Rewards of a Lifetime: An Interview with Dionne Warwick
With her new album 'She's Back' plus a GRAMMY Lifetime Achievement Award, Dionne Warwick remains a regal force among music legends.
"Dionne Warwick is one-of-a-kind," declares Johnny Mathis. "She's one of my favorite people in the world." Indeed, when the Recording Academy honored Warwick with a GRAMMY Lifetime Achievement Award in May, Mathis was there to sing her praises — literally. "Dionne and I go back a very long way," he continues. "We're just pals. We sing the same kind of music. I love everything she's ever done."
She's Back (2019) is another Warwick gem that Mathis can now add to his collection. In fact, Warwick is one of the few bonafide music legends who consistently releases new albums, not just singles tailored for downloads and streaming platforms. "Fortunately, I'm thrilled to know that people still expect that from me," she says. "That's who I am."
Though Warwick has remained relatively prolific in the studio over the past decade, including her impeccable Sammy Cahn tribute Only Trust Your Heart (2011) and GRAMMY-nominated Now (2012) album produced by Phil Ramone, She's Back reflects her ease with more contemporary R&B-flavored styles. The set's modern sheen is an appealing backdrop for Warwick to revisit a range of songs from her career, including "Deja Vu" (featuring Krayzie Bone), "Two Ships", "If I Want To", and a stirring production of "What the World Needs Now" featuring the Jubilation Choir.
Producers Damon Elliott and Teddy Harmon complement Warwick's performances with nuanced string arrangements on her covers of Rahsaan Patterson's "Tears Ago" and the Atlantic Starr classic "Am I Dreaming". Rounding out renditions of pop standards like "What a Fool Believes" (produced by Ron Shrock), "What Color is Love", and "How Do You Keep the Music Playing", Warwick also spotlights songs penned by her longtime friends Brenda Russell, Patti Austin, and Ashford & Simpson.
Whether wistful longing or the wonder of romance, Warwick's voice still draws from a wellspring of emotions. It's a quality that's distinguished her singing ever since she first emerged as both a muse and creative partner for Burt Bacharach and Hal David in the 1960s. "It's amazing because her voice makes all the notes without laboring over them," says Mathis. "She moves the tempo right along. She doesn't sit on the note. She lands on it like a little bird."
A reissue of the singer's River North release Dionne Sings Dionne (1998) accompanies She's Back, serving reimagined interpretations of pop masterpieces she originated decades earlier plus key tracks like "Aquarela do Brasil" and "High Upon this Love". "When you hear Dionne, you know it's her," says Verdine White of Earth, Wind & Fire. "She means the world to us. She's a great friend. Her work is unparalleled with all those wonderful songs. Everyone has a Dionne Warwick record in their home."
Warwick herself has a succinct explanation for what inspires her to keep singing and recording. "My love of music," she says. "It's that simple. Nothing more, nothing less." Just days after receiving her GRAMMY Lifetime Achievement Award, Warwick sat with PopMatters for an intimate conversation where she applauded her duet partners on She's Back, shared stories about Isaac Hayes and Luther Vandross, and discussed the ongoing impact of the Dionne Warwick Institute of Economics and Entrepreneurship.
Ms. Warwick, I love that every time I see you, there's a reason to celebrate, whether it's a performance, an award you've been given, or some kind of industry recognition. Today we have two things to celebrate, the release of She's Back and your "Lifetime Achievement Award" from the Recording Academy. I'd love to know the significance of that particular award at this stage in your career.
Being recognized by the Academy for my body of work is quite significant. It was a thrill to get it and a thrill to know that they think enough of me to give it to me while I can breathe and walk! I can enjoy it. It was something that I will certainly cherish. I'm getting to the point where I'm not calling them awards anymore. I'm calling them [emphasizes] rewards. I'm being rewarded for the work I'm sharing.
It was a spectacular evening. It was an eclectic mixture of recipients — Valerie Simpson for her and Nick (Ashford), Donny Hathaway, Billy Eckstine, George Clinton, Black Sabbath, Lou Adler, who I hadn't seen in ages. It was wonderful being in this company. Johnny Mathis sang "Walk on By". It was that kind of evening. My two sons presented me with my award so it was very very special.
I remember a story you shared with me about the year you won GRAMMY Awards for both "Deja Vu" and "I'll Never Love This Way Again". Was it your son Damon who didn't want to attend the ceremony?
Yes. Damon and David were still youngsters. He wanted to go to McDonald's. I said, "Okay you can go to McDonald's but we're going to this first, okay? After we leave there, we can go to McDonald's and get anything you want."
