dionne-warwick-still-it-keeps-haunting-you-thom-bell-revisits-interview
Dionne Warrick 1975 (publicity photo: Warner)

“Still It Keeps Haunting You”: Thom Bell Revisits the Dionne Warwick Sessions

In an exclusive interview with PopMatters, Grammy-winning producer Thom Bell recalls bringing Dionne Warwick to number one and crafting her critically acclaimed "Track of the Cat".

Dionne Warwick is fluent in the parlance of soul, sophistication, and effortless cool. From the very beginning of her career, she mastered some of the most complex melodies ever composed. Musical innovators like Burt Bacharach, Thom Bell, Stevie Wonder, Barry Gibb, and Quincy Jones have all derived inspiration from Warwick’s voice. “You’ll know Dionne’s voice out of a thousand voices,” Bell exclaims. “That’s how I can tell when you really have something superb — I can close my eyes and know your voice anywhere. I love those kind of voices, man!”

However, Bell occupies a place all his own among the esteemed producers who’ve recorded the legendary vocalist over the years. During an interview at the Apollo Theater in October 2016, Warwick recalled the impact of “Then Came You” (1974), a song that Bell commissioned specifically for her and the Spinners. “Thom gave us a wonderful gift that also happened to be my very first number one recording — ever,” she declared.

Beyond crafting Warwick’s first chart-topping hit, Bell produced an entire album for the vocalist, Track of the Cat (1975). Rolling Stone proclaimed it “her best album in years”, considerable praise, given that Warwick had already released nearly two dozen albums between 1963 and 1975. Of course, the singer still had decades of albums and hit singles ahead of her, but Track of the Cat held a luster that’s only become more radiant with the passage of time. In this exclusive interview with PopMatters, Bell retraces Warwick’s “track” to the top and remembers his vision for a vocalist without peer.

New York’s pop music scene of the late ’50s and early ’60s was virtually defined by the constellation of songwriters, producers, and musicians that orbited the Brill Building. Warwick emerged from a cadre of session vocalists who sang background for hit producers like Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller and cut demo records for songwriting teams who hustled their tunes to labels and publishing companies. Though based in Philadelphia, Bell was often called to New York for studio dates with Burt Bacharach, Luther Dixon, and King Curtis. “There were so many background singers,” he says. “Most of those background singers couldn’t sight-read. I said, ‘Put me up front, Jack! If you can write it, I can sing it!’ Dionne can also sing and read. She can do both.”

Produced by Bacharach and Hal David, Presenting Dionne Warwick (1963) marked the singer’s full-length debut for Scepter Records and established Warwick as a vocalist whose facility with pop, soul, and gospel sensibilities defied categorization. If anything, the music she recorded with Bacharach and David became a genre unto itself, often confounding musicians who backed Warwick on one-nighters across the country. “I worked with Dionne at the Uptown Theater in Philadelphia,” says Bell. “The unit that played for her also played for the Coasters, the Isley Brothers, Little Anthony & the Imperials, Jerry Butler … I worked with all of them.

“I was the house pianist. You cannot hear a piano with an 18-piece band. Ain’t gonna happen! I would be back there playing, banging my fingernails until they split, trying to get heard, but you couldn’t hear me. When I finally got tired, I said, ‘I’m done with this crap. I’m going to sit up there and write some songs while these guys are singing’ because I knew they couldn’t hear me!” [laughs]

At the time, Warwick’s debut single “Don’t Make Me Over” was climbing the charts. Her declaration at the song’s climax — “Accept me for what I am” — sparked a lightning bolt across AM radio. Warwick conveyed a refreshingly bold sentiment for young women in a climate when Little Peggy March vowed “I Will Follow Him” and the Chiffons gushed “He’s So Fine”. In fact, exactly 12 months after “Don’t Make Me Over” debuted on the Hot 100 in December 1962, Lesley Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me” charged the airwaves with another statement of female empowerment.

With astounding consistency, Warwick, Bacharach, and David created three-minute masterpieces that expanded the vernacular of pop music, drawing from styles that spanned classical and bossa nova. Make Way for Dionne Warwick (1964) furnished some of the trio’s finest moments, including the Grammy-nominated “Walk On By”, “A House Is Not a Home”, “Reach Out for Me”, and “You’ll Never Get to Heaven (If You Break My Heart)”. Bell relished the musicality of Warwick’s songs. “Dionne had great records,” he says. “‘Promises, Promises’ (1968) was a very well put-together, very well-written piece of music. You couldn’t go on that recording session just leaving ‘Piano 101’. If any one person made a mistake on that, then the whole band would have to stop.

