Dionne Warwick’s voice, as well as her effervescent stage presence, have often been described in terms which include scintillating, soothing, sensual and soulful.
And as the legendary songstress continues to entertain thousands of fans during a four-month tour that included a stop at D.C.’s Warner Theater here in D.C. on Thursday, Sept. 8, it’s certain to be a love fest and singalong of the highest caliber.
Legend has it that Warwick’s first solo single, “Don’t Make Me Over,” released in November 1962 on the Scepter Records label, gained its name after the singer snapped at her producers, Burt Bacharach and Hal David, during a tense moment.
Even then, it seems, she took pride in herself, her heritage and her family. And not even the famed producers with whom she would work for over a decade as they collectively struck gold, one song after another, could keep the East Orange, New Jersey native from remaining true to her gifts and to God’s calling.
During our recent interview, I asked Warwick to reflect on a few moments in her more than 50-year career that this writer has never forgotten.
As the youngest child and the youngest grandchild in my family, I often listened to the music – not necessarily of my own volition – that that my older sister, cousins and other relatives preferred. Entertainers like Dionne Warwick counted as one of their favorites.
During a concert in the late 70s at an outdoor pavilion not far from my home in Detroit, Pine Knob, Warwick took the stage on a cool, misty evening one fall and began to sing.
After the second song, she stopped and told the audience that the weather had affected her voice. She told us that she would need to go backstage with her music director, changing the key in each song to better accommodate her voice. But she promised that she would be back.
She returned 30 minutes later and sang for the next two hours. Talk about being a professional – they simply do not do that anymore.
“It was just one of those things,” she said. “You do what you have to do. We didn’t have time for excuses.”
When asked if her efforts reflected the adage, “the show must go on,” she replied with her signature laugh, “Well, if that’s the case, then whoever said that must be dead.”
How it All Began
Warwick, like most African-Americans, started singing as a little girl in the church. She soon began to sing as a soloist and fill-in voice for the renowned Drinkard Singers.
The group’s members included her mother, Lee, along with her aunts, including Aunt Cissy, Whitney Houston’s mom, and her uncles. As a teenager, Warwick and her sister Dee Dee started their own gospel group, The Gospelaires. She has another vocalist in her family who achieved stardom: opera singer Leontyne Price.
Warwick started singing professionally in 1961 after being discovered by the then-young songwriting duo of Bacharach and David.
Less than a decade after her first hit, “Don’t Make Me Over,” Warwick had released more than 18 consecutive Top 100 singles, including her classic Bacharach/David recordings, “Walk on By,” “Anyone Who Had a Heart,” “Message to Michael,” “Promises Promises,” “A House is Not a Home,” “Alfie,” “Say a Little Prayer,” “This Girl’s in Love With You,” “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again,” “Reach Out For Me” and the theme from “Valley of the Dolls.”
In total, Warwick and her songwriting team garnered more than 30 hit singles and close to 20 best-selling albums during their first decade together.
For this writer, listening to Dionne Warwick always takes me back to some of the best moments of my life – when my parents were alive, when I formed my first teenage crush on a girl named Linda B., when my Dad came home with my very first car. And yes, I do have my favorites from among Warwick’s impressive songbook.
But when asked which of her hundreds of songs counted as her favorites, she said, “They’re all my favorites.”
“I like all of the songs that I have ever recorded and each one means something different to me,” she said. “But what I am so grateful for, is how today’s young kids – babies to me – are discovering my music.”
“It’s not that surprising to me because the music that I prefer to sing is soothing and relaxing,” she said. “The lyrics actually tell a story and have messages that remain timeless.”
Warwick added that while her career has taken her places that she had never imagined – from London, to Paris, to South America and to so many other unbelievable places, she said they all pale when compared to her feelings about and the love she has for her friends and family.
“Look, I have seven grandchildren who I love tremendously and they keep me up to date,” she said, while adding that her two sons, singer/recording artist David Elliott and award-winning music producer Damon Elliott, along with her family and many friends are what matter the most in her life.
“I have been so blessed in my life with people who surround me with love,” she said. “That’s the greatest gift and blessing from God that anyone could ever have.”
As she described her feelings about her closest friends, I asked her about two other legendary singers, Patti Labelle and Gladys Knight, with whom she’s known to share messages almost every day via Twitter.
During the summer of 1986, the trio collaborated for a televised special, “Sisters in the Name of Love,” that broke records for viewing.
“We were cheering each other on,” she said. “That’s the way we learned it when we were first singing in church. You encouraged one another. It’s never been about a competition. It’s always been about supporting and embracing one another. And with Gladys and Patti, that has been the way we’ve treated one another for as long as I can remember. They are my sisters.”
Of course, when Warwick began her career in the 60s, racism was still very much alive and well in the U.S.
But it still took her off guard.
“Living in East Orange, I was always protected,” she said. “We had a rainbow of ethnicities in our neighborhood but we all got along. It wasn’t until I began touring in the South that I learned how hateful people could be, just because of the color of my skin. But I didn’t let any of that phase me.”
“My parents and my grandparents had strong convictions. They were very vocal in terms of how children should act and how I should always conduct myself as a woman. I’ve never forgotten that. And I’ve never allowed the negativity of others to bring me down or cause me to act in ways that my family would not be proud.”
Right on Dionne Warwick – right on!
Editor’s Note: Look for our review of Dionne Warwick’s concert along with more from our insightful interview. Now, if I can only persuade her “sisters,” Patti and Gladys, to give me a call!