Traffic was horrendous. As we walked into the backstage door of the Shrine, they were saying, "And the recipient for 'Best R&B …' Dionne Warwick!" They said, "Dionne get out on the stage! Go! Go!" They took my boys and put them in the seats. In fact, Damon ended up sitting on Donna Summer's lap. That was sweet. [laughs] Finally, they let me come into the audience so I could get my seat. Damon's sitting there, sound asleep. I said, "Oh, Donna …" She said, "Don't worry about it. I'm loving holding him." She was a dear friend as well, which always helps.
Damon produced She's Back, plus several of your more recent recording projects. When did you first realize that he had musical talent of his own?
You know, it was the same thing with David — they kept these things hidden from me! I think he was about nineteen- or twenty- years-old when he hooked up with Bone Thugs-n-Harmony. He put together beats and engineered for them. Over the course of the years, he has developed into quite a producer.
Yes, he's produced Solange, Pink, you …
… Destiny's Child, Christina Aguilera, Mya, Macy Gray. He became the females' preferred engineer and producer, which is wonderful. He has really made a name for himself. Everybody knows who he is and they clamor for him.
He's developed his talent without me even knowing about it, as did David. I had no idea that David could write the way he writes. I didn't know he had the voice that he has. It was my surprise. All of this was done on their own. It wasn't about Mommy opening the door and trying to walk through it for them. I always told them that too — "If this is what you really want, yes I possibly can open the door, but you have to walk through it". That's exactly what they've done.
It's clear that their own respective talents have carried them through the business. You open She's Back with "Am I Dreaming", which Damon produced with Teddy Harmon and Musiq Soulchild, who duets with you on the track. How was Musiq Soulchild invited to participate?
Damon put everything together. For my duet partners, he decided who it was that he felt, vocally, would not only compare or be able to stay on the same bar that has been set, but who would want to record with me. He had people saying, "Yeah! I want to be on it too." The ones that he chose for me to record with really gave incredible performances.
I think my favorite duet on the album is "Forever in My Heart" with Brian McKnight. I love that he and Damon produced that together. To me, it has this nice buoyant groove. Stylistically, it wouldn't be out of place on one of your Arista albums from the '80s.
It reminds me very much of a Bee Gees song. It has the same kind of feel to it. I'm a huge fan of Brian's. I have been for a very long time. He and his brothers, Take 6 … I love them. When Damon called Brian and said, "Mom's doing a project and there are a few duets. Would you be interested in doing a duet?" He said, [excitedly] "I got a song for her!"
Your performance on Rahsaan Patterson's "Tears Ago" is infused with heartache. I wonder, what does that song evoke for you?
It's about what lyrics are being sung. It's a message. I remember a very dear friend of mine said to me a long time ago, "You are a messenger". I didn't get it at the time but I do understand now what he was saying. You emote what is being given to you. That's how I approach a song — I approach it lyrically.
The fact that one song can resonate with millions of people is a miracle, when you think about it.
It is. Music is that magic. That's what music is about.
"Life Is Waiting" is just one of many songs that you could have selected from Brenda Russell's songbook. What drew you to that song, specifically?
Because of what it's saying. It's waiting for you to love. Brenda has a wonderful way with words — how she breaks down the preacher screaming and scaring children because of the fire in the voice instead of giving a message that evokes love and peace and equality, how people will try to turn things around on you when you know it's not really true.
I fell in love with her recording. I called her and I said, "Bren, I'm getting ready to record one of your songs again." She said, "Really? Which one? Which one?" I told her "Life Is Waiting". She said, "Nobody knows that song but me." I said, "Well … now I do and it's going to be on my recording."
Then of course there's your brand new version of Ashford & Simpson's "We Need to Go Back" …
… which is another one of those songs of hope, inspiration, and things that we have to start paying more attention to. I'm very very sensitive to words. I do not sing or say things that I don't feel comfortable saying or would be uncomfortable for me to hear.
50 years ago, you recorded Ashford & Simpson's "You're All I Need to Get By" on Soulful (1969). It's so fitting that you've bookended half a century with another one of Nick and Val's songs. They originally produced "We Need to Go Back" for you in the '70s when you were signed to Warner Bros., but the label shelved it. I'd love to know the backstory behind that. [Note: Warwick's original version of "We Need to Go Back" was eventually released in 2013 on the compilation "We Need to Go Back: The Unissued Warner Bros. Masters".]
Of course I love Val and Nick. They're dear dear friends. I haven't a clue as to why the relationship with Warner Bros. wasn't more fruitful. It's a combination of things. Burt and Hal were running circles around me and I kept going in circles with them. [laughs] My daddy told me, "You know the word is out that Bacharach & David are splitting." I said, "Daddy, please. Come on. If anybody would know that, I certainly would …"
Famous last words.
