. But for a veteran like Dionne Warwick, such changes have not served as a signal for her to call it quits.
Instead, as she displayed on several songs, she has merely transposed them to different keys, as she did on “You’ll Never Get to Heaven (If You Break My Heart)” and “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again.”
As for her delivery, Warwick delighted the audience, alternating her volume from a hearty “forte” to an almost whisper-like “pianissimo.” Sometimes, she “talked” the lyrics to us in a style reminiscent of other female superstars from Black America’s past – Nancy Wilson immediately comes to mind. Wilson and Warwick both count as two who could do a lot more than just sing – they entertained.
The electricity in the theater increased as the audience grew more enamored with Warwick and her skillful quartet. She turned up the heat with “Message to Michael” and “This Girl’s In Love With You,”
before showcasing the vocal artistry of her oldest son, David Elliott, also the drummer in the four-piece ensemble. They combined on a duet on an updated version of one of my favorites, “I Say a Little Prayer for You.” And for the record, the brother can sing.
“I wanted to bring the song into the 21st century and so I made some changes, picked up the beat and made it a duet,” she said about the song which counts as one of her more recent recordings.
It was well received by the audience and with its salsa-like flair and rhythm, it transported me back to nearly a decade ago when I wrote the news from the tropical oasis known as Miami.
Incidentally, while no one got up to dance, I’ll bet a lot of people thought about it.
Slowing down the pace, Warwick’s next selection would be “Alfie,” which almost everyone in the audience apparently knew and which they belted out like a mass choir at a gospel concert. Her interpretation of the song, given the way she alternated between singing the notes and speaking them, truly had that kind of “blue lights in the basement” vibe.
The band, which included four musicians on the piano, bass guitar, drums and percussion, was allowed to showcase their skills – and each performed admirably – particularly the pianist/director who moved along the keyboard as if he and the piano were one.
Warwick last songs included “We Are the World” – which almost made it feel like we were suddenly the audience at a Diana Ross concert when it’s time for audience participation with “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand). The other song which she keenly placed near the end of her show, “I’ll Never Love This Way Again,” remains at the top of Dionne Warwick hitlist – and has been since I first heard it.
It marked an important moment in Warwick’s career and her return to the top of the charts after years of being unable to find the right material.
“I’ll Never Love This Way Again,” which served as the lead single on her Arista Records debut album in 1979, “Dionne,” brought Warwick much-deserved, renewed popularity, reaching No. 5 on the U.S. Billboard 100 and peaking at No. 18 on the Hot Soul Singles chart. It would be certified gold by the RIAA (sales of over one million copies) and would be instrumental in Warwick winning the 1980 Grammy Award for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance.
I was a rising sophomore at the University of Michigan when the “Dionne” album hit the streets of Ann Arbor, Michigan and it would not be an exaggeration to say we wore the grooves out on the vinyl.
I can still listen to Dionne Warwick all night long – and some nights when I’m burning the midnight oil, that’s exactly what I do.
If I have any disappointments about the concert, it would be that Warwick did not perform “That’s What Friends Are For” – my late mother’s No. 1 Warwick tune.
Many years ago, my mother, my Aunt Doris (her best friend since their days in high school) and two others from Mom’s church choir, sang the song during a fundraising event for First Baptist, our family’s church in Williamsburg, Virginia. People loved their rendition of the song and it still holds a special place in my heart.
Warwick talked to me about why the song holds a special place in her heart as well – perhaps more correctly, what she likes about its lyrics and the message it delivers.
“Friendships have always been vital to me and I’ve been fortunate to have some really true friends in my life – friends who have been there for me just like I have been there for them,” she said. “When Elton, Stevie, Gladys and I sang that song together, it felt so right, it was easy to do – we fit.
And isn’t that the way things should go with really good friends?” she asked.