“I gotta tell you, Bacharach and David are two of the greatest writers. They did classical things, and that’s what I always wanted to do. People told me, ‘Black people don’t dig that kind of music.’ I’d say, ‘What do you mean? I’m black and I dig it. There’s got to be more of me out there than just me.’ When it comes to music, the hue of skin has nothing to do with likes or dislikes. Music is not something you wear. Music is something you feel.”

Bell channeled that sensibility into his own productions for the Delfonics. In 1968, he scored his first Top Five pop hit as a producer with the group’s “La-La Means I Love You”. Interestingly, Warwick achieved a career benchmark of her own with a song she released that same year. Not only did her recording of “Do You Know the Way to San José” (1968) win the Grammy for “Best Contemporary Pop Vocal Performance, Female” in March 1969, she became the first artist to receive the Recording Academy’s newly minted award for the pop field, conquering fellow nominees like Aretha Franklin and Barbra Streisand.

Two years later, Warwick won her second Grammy Award with “I’ll Never Fall In Love Again” (1970) while Bell began producing another Philadelphia-based vocal group, the Stylistics. Bell and his writing partner Linda Creed fashioned silky and sumptuous tunes on The Stylistics (1971), the group’s Avco debut that featured “Stop, Look, Listen (To Your Heart)”, “People Make the World Go Round”, and the gold-selling singles “You Are Everything” and “Betcha By Golly Wow”.

Bell’s winning streak continued with the Spinners. The group’s career had all but stalled at Motown and their initial sides at Atlantic Records with producer Jimmy Roach lacked chemistry. In 1972, Bell brought the group to Philadelphia’s Sigma Sound Studios and outfitted them with material penned by his stable of writers. His touch spawned three consecutive number one R&B singles for the Spinners: “I’ll Be Around” (co-written by Bell with Phil Hurtt), “Could It Be I’m Falling In Love”, and “One of a Kind (Love Affair)”. Spinners (1973) crowned the top of the R&B chart for three weeks in May 1973 and was named “Soul Album of the Year” by Village Voice critic Robert Christgau. It would be the first of several full-length efforts Bell produced for the group throughout their tenure at Atlantic.

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Around the same time the Spinners signed with Atlantic, Warwick found a new label home at Warner Bros. Dionne (1972), the singer’s first album for the company, was primed to begin a successful new chapter for the singer, but the reality told a different story. Warner granted minimal promotional support, further compounded by the fact that Bacharach & David, Warwick’s collaborators of ten years, dissolved their partnership after the album was released.

Produced by former Motown songwriting trio Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier, and Eddie Holland, Just Being Myself (1973) met the same fate as the singer’s Warner debut, despite a wealth of solid material. Warwick continued working with an array of producers, including Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson, who’d also just signed with Warner Bros., but the recordings were ultimately shelved.

In the midst of his success with the Spinners and the Stylistics, plus his projects with Ronnie Dyson, vocal group New York City (“I’m Doin’ Fine Now”), and his first production for Johnny Mathis, I’m Coming Home (1973), Bell received an invitation to see Warwick at Caesar’s Palace. Even without a record on the charts, she remained one of the biggest attractions in Las Vegas. “They invited me out to sit with Dionne and listen to her,” he recalls. “They wanted me to do an album with her. I didn’t have the time — there’s only 24 hours in a day — and I didn’t want to give her any sloppy junk. If I can’t give you the best, I won’t bother you. I said, ‘Let me go back and see what I can come up with.’

“I came up with a duet. I thought, That should satisfy what Dionne needs and what the Spinners need. In those days, I had writers working specifically for certain artists. I got with two of my writers, Sherman Marshall and Phillip Pugh. I said, ‘I want you to write for Dionne and the Spinners. That’s your job, period. Don’t bring me nothing else.’ They came to me with ‘Then Came You’. It was a good song, but I just added a little icing on the cake. I don’t think I’ve ever produced a song that I didn’t re-write in some way.”

The Spinners toured with Warwick for seven weeks throughout the summer of 1973, culminating with another of the singer’s successful stands in Vegas. “At the last show, Thom came to see us,” Warwick recalled during her interview at the Apollo. “He came upstairs to the dressing room after the show was over. He said, ‘I have a wonderful surprise for you.’ We all said, ‘Great! What is it?’ He said, ‘It’s the end of the tour and you had a wonderful time together. I got a song that I think you guys should record. It would be the perfect way to say bye-bye to each other.’ It was a little song called ‘Then Came You’.” By year’s end, news of the star pairing reached industry trades, with Billboard announcing the duet in its 15 December 1973 issue.

The interplay between Warwick and the Spinners on “Then Came You” generated a contagious kind of excitement. From harmonizing with Bobby Smith in the verses to trading ad libs with Philippé Wynne in the closing vamp, Warwick delivered a customarily strong performance. “It was amazing,” she said. “We had the best time in the studio. Philippé was such an intricate part of that recording.”

