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Interview: Dionne Warwick

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Two weeks ago, the phone rang and the voice on the other end said, “Hi, this is Dionne Warwick." Though the call was expected (we were due to talk for my Wall Street Journal profile that appears today here), I was still taken aback. There, on the phone, was that signature husky voice that had racked up 56 hits on Billboard's Hot 100 chart. In a strange way, I felt as though Dionne was calling me from 1966.

Dionne Warwick is a big deal. How big? In the past 52 years, she has had more Hot 100 hits than any other female artist except Aretha Franklin. In 1968 alone she had six singles on the chart. Dionne also has won five Grammy Awards—and was the first female artist to win Best R&B Vocal and Best Pop Vocal in the same year (1979). More than 30 of her hits were written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, and three of her singles (Walk on By, Alfie and Don't Make Me Over) are in the Grammy Hall of Fame.

Interestingly, Dionne has had two mammoth careers. The first was with Bacharach-David. The second was with Clive Davis' Arista label, where she had 14 hits, including I'll Never Love This Way Again, Deja Vu, Heartbreaker and That's What Friends Are For. She'll be singing a selection of them tonight at B.B. King's in New York.

Here's part of my interview with Dionne, 69, minus the material in my Wall Street Journal profile:  

JazzWax: Do you still live in Brazil?

Dionne Warwick: No. I now live in New Jersey. I sold my home in Bahia, Brazil, and returned to live in the U.S. five years ago, when my sister and mother became ill. I call Brazil my stress-free country. Everything is very laid back. I love the samba. Brazilian music is sublime. It's such happy music, and there are always smiles on people's faces down there.

JW: Are you planning to record a bossa nova album?

DW: I'd love to. You know, I recorded one Brazilian CD—Aquarela Do Brasil in 1994. It has been a well-kept secret [laughs].

JW: What did you learn about singing at your grandfather's Methodist church in New Jersey and at the New Hope Baptist Church in Newark?

DW: The meaning of words. Gospel is basically the Bible in song. The words are always so positive. Melody also is very important in gospel. I've been singing in church since age six and taking piano lessons since age nine.

JW: When Burt Bacharach discovered you, he asked you to record a demo, yes?

JW: Burt wrote It's Love That Really Counts, intending it for the Shirelles. He had me record a demo of it and then sent the demo to Florence Greenberg, the owner of Scepter Records in New York. Florence didn't like the song but she loved the voice singing it.

JW: What was Greenberg like?

DW: Florence [pictured] loved every person on her roster. She loved us all. And what a roster—the Shirelles, Chuck Jackson, the Isley Brothers, the Kingsmen, the Guess Who and others. There was a warm family feeling there. We weren't numbers. She had a great gut for artists, but picking records was another story. I always hoped she wouldn't like what I had recorded because those would become my biggest hits [laughs].

JW: How did you work with Burt on all of those songs?

DW: I was signed to Burt and Hal's production company, which in turn was signed to Scepter. Burt and Hal wrote specifically for me. I simply had to listen to the songs they had written for me and record them in my special way. When I wasn't on the road performing, I would go up to Burt's apartment and listen to a bunch of things. Or I'd go up to their little office in the Brill Building.

JW: What don't most people know about your Bacharach-David hits?

DW: That they were all difficult, musically. Burt's complex melodies and shifting time signatures within the song were tough. You had to be able to read music to keep up. Fortunately I could, from my piano lessons and semesters at the Hartt School of Music in Connecticut. We'd record those songs 20 or 25 times, sometimes just in parts.

JW: Which take did he often choose for the master?

DW: Usually the second or third [laughs].

JW: When you realized he was doing this, what did you say when he called for multiple takes?

DW: After the 10th take on a song, I'd say, “Burt, I think we got it the third time." Recording that way can be trying.

JW: Did singing so many takes of the same song take the edge off your attack?

DW: Not really. I'd just find another ambiance to put in vocally or an alternate note to keep it interesting.

JW: Why were the female British pop singers so intent on copying your versions?

DW: Because the songs were hits, and they were hungry. But it wasn't just with my hits. Every American female artist was being covered by some British singer. As for my hits, Cilla Black did Anyone Who Had a Heart, Dusty Springfield did Wishin' and Hopin' and Sandie Shaw did Always Someone There to Remind Me. I never forgave Cilla for her exact copy, and Sandie's version was a complete steal.

JW: Did you ever run into Cilla?

DW: Yes, once in London. It wasn't pleasant. Lifting what I was doing was the way of the world over there. I guess they all hoped it would be their ticket to hitting it big in the States. Interpretations are one thing. Copying a version that closely, with my phrasing and delivery, is a challenge.

JW: Who asked you to participate in We Are the World in 1985?

DW: Quincy Jones. And I was paired with Willie Nelson [laughs]. That was the most unlikely pairing. But it worked.

JW: How did you wind up at Arista Records?

DW: Clive Davis, who started the label, and I were on a TV talk show in 1977. My contract was just about up with Warner Bros. Clive asked if I'd become part of his roster. I wasn't happy with how I was being produced at Warner. So we sat down and talked about it, and I came aboard.

JW: Who did Davis assign as your producer?

DW: Barry Manilow.

JW: What did you think?

DW: At first I didn't think it would work. I thought Barry was incredible with his own albums but that he wouldn't get me.

JW: What changed your mind?

DW: When we met, Barry had really done his homework. He had every recording I had made and had been listening to me for years.

JW: What did you say to him when he produced I'll Never Love This Way Again and it became your first huge hit at the label in 1979?

DW: I said, “I think I was right to have chosen you as my producer" [laughs].

JW: Is your album of Sammy Cahn songs going to be released soon?

DW: I hope so.

JW: Was it a mistake to have become the spokesperson for the Psychic Friends Network in the 1990s?

DW: Look, it was a job. Recordings weren't happening, and I had to feed my family and keep a roof over my head.

JazzWax tracks: The best-sounding compilation of Dionne Warwick's hits is Dionne Warwick: The Definitive Collection at iTunes or here. Two of my favorite albums by Dionne are Promises, Promises and Soulful. Both can be found at iTunes. I mention these two because they deliver from beginning to end. Take a look at the tracks and sample both.

JazzWax clips: Here's a clip of Dionne Warwick singing Anyone Who Had a Heart, with a great photomontage...



Here's take #10 of I Say a Little Prayer, which became the master...



Here's That's What Friends Are For (1985), with Dionne, Elton John, Gladys Knight and Stevie Wonder...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
Copyright © 2018. All rights reserved.

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