I read about it like everybody else did, which is really what hurt me more than anything else — the fact that they didn't have the decency to pick up the phone. It's that simple, but they chose to keep it a deep dark secret. In so doing, Warner Bros. decided "you owe us a record". (Warner President) Mo Ostin said, "Either we have to sue you or you have to sue them." I said, "I have no problem suing them" … and I did. I won the suit.
It means a lot to your audience, as well as longtime Ashford & Simpson fans, that "We Need to Go Back" has another chance to be heard. The duets you sing with Kevon Edmonds on "How Do You Keep the Music Playing" and Kenny Lattimore on "What Color is Love" set different moods. What are Kenny and Kevon's respective strengths as vocalists?
Oh wow. Kevon has one of those, I call them, "choir boy" sounds. That's the quality of his voice. It is so amazing because a lot of people who've listened to "How Do You Keep the Music Playing" say "When did you stop singing and when did he start …?" You couldn't tell when one loop stopped and started, which is wonderful. That's the vocal ability he has. He has a beautiful voice. It was a pleasure recording with him. It really was.
Kenny is one of my babies. I've watched his career grow. I am so proud of him. He just showed off on "What Color is Love". I said, "Okay now, wait a minute. This is my record! [laughs] Watch out!" He said he was so thrilled and honored to be able to sing with me.
There's such a sensual sound to "What Color is Love". It's just beautiful. I have to say the repertoire on this album is impressive.
It is! I feel it's some of my best work.
And the fact that "Two Ships" is on there …
That was the funniest thing in the world. It happens to be one of Damon's favorite songs. He said, "Mom you've got to do that. You've got to." I said, "Damon, do you realize how long ago that was?" "You've got to, Mommy, you've got to!" To my surprise, because I did not expect it, FIJI put his voice on it. We performed it together while I was in Hawaii. It was a joy. In fact, we did it in Vegas as well.
It's special that you can take these songs to another level with duet partners. We know about Dionne the vocalist and Dionne the arts advocate. With "Two Ships", we must discuss Dionne the composer …
You want to call me a composer? [laughs] Okay, I'll take it. A one-song composer.
So where did that one song come from?
I happened to be in Palm Springs. There was a bunch of us who went to hang out for a week. One of my dearest friends has a home there. We converged on him and said, "We're taking over the house" and that's what we did. We were all sitting around the pool. I was listening to Earth, Wind & Fire — I remember that. All of a sudden I said "Myra" — we were at her boyfriend's house — "Give me a pen and paper." She said, "What are you doing?" I said, "I think I got a song I'm going to write." She said, "You're going to write a song?" I said, "Yeah, I think I'm going to write a song." God only knows where "two ships passing in the night" came from but … it did!
How fabulous that Earth, Wind & Fire helped shepherd "Two Ships" into existence.
They inspired it. I don't even know the song that I was listening to. Anything that Earth, Wind & Fire sings … it doesn't matter.
Luther Vandross produced your original recording of "Two Ships" on How Many Times Can We Say Goodbye (1983). You recorded his song "You Really Started Something" on She's Back. How did you first become aware that you'd made such a profound impact on Luther when he was coming of age?
He told me. He told me about him seeing me for the first time at the Brooklyn Fox. He told me what I had on. He stayed for all four shows. He said, "I realized you were a star because you changed your clothes. You had a different dress on the second show and the third show and the fourth show."
He just always complimented me on my phrasing. He fell in love with that. He said, "Nobody phrases like you. That's something that I love about you." Phrasing was his thing.
Robin Clark and Carlos Alomar became best friends with Luther in high school. When I interviewed them a few years ago, Robin mentioned how Luther would invite her over, turn all the lights off, put on one of your records, and bask in your voice. I can just imagine him doing that.
He was a fan … to put it mildly! [laughs] He said he wanted to sing every single recording that I ever made. He wanted to re-record them. He almost did it, too. That was the compliment of compliments for me because there's not another voice like Luther's. Not one, anywhere.
Nor is there another voice like Patti Austin's. You recorded one of her gems, "We're in Love", for She's Back.
I love her version, but I love Patti. In fact, Patti was on the GRAMMY show as well. She honored Johnny Mandel. I told her, "I did a song of yours." She thought it was "How Do You Keep the Music Playing". I said, "Yeah, that's on the CD, but that's not your song." She said, "My song?" I said, "Didn't you write a song?" She said, "Yeah." I said, "Do you remember what you called it?" She looked at me and said, "Why are you doing this to me?" [laughs] I said, "I'm not going to tell you what the song is."
