As soon as I heard the chords of “Walk on By” with the opening titles and credits of “Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over,” I was hooked. A rear camera view of Warwick follows a drone shot of Harlem as she looks up at the Apollo Theatre marquee with her name. Viewers will get an in-depth look into Warwick’s life through this CNN film premiering on Jan. 1.

A parade of talent acknowledges Warwick’s barrier-breaking stature in the music industry. Included are Clive Davis, Gloria Estefan, Barry Gibb, Berry Gordy, Elton John, Quincy Jones, Alicia Keys, Gladys Knight, Olivia Newton-John, Smokey Robinson, Carlos Santana, Stevie Wonder and former President Bill Clinton.

Archival footage is woven around Warwick’s narrative of her family’s life in East Orange, N.J. It was a modest home life where the family lived in a multicultural neighborhood. They worshiped in her grandfather’s church. Warwick’s aunt Cissy Houston came to live with the Warwick family when her mother died. Houston and Warwick were raised like sisters. Warwick’s mother, sisters Myrna and Dee Dee, and Cissy were in demand with a few gospel groups.

What really launched Warwick’s path to stardom was her ability to read music, play the piano, and effortlessly adapt to any musical arrangement. College-educated, She met Burt Bachrach and Hal David, the songwriting team who launched Warwick’s 100 million record-selling career.  

“The way she brought their songs to life, it was an amazing thing to watch,” said composer and singer Valerie Simpson.

As Warwick’s popularity rose, she received criticism that her cousin Whitney Houston would also receive. Both were known as crossover singers. Black audiences saw them as sellouts.

“They didn’t know where I fit in,” said Warwick, 82. “They really didn’t know what to do with me.”

On a European tour, Warwick learned that a White model had been used on the cover of her albums. That was something a lot of Black singers faced with their albums in the 1950s and 1960s. Audiences were confused when Warwick came on stage during her first performances outside of America.

Watching “Don’t Make Me Over” captures Warwick’s activist spirit. She brought in her friends Knight, John and Wonder to record “That’s What Friends Are For,” which has raised millions of dollars for amfAR: The Foundation for AIDS Research. She has also been an advocate for educating children. The Dionne Warwick Institute in East Orange, N.J., is a public charter school that consistently receives high ratings in New Jersey for academic achievement.

“Don’t Make Me Over” does not shy away from Warwick’s controversies, like being a spokesperson for the “Psychic Friends Network” and filing for bankruptcy.

“If General Motors can file for bankruptcy, why can’t Dionne Warwick,” Warwick questioned, looking directly at the camera.

There are a few interesting surprises in this documentary. We learn that three of Warwick’s biggest hits she did not want to record. Making it to the top of both Pop and R&B music charts, Warwkick won Grammys in both categories in the same year.

Warwick’s strong personality comes through in the film, but so does her compassion. She says people think she is crazy. Warwick is not crazy. She just knows who she is and what she will not put up with. Warwick learned that early in her life.

Snoop Dogg was one of the many artists to reflect on Warwick’s influence. He said Warwick convened a meeting at her home with major rap artists to discuss a few things on her mind. That meeting was definitely a “little-known Black history fact.”

The Doggfather had a simple, but powerful, insight on Warwick’s legacy.

“Is Dionne a legend? Is pig pork?” he questioned.

CNN broadcasts “Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over” on Jan. 1. It’s a great way to bring in the new year.

Brenda Siler is an award-winning journalist and public relations strategist. Her communications career began in college as an advertising copywriter, a news reporter, public affairs producer/host and a...

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  1. Love Dionne Warwick!! Bravo! Bravo!!..Sassy & Classy as always! l saw her in concert @ The Celebrity Theater years ago. She always ends her concerts with a gospel song. Love her conviction on God!!!

  2. Always loved her music my East Orange girl! I was born in Newark and went to college at Upsala in East Orange! She’s a true legend!

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