Dionne Warwick - Biography
By Nick Castro
The career of Dionne Warwick is one of complexity, diversity and sustained success. Just as famous for her forays into the infomercial world of the Psychic Friends Network as for her early ’60s version of Burt Bacharach’s “Walk On By,” Warwick has managed to remain in the limelight throughout her career while many contemporaries have fallen by the wayside. Although mainly considered a soul singer, it would be a mistake to pigeonhole her into any one genre. Suffice to say, Warwick has transcended boundaries and become one of the highest-selling female artists in history. Over her career, she has scored over 50 top 100 hits on the national U.S. charts.
Dionne Warwick was born in 1940, and she began a musical career very young. Her father worked as a promoter for gospel record for Chess Records, a label revered for its output of blues and rock albums. Warwick’s mother managed a group of family gospel musicians in the 1940s called The Drinkard Singers. Dionne was cultivated for a life in the music business and she began performing publicly at six years old, singing with The Drinkard Singers. Among the members of the gospel group was Warwick’s sister, Delia—more commonly known as Dee Dee Warwick, who went on to have a successful solo singing career of her own.
By the time that Warwick was a teenager, she was already appearing on local television spots in the New York and New Jersey areas. Before she graduated from high school, Warwick formed a gospel group with her sisters called The Gospelaires. Many notable singers flowed through the group at various times, such as Doris Troy, Judy Clay and Cissy Houston—the mother of Whitney Houston. It didn’t take long to find success, as the group won a weekly amateur contest at the famous Apollo Theater in Harlem, and they began fielding requests to perform as background singers for such acts as Ben E. King, The Drifters, Dinah Washington and Solomon Burke.
The first incident to mark a change in Warwick’s career course occurred while singing background on The Drifters’ song, “Mexican Divorce.” Burt Bacharach noticed the Warwick outshining everyone in the room, and he saw a star in the making. He immediately took the young singer under his wing and introduced her to his songwriting partner, Hal David. Not long thereafter, Warwick was singing on demo recordings for the Bacharach and David team, demos to pitch various recording artists. One of the a songs they recorded was called “It’s Love That Really Counts,” which was meant for Scepter recording artists, The Shirelles. However, once the label president heard the recording, he famously told Bacharach, “forget the recording, get the girl.” Bacharach and David subsequently signed the young Warwick to their own production company and began to license her out to Scepter for her initial solo recordings. This move would prove beneficial for all parties involved, as part of the contract Scepter signed with Bacharach and David stipulated that the record label could not intervene artistically with Bacharach’s production of the songs Warwick would record.
By 1963, the label released the first in a long series of efforts for the young Warwick, who was barely 23-years-old. Her first record was Presenting Dionne Warwick (1963 Scepter), an album that was the perfect vehicle for the original songwriting genius of Bacharach and David. The production pair would compose a series of catchy and involved tunes for Warwick, who was able to handle the most complicated melodies with flying ease. Bacharach and David penned all except for three songs on Warwick’s debut. Presenting Dionne Warwick quickly established the young singer as a formidable voice on the music scene of the early ’60s.
Scepter followed Warwick’s undeniably solid first effort with the album Anyone Who Had a Heart (1964 Scepter), which once again found commercial success. The title track and the single “Don’t Make Me Over” were both strong hits, paving the way for her third album—Make Way for Dionne Warwick (1964 Scepter). The album contained one of her biggest hits to date—and maybe one of the most popular songs ever recorded—the groundbreaking “Walk On By.” The track has been covered many times since, most notably by ’70s soul singer, Isaac Hayes. Other singles from Make Way For Dionne Warwick were “Wishin’ and Hopin’” and “You’ll Never Get to Heaven,” both of which helped Warwick reach superstardom while still in her mid-twenties.
It seemed that Warwick could do no wrong on the heel’s of Make Way, and her fanbase expanded considerably by leaps and bounds during this time. She had scored hit singles with songs like “Message to Michael,” “I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself” and “Alfie,” the latter of which Warwick was famously indignant about covering since the song had been recorded so many times by other artists. Nevertheless, she recorded it at Bacharach’s insistence and executed it flawlessly in a single take.
In 1968 Warwick won a Grammy for the André Previn-penned track “Do You Know the Way to San Jose” from her album, The Valley of the Dolls (1968 Scepter). The album also boasted soulful ballads that were beautifully evolved from her church material in the previous album, The Magic of Believing (1968 Scepter).
By the end of the ’60s, Bacharach and David were having problems with Scepter, feeling cheated out of royalties. They later sued and won. This, along with Warwick’s longing to move on eventually led to the dismantling of the label. Warwick subsequently signed a deal with Warner Brothers, though Bacharach and David did not follow. Many people speculated that without the aegis of the tandem and their encouragement, Warwick’s material suffered and it was why her record sales dropped.
Indeed, the first few years at Warner were slower than the previous years for Warwick, but in 1974, after recording with The Spinners, she was once again on top with a version of the song “Then Came You.” The label quickly followed-up with a full-length album to support the single. In 1975 they released the album, The Came You.
Once Warwick’s contract expired in 1978, she moved labels once again, this time to Arista. This move proved successful for the singer, who scored a series of hits with the label, including the Isaac Hayes-penned “Déjà Vu.” The track resurrected her career and won her a Grammy Award in the Best Female R&B Vocal Performance category in 1979.
The ’80s found Warwick increasingly straying into pop vocal territory, even making appearances with masters of the genre like Johnny Mathis. She put out a string of albums that kept her on the charts and in the pop eyes, such as Friends in Love (1982 Arista); Heartbreaker, which was produced by Barry Gibb; the Luther Vandross collaboration How Many Times Can We Say Goodbye (1983 Arista); a television show-prompted album, Finder of Lost Loves (1985 Arista); the duet-laden album Reservations For Two (1987 Arista); and her surprise album Friends (1985 Arista). On the latter album Warwick began making leaps and bounds into the world of humanitarian aid, with the hit single “That’s What Friends Are For” recorded as a benefit song for aids research. Also appearing on the song were Stevie Wonder, Elton John and Gladys Knight. The track won a Grammy in 1986 in the Best Pop Performance By A Duo or Group With Vocal.
In the 1990s Warwick released a few albums with varying degrees of success, beginning with Dionne Warwick Sings Cole Porter (1990 Arista); the amalgamation of Warwickian funk-pop-balladry in Friends Can Be Lovers (1993 Arista), which also marked a reunion with Bacharach and David; the live Celebration in Vienna (1994 Sony); and the album Dionne Sings Dionne (1998 River North), which featured reconfigured songs from her earlier heyday such as “I Say A Little Prayer” and “Walk on By” as well as a couple of new tracks. Also in the 1990s Dionne again switched gears by hosting spots on the Psychic Friends Network, which also became a highly-successful venture for the singer, earning her millions of dollars through the mid-’90s.
In 2004, Warwick finally released (after more than four decades) a holiday album called My Favorite Time of Year (DMI), and she followed that up with a collection of her duets called My Friends and Me (Concord). Oprah Winfrey honored Warwick at her Legends Ball in 2005, and she returned to her roots a couple of years later by recording a new gospel album entitled Why We Sing (2008 Rhino). This album was made in part with her sons Damon (Destiny’s Child) and David Elliott.
Warwick will always be regarded as one of the most powerful vocalists in pop music and its periphery. Her mark can be felt across many genres and her singles are still played regularly on the radio. She currently lives in Brazil.