Wynne’s soulful voice offered an appealing contrast to his duet partner. “Philippé could sing in any key, any time, day or night,” says Bell. “He could make things up so fast, it’d make your head spin. If he did it ten times, he’d give it to you ten different ways. I said, ‘Philippé, what I want you to do as you’re singing is just think of Dionne as a feather. Think of her as your daughter. She’s an angel. Don’t sing to bore out of the sky. Keep it moderate, man. I want you to sing so she floats around you and you float around her.’ I had them do a Marvin Gaye / Tammi Terrell thing. I had them looking at each other and singing to each other in the same booth.”

“Then Came You” bowed on the Hot 100 the week ending 27 July 1974 and was subsequently featured on the Spinners’ third Atlantic album New and Improved (1974). Three months later, it supplanted Billy Preston’s “Nothing from Nothing” from the top and became both Warwick and the Spinners’ first number one pop hit. Both artists were also rewarded with a gold single and would receive a Grammy nomination for “Best Pop Vocal by a Duo or Group” the following March. Bell himself made Grammy history when he won the Recording Academy’s inaugural award for “Producer of the Year” in 1975.

Bell’s production of “Just As Long As We Have Love” showcased Warwick and the Spinners in a more tranquil setting. Issued as the B-side to “Then Came You”, the song featured a rare lead vocal by group member Henry Fambrough, whose sensitive phrasing complemented the more delicate textures of Warwick’s voice. “Henry can really sing,” says Bell. “He’s got a gorgeous voice. One problem with Henry is he’s got stage fright. Dionne could coax him along, so I put those two together. She was singing just as nice as he was singing.” Written by Vinnie Barrett and Bruce Hawes, “Just As Long As We Have Love” would later appear on the Spinners’ Pick of the Litter (1975).

Eager to capitalize on Warwick’s latest smash, Warner titled the singer’s third album Then Came You (1975). However, aside from the hit title track, producer Jerry Ragovoy oversaw the album’s production. Fans and industry insiders had all expected a full set of duets between Warwick and the Spinners, but the project never materialized. Instead, Warwick’s work with Ragovoy featured stylish, soul-inflected pop that landed the singer a guest appearance on Soul Train in May 1975. While “Take It From Me” made the R&B Top 30, and “Move Me No Mountain” contained a verve and vivacity that seemed destined for the charts, the album stirred only a modest ripple in the marketplace.

Writing from the Heart

Gamble and Huff are great writers of the soul. Creed and I are great writers of the heart. There’s a vast difference. It ain’t but about six inches apart, but it’s miles apart when it comes to feeling.

Later in 1975, Warner president Mo Ostin approached Bell once again about producing a solo Dionne Warwick album. Bell took time to ensure that whatever he recorded with the singer reflected the quality listeners expected of Warwick’s records, not to mention his own productions. Before recording sessions commenced, he sat with the singer at the piano and had the same conversation with her as he did with any artist. “I just want to hear me, you, and these 88’s in the room,” he says, recalling his approach. “Let me get down to the specifics of what makes you who you are without the song. I can tell if you have a naturally great voice or whether it’s something the engineer has done, the producer has done, or it’s the kind of mic that you’re using. When I work with you, I got to be able to hear you in my mind. I’m singing to myself and I can swear I sound just like you. And if I can sound like you, then I can write for you.”

“Track of the Cat” owed its inspiration to more than the sound of Warwick’s voice, however. “I always told Dionne that she reminded me of a cat,” says Bell. “I had a buddy of mine who worked at the Philadelphia Zoo. He wouldn’t let any civilians in there until a certain time but he would let me in there. I watched lions for the day. I watched tigers for the day. Then I watched panthers for the day. They don’t walk straight to you. They walk around the sides of walls. I thought, There’s Dionne right there! That’s the same way she is. She’s stealth-like. When you’re going to rehearse her, while you’re waiting for her, she’ll come through the back way and walk along the wall. You won’t even know she’s there until she’s next to you.”

When Bell recorded Johnny Mathis on “Life Is a Song Worth Singing”, he endeavored to create a prelude that evoked a gladiator entering the ring. He mapped a more realistic storyboard on “Track of the Cat”: an actual panther would herald Warwick’s entrance.

Bell continues, “I had to get a sound from these cats to see if I could use it on the record. I brought a portable four-track recorder down to the zoo. I got up early. It was 5:30 in the morning when they fed them. I walked around and I waited. A guy came around in a truck with big 40-pound pieces of horse meat. He threw them over these bars that were about three inches thick. I said, ‘Let me turn this tape on.’ That panther came out and … [roars loudly]. It was like he was saying, ‘If you mess with my food, man, I’ll fix you!’ He growled three times. Those three that he did were in the exact same key that the song was written in. I couldn’t believe it! I wish I could tell you that it was my intelligence or a sixth sense that did that. No, that was nothing but an accident.”

The producer captured the sound of midnight on “Track of the Cat”, with Warwick’s voice casting a warm, moonlit glow. “For wherever you go, my voice will follow you. You can try to resist / Still it keeps haunting you,” she sang. “That voice is haunting,” says Bell. “I don’t know if anybody else saw Dionne like that, but that song came out exactly as I had planned. Turn the lights out and play that song. It’s eerie, man!” At nearly seven minutes, the moody and mysterious “Track of the Cat” led listeners into a musical world that was zip codes away from “San José” and other Bacharachian dwellings.

Linda Creed wrote the lyrics to “Track of the Cat” and collaborated with Bell on more than half of the album. By 1975, the two writers had become one of the most successful writing teams in the industry, especially with the Stylistics’ hit recordings of songs like “I’m Stone In Love With You”, “Break Up to Make Up”, and “You Make Me Feel Brand New”. Bell chuckles in recalling their earliest writing sessions. “I got on her nerves and she got on my nerves,” he says. “I’d be working on one note for an hour or two hours. She’d say, ‘Bell, you take so long!’ It wasn’t too long to me. We made a vow after ‘I Wanna Be a Free Girl’ (1970) by Dusty Springfield: I won’t call you until I want you to write lyrics, you won’t call me unless you want me to write a melody. When I was finished with those melodies, I’d call Creed. Bang! The next day, the lyrics were done.”

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Thom Bell (publicity photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Records)

After working with a master lyricist like Hal David for so many years, Warwick could appreciate the strength of Creed’s songwriting talent. “She was very reminiscent to me of Hal,” she commented at the Apollo when recalling Track of the Cat. “She’s very sensitive and wrote words that people could relate to.”

Indeed, Creed tailored her lyrics specifically to Warwick. “His House and Me”, in particular, mirrored the emotional discord in the singer’s personal life at the time. “She was going through her divorce,” says Bell. “I saved ‘His House and Me’ for last because I knew that was going to get her. I turned down the lights and she was in there all by herself.” The setting inspired a flawless performance, with Warwick’s nuanced vocal rendering the sort of intimacy that’s specific to loneliness.

“Ronnie Lee” brought an infectious buoyancy to Track of the Cat, though the story itself depicted a somewhat strained exchange between Warwick and a lover who shields his emotions. Bell explains the inspiration behind the name. “I was close to Creed. I was like a big brother,” he says. “I went to the doctor with her and found out that she couldn’t have children. I felt so sorry for the poor girl. She loved kids. She would come to my house on Christmas and bring a bunch of toys for the kids and decorate the tree. Well, she found out that she was pregnant. She could not believe it! She had this little girl and named her Ronnie Lee, though she wrote ‘Ronnie Lee’ as a love song.”

Bell closed the album’s original Side One with “World of My Dreams”, an invitation to a fantasy land of lollipop trees and lemonade streams. Bell’s orchestration embellished the fanciful images in Creed’s story, shrouding the scene with diaphanous strings. The overall effect paralleled the spirit of the duo’s own rapport as songwriters. “When we would write, we would be in the spheres of the air,” says Bell. “We would be way out there. Creed lived lyrics, just like I live melodies. I had a motto: when you hear one of my melodies, I don’t want it to bounce off of your ear, I want it to caress your ear.”

“Jealousy” was one of three tracks on the album that departed from the Bell-Creed songbook. The producer tapped Sherman Marshall, a co-writer on “Then Came You”, to collaborate with Ted Wortham and Vinnie Barrett. Warwick’s voice coasted above a lush arrangement that belied the darker tone of the lyrics: “Jealously / look what you’ve done to me. Turned my head around / destroyed the love that I found.” Warwick seemingly quelled the pain through each note of her subtle yet exquisite performance.

Written by Bell and Marshall, “This Is Love” spotlighted Warwick in a more sprightly musical mode. The producer explains how he worked with Warwick to capture one of the album’s most effervescent moments. “When it came time for Dionne to sing her songs, she’d been rehearsed,” he says. “I wrote lyrics on paper, but not notes. I told her, ‘I don’t want you to read because then you articulate differently. It’s not going to sound right because it’s too restrictive. I want you to be able to sing it like you hear it. I want your feel.'”

Linda Creed joined Bell for “Love Me One More Time”, a song that typified the excellence of their songwriting and distinguished them from Bell’s partners in Mighty Three