It worried her all day long. Finally she just busted into my dressing room and said, "Okay, what song is it?" I started singing 'We're in Love'. She said, "You did that?" "Yes, I did." "Oh my God, I can't wait to hear it!"
It's really a breath of fresh air, and so is "What a Fool Believes". Kenny Loggins told me that was the first song he ever wrote with Michael McDonald. The second song they wrote was "This is It". They could have stopped with those two songs and they would have been set for life. I wonder, what does "What a Fool Believes" offer you as a vocalist?
I don't know what it offers as a vocalist but I love Michael McDonald's voice. I just love what he does vocally. When he comes on the radio, I'll sing along with him. With "What a Fool Believes", I used to sing along with him and the Doobie Brothers too!
Zane Giles did an incredible arrangement of "What a Fool Believes". He said, "I want you to sing this for me." I recorded it and then it kind of got lost somewhere. I decided I wanted to re-record it. I told my MD (Rob Shrock) to put the arrangement together but I wanted the exact arrangement. I love the song and I love the treatment of it.
Photo courtesy of © Sekou Luke Studio.
Yes, it's not what you would expect.
Not at all.
It's far from what the Doobie Brothers did originally, but a good song can adapt to almost any arrangement.
It's like when Luther did half of my tunes or when Isaac Hayes took "Walk on By" or Aretha Franklin did "I Say a Little Prayer". They made those songs their own. They did not "become" Dionne Warwick. When you jump into somebody else's pool, you better be able to swim!
I like that quote!
It's true. You don't just jump on somebody else's song and not give a credible rendition of it.
Speaking of Isaac Hayes, "Deja Vu" first appeared on your Arista debut 40 years ago. That album — Dionne (1979) — could have been titled She's Back as well because it marked a resurgence in your career. Adrienne Anderson wrote beautiful lyrics to "Deja Vu" but what was it about "Deja Vu" that reflected Isaac's sensibility?
Everything I've heard of Isaac's that he's arranged or re-arranged has not only a sensitive but a sensual feel to it. That's what "Deja Vu" was. He played the music for me. I said, "I want that." It was my birthday so he said, "Happy Birthday". I said, "Okay, finish it. Write the lyrics. Give me something. What are you calling it?" He said, "I don't know." I said, "I'm recording in a couple of weeks. I need some words to say!" He just procrastinated and procrastinated.
I finally said, "Hey, can I find somebody to write a lyric? We'll send it to you, of course. If you like it, then we'll record it. If you don't like it, then we'll find somebody else to write it." I called Barry Manilow and said, "Barry, I need someone who can write a lyric. I have the music. It's my birthday gift from Isaac Hayes." He heard it and said, "I have the girl for you. I know who can write a lyric for this."
"Deja Vu" came out of Adrienne Anderson. I sent it to Isaac and he said, "This is exactly what I would have written if I had written it!"
I love that story! What inspired you to package Dionne Sings Dionne along with She's Back?
It was the record company's idea. I had no idea it was going to be a double CD, but I'm thrilled about it.
It's hard to believe that Dionne Sings Dionne was released more than 20 years ago. I was listening to "Reach Out for Me" the other day and there's some serious star power on it.
Tell me about that! El DeBarge and the Emotions.
What forces brought them together?
I was recording and El happened to be in a studio adjacent to where I was. He came over — I'm "Aunt Dionne" to everybody — and heard some of the stuff I was doing. I said, "I'm doing 'Reach Out for Me'. Would you like to sing that with me?" "Would I like to sing with you? Yes!"
The Emotions are my babies. I love them to death. I had them on the road with me when they first started. We called them for "Reach Out for Me". They came into my brain because I thought, Jerry Hey with the trumpets … Earth, Wind & Fire … the Emotions … of course! It just happened and it worked.
Bacharach and David's "All Kinds of People" is also on Dionne Sings Dionne. You've been singing that since the early '70s.
I don't know why "All Kinds of People" wasn't a hit because it's a very meaningful song. You stop and think about what Hal David wrote. Like I said, I relate to words. Things that I feel that people need to hear and want to hear. They're tired of being cussed at and fussed at and screamed at. You know what I'm saying? Give me something I can hear and say, "Oh yeah! I can feel that!"
I'd like to revisit your album Now. There's a song on there called "Be Aware" that you originally recorded on your first Warner album. Last December, Norm Lewis included it in his "Nutcracker Cool" show at Feinstein's/54 Below. I thought to myself, I know where that song came from! How did Burt and Hal present "Be Aware" to you back in '72?
When I read the lyric to "Be Aware", I said "Hal, my God …" He cared and it showed. That was the beauty of Hal David. You better be aware because it could happen to you. There's a very spiritual meaning to every single song I've ever sung of his. There are quite a few songs that are still hidden gems that I intend to re-record.
There have been evenings when this [points to throat] wasn't acting like it was supposed to act. I have an orchestra playing and I speak Hal David's words because he is a poet. The words are very meaningful. I say, "You've heard me sing these words, now hear me speak them."
Between She's Back, Dionne Sings Dionne, and your original recording, we also have multiple versions of "What the World Needs Now" …
90,000 of them! [laughs]
For the people who haven't had a chance yet to read your book My Life, As I See It (Atria, 2010), I'd love if you could explain the genesis behind the Hip-Hop Nation United version of "What the World Needs Now" on Dionne Sings Dionne.
That man sitting over there [points to Angelo Ellerbee] was very instrumental in putting that together. I was recording at River North at the time. It was during that period where you were hearing all kinds of madness about the east coast versus the west coast [rappers]. They can't talk to each other, you can't put them together. It will never happen … until the word was put out. Everybody from the east coast came out to the west coast where we recorded it. It was Kurupt, Coolio, Bobby Brown, Big Daddy Kane, Horace Brown, Tyrese, Flesh-n-Bone … everybody was in that same studio, hugging and laughing.
Each one of those children wrote their own verses. I told them the integrity of the song is very very dear to my heart. We will not soil or spoil it. All I want you to do is write what "What the World Needs Now is Love" means to you, and that's what they did. They were clamoring to get out into that studio. It was one of the most incredible things I've ever been associated with.
All these years later, the Jubilation Choir has taken "What the World Needs Now" to heavenly heights on She's Back.
The song is now, I think, at a place where people are hearing exactly what is being said and the meaning of what's being said. The world does need love. Golly!
I'd like shift to education for a moment. In 1997, Lincoln Elementary School in East Orange, New Jersey was renamed the Dionne Warwick Institute of Economics and Entrepreneurship. Could little Marie Dionne Warrick ever have imagined that a school would be named after her?
Oh, please — especially a school that I attended from kindergarten through eighth grade. Just going to school was something. [laughs] I thought, You're joking me! "No, we're not. It's your school." It's one of the highest honors I've ever been paid.
Nothing pleases me more. My instructors are so giving and caring. They love those kids. Their little eyes are bright and shiny. My teachers are instilling in them and letting them know, first of all, how much they care about them, which every kid needs to hear. I have had parents tell me that their kids get up at the crack of dawn saying, "Come on mommy, we got to get to school on time." I don't think there are words for that.
Yes, it's a precious gift to have that kind of passion and love for learning.
Undoubtedly. I have kids who have graduated from the Warwick Institute who went on to high school and graduate from college. They walk up to me in supermarkets or wherever I happen to be and say, "Ms. Warwick, I went to your school." "You did?" "I just graduated from Harvard." That's wonderful.
You received your Bachelors in Music Education and Masters in Music from Hartt College of Music, plus an Honorary Doctorate Degree from Hartt. If I were a student in Professor Warwick's class, what would I learn?
You would learn the theory of music, how to equate it, and of course whatever your instrument is hopefully you're proficient enough to play it! [laughs] You'd learn the history of music, the composers of not only today but of ye'er ago. I guess if I'm teaching you, you'd learn the love of music.
What's important for vocalists to know about music theory?
It depends on what kind of vocalist you're talking about. In my case, I'm a vocalist and, only because my minor was piano and I majored in education, I happened to have had no choice but to know theory. I'm sure Beyoncé doesn't know anything about theory. I know Gladys Knight — someone who I happen to adore who sings her buns off — doesn't know anything about theory. That's not her forté. She has a God-given talent that she uses enormously well. In a teaching capacity, these are things that I have had to learn.
I'd imagine you also learned a lot from Scepter Records founder Florence Greenberg about the music business itself.
Yes, she put the entrepreneurial spirit in me. She showed me how much a woman could do in an industry dominated by men. Her little company was known as a mom-and-pop store, but a very successful mom-and-pop store. Everyone on the roster were like her children. She had a good business sense about her. Her common sense is what I think carried her through more than anything else.
Congratulations once again on She's Back, Ms. Warwick. Before we close, however, you must remind me — what's the key to a good ice cream soda? [laughter] Isn't that what you used to make?
I could make anything. I could make any kind of soda you wanted.
Was it egg creams?
Black and whites.
What were the key ingredients?
Vanilla ice cream and chocolate syrup. Seltzer! And a long spoon to stir. You got to know what you're doing!
Photo of Dionne Warwick and Christian John Wikane courtesy of © Sekou Luke Studio.
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