Anyone who has a heart must have had it tugged a time or two listening to Dionne Warwick.
The golden voice in front of some of the most timeless Burt Bacharach/ Hal David pop standards – from “Walk On By” and “Say A Little Prayer” to “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again” and... “Anyone Who Had a Heart” – the 74-year-old American music legend has certainly had her own share of heartache amid the slew of gold records and Grammies.
From the death of cousin Whitney Houston and the more recent coma of Houston’s daughter Bobbi Kristina to a long battle with the IRS over back taxes that led to a bankruptcy declaration in 2013, Warwick has weathered personal storms to emerge as the doyen of divas.
Answering questions from The Jerusalem Post via email ahead of her show in Tel Aviv at the Menorah Mivtachim Arena on May 19, Warwick explained that her own school of hard knocks and the tragic lives of her cousins provided her with some life lessons that she would pass on to any aspiring entertainer.
“One should always know who you can trust, and I mean have complete trust in,” she said. “Make sure it’s someone who will be curious enough to ask questions on your behalf and get answers...someone you know will absolutely have you and your best interest at heart. If you are lucky enough to have someone in your life like that, it will help to keep everyone you do business with ‘on the good foot.’” Warwick had plenty of help early in her career, which had its origins in the gospel music of the Baptist church her family attended in Newark, New Jersey. She was singing solos by the age of six, and soon after that began to perform regularly with The Drinkard Sisters, a gospel group that included her mother, aunts and uncles.
“We held rehearsals in our living room, and since they could be heard up and down our street, the entire neighborhood got to share these wonderful times...and their singing!” said Warwick.
“The Drinkard Singers were a fabulous family gospel group and my mother was one of its founding members. My grandfather, Nitch Drinkard, was one of the keys to the group’s success and an inspiration to me to sing in church and to what would become my life’s career. His mantra was, “If you think it, you can do it!” And that carried through my daily life.”
After graduating from high school, Warwick received a scholarship to study music education at the Hartt College of Music in Hartford, Connecticut, but continued to perform, now in a new configuration including her sister Dee Dee and aunt Cissy Houston (Whitney’s mother) called The Gospelaires and later the Sweet Inspirations.
When word got around about their soulful singing, they became in demand as studio backup vocalists for the rising “secular” soul and R&B music being made by artists like The Drifters, Jerry Butler, Ben E. King and Solomon Burke.
Coming from a church-focused, spiritual music framework, Warwick became enamored with the more contemporary sounds, and was supported in the decision to spread her musical wings by her family.
“There was only resistance from church circles, which surprised me, but my grandfather had my back,” she said. “He let all of those who had something to say know that his baby ‘Little D’ was a child of God who had been given a special gift and was using this gift to inspire and lift people in the way God meant for her to do. He let all know that I was making an honest living and doing so with dignity.”
Warwick’s career took a dramatic turn when Brill Building staff songwriter Bacharach noticed her talent and presence when she was singing backup on The Drifters’ version of his composition, “Mexican Divorce.” She ended up recording some demos with the team of Bacharach and David, and in 1962 signed on with their production company. Her debut album emerged the following year, and soon the non-stop top 10 hits started flowing.
“Burt, Hal and I became known throughout the industry as ‘the triangle marriage that worked,’ ” said Warwick. “Hal was one of the most prolific poets I have ever had the pleasure of working with, he was thoughtful, gentle, sincere and a wonderful human being. Burt was a handsome star on the rise, extremely talented and set the bar high musically with his arrangements of lush strings and unusual time signature changes. His unique arrangements gave me the opportunity to shine vocally and to enjoy enormous success and started a four-year run of consecutive Hot 100 pop hit singles on the Billboard chart. I became the first African-American female artist to achieve such an accomplishment.”
Those stylish, sophisticated songs with lush strings and ornate arrangements flew in the face of the scruffy, guitar-oriented rock & roll that was sweeping the music world thanks to The Beatles-led British Invasion in the US. The Warwick-Bacharach- David machine were a force until themselves, and the singer never thought of jumping on the rock bandwagon.
“Our music found a place with a wide and diverse music audience so it wasn’t an effort to keep recording the songs that Burt and Hal so beautifully wrote,” she said. “As my recording career grew, I became known as the “artist who bridged the gap,” meaning that my recordings never found resistance on pop radio stations, and R&B radio stations continued to play my records.”
By the early 1970s, however, the golden trio had run their course, with first Bacharach and David ending their partnership and later Warwick suing both former partners for rights to the songs. Aside from the occasional hit under a new contract with Warner Brothers, the 1970s were a fallow period for Warwick, as disco took over the airwaves.
But besides her own belief in herself, Warwick said that the faith put in her by former head of Columbia Records Clive Davis, who launched his own company, Arista, in the late 1970s, was pivotal in a career turnaround. Her 1979 album Dionne turned gold, spurred by the Barry Manilow-produced single “I’ll Never Love This Way Again.”
“After a period of not fitting in with all the disco-type music being done and feeling there was not a place for me in the music business, Clive Davis said the industry was not ready to give up on me, [and] convinced me to sign with his ‘new label’ which after long consideration, I agreed [to do],” said Warwick.
“He proceeded to introduce me to Barry Manilow, who Clive thought would be a candidate to write for and produce for me.
This started a long-lasting friendship and led to my first recording for Arista and my first platinum recording, Dionne. Not only did it sell more than a million copies, in 1979, I won two Grammy Awards.”
A couple years later, the Davis-Warwick magic did it again, teaming up with Barry Gibb of the Bee Gees for the album Heartbreaker, which propelled her further into the limelight.
“Again, Clive Davis was the reason I got to work with the Bee Gees. He approached Barry at a dinner and asked to meet him to discuss working with a few of Arista’s artists,” she said. “When Clive asked Barry who on the roster he would like to produce, he said me! ‘Heartbreaker’ became one of my biggest international hit songs to date.”
Duets with Luther Vandross, reunions with Bacharach, singing on the “We Are The World” song and recording “That’s What Friends Are For” in 1985 alongside Gladys Knight, Elton John and Stevie Wonder for the American Foundation for AIDS Research cemented Warwick’s position as one of the pop era’s giants. Since then, she has continued to release albums and tour the world, while living for many years in Brazil.
“I call it my ‘stress free’ country,” she said. “I love the kindness of the people, the culture, the beautiful scenery! I will always find a reason to visit Brazil! I always say I will retire there, but until that time, I consider both it and the US my homes.”
Saying that she’s no stranger to Israel, Warwick said she has visited the country several times.
“I always enjoy the wonderful audiences that Israel brings out! I think of the colorful people and the beautiful scenery.”
That scenery will become just a little bit brighter when Warwick opens up her voice later this month.
Tickets to Warwick’s show are available at *8780 or at www.leaan.co.il