By Tim Parks
During her illustrious forty-plus year career in music, five-time Grammy winning Dionne Warwick has opened up musical doors with her entrance into the world of pop music, stepping into rooms that housed thresholds of boundaries to be crossed into.
The sixty-eight year old songbird has long been considered a musical artist that broke molds, in terms of the music she has performed, and how it managed to be both an infusion of pop, R & B, soul and gospel elements, plus having the ability to break through the confines of cultures, generations and race.
“You know, I’ve never really thought about it,” Warwick stated about being an artist with that connotation associated with her name and career, during a recent phone call with me. “I just happened to be doing the music that appealed to a variety of people.”
Now, Warwick will be kicking off the 2008 San Diego Symphony Summer Pops series, featuring special guests Kool & The Gang on Saturday, June 14th.
Warwick also chatted about the humanitarian efforts she puts forward, a few new projects she has in store for this year, the longevity of her career, and about her musical roots.
“I was born into music,” Warwick said. “I come from a musical family, so music has always been a part of my life.”
Of course, Warwick’s family tree also includes first cousin Whitney Houston, and Warwick gave us the status report on her famous and one-time troubled kin, who is thankfully on the mend.
“She’s doing absolutely incredible!” Warwick happily reported. “She’s on the road, and doing concerts in the eastern region of the world. And her CD should be coming very, very soon.”
The musical life force that courses through Warwick’s veins, emanated from singing in the church choir – in fact, her mother, aunts and uncles used the choir as a launching pad to begin the renowned group, The Drinkard Singers. As a teen, Warwick, her sister Dee Dee, and four other members in the church choir formed their own group, The Gospelaires.
When Warwick was performing as a part of The Gospelaires is when she first met Burt Bacharach, and he inquired about utilizing her vocal prowess on some demo songs, which he was writing with his partner, Hal David.
What was to follow can only be described as a divine intervention of sorts, as the magic between these three people proved to be the type that cannot be manufactured, it seemed to be heaven sent.
Her first single, circa 1962, “Don’t Make Me Over,” would be the first of twelve consecutive Top 100 hits during the period of 1963 through 1966, with her role as the vocal muse for Bacharach and David. Billboard magazine has Warwick positioned behind “The Queen of Soul,” Aretha Franklin, in the number two position of most Billboard Hot 100 hits, during the musical era between 1955 and 1999.
While tunes such as “Walk On By,” “I Say A Little Prayer For You,” and “Message to Michael,” to name a few, made Warwick a household name, the songs “Alfie” and “(Theme From) Valley of The Dolls,” brought her distinctive musicality into movie theaters.
“I couldn’t pick a favorite, there’s no way, all of them are,” Warwick said when pressed to cite a particular song from the collaborations with Bacharach and David. “I think of them like my children, so they’re all my favorites.”
Warwick’s first Grammy win came in 1968 for her smash hit, “Do You Know The Way To San Jose?” This Grammy win signified another milestone, not only in Warwick’s career, but in the aforementioned breaking of boundaries – as she became the first African-American solo artist of her generation to receive this coveted accolade, with her win for “Best Contemporary Female Performance.”
“It was always exciting to win a Grammy, of course,” Warwick reflected on being recognized by the industry, and stated that her first win was “wonderful.”
During that same year, Warwick, gave another notable type of contemporary female performance in the film, Slaves, her motion picture debut. This again proved to be yet another turning point of smashing barriers, making her the first African-American performer, since Lena Horne, to be showcased in this manner. To cap off that banner year, she also became the first female African-American recording artist to perform at a Royal Command Performance for the Queen of England.
During the 1970s, three more Grammy awards came Warwick’s way, courtesy of the songs “I’ll Never Fall In Love Again,” “I’ll Never Love This Way Again, and “Déjà Vu,” and she also struck gold with a duet, “Then Came You,” with the Spinners.
Speaking of gold, in 1980 Warwick began hosting duties on the weekly music show, “Solid Gold,” where she was the mistress of ceremonies through 1981, and then came back for another turn in 1985 and 1986. Warwick has very fond memories of her time on that particular television show.
“Every single show was so much fun!” She exclaimed. “Having the opportunity to meet some new talent, and interface with some of my buddies, my peers, was just a ‘you had to be there’ kind of thing.”
Warwick is also known as an esteemed humanitarian, and was at the forefront of raising AIDS awareness. In 1985, she re-teamed with producer, Bacharach, and superstar colleagues, Gladys Knight, Stevie Wonder and Elton John to record “That’s What Friends Are For.” The song was a hit single in a number of ways – it raised millions of dollars for AMFAR and AIDS research, spent four weeks at number one, and brought Warwick her fifth Grammy. The song also gave a hopeful message in a time when AIDS was still largely looked upon as solely a gay disease.
Warwick gave her thoughts on a world that is still coping with the disease, some 23 years later.
“I think it’s a shame that we still have to deal with it,” Warwick expressed. “The kind of progress that we are doing, that has happened, of course we are very happy about that – but it hasn’t been enough.
“We just have to keep working at it until we can beat it. I think the problem basically is, and has been, is that the face of AIDS, it just changes so rapidly. It’s not just one strain, but a multitude of them ;so until we can corral at least one of them, then we may have an opportunity to look at how to get the rest of it.”
Currently, Warwick has two inspirational projects set for 2008.
The gospel CD, Why We Sing – her first all-out gospel record in forty years was released this past January. And much like her days of singing in the church choir, she has enlisted family members to help her on this project; son Damon Elliot (who has also produced Destiny’s Child and Pink) serves as one of the disc’s producers, while another son, David Elliot, has written a song expressly for the CD.
With nearly four decades passing between her last gospel album, 1968’s The Magic of Believing and Why We Sing, Warwick has seen a stylistic change in that genre of music.
“It has changed quite a bit,” Warwick replied. “What is very encouraging is that the change is because of the youth movement of it, and to know that our youth is being drawn into its fold is wonderful.”
The other motivating venture is a children’s book, “Say A Little Prayer,” set to hit bookstores on September 1st.
“It’s something that I happen to love very, very much,” Warwick said of her print foray. “This is one of my best accomplishments so far; I wanted to write something inspirational and encouraging.”
Warwick has definitely been both of these things during her career, and counts her blessings of having sustained such a long-lasting livelihood in the entertainment field.
“Staying in the industry as long as I have is because I love what I do,” Warwick encapsulated. “Apparently, I’m bringing something to people, and I need to continue to do it.”
This interview was originally published in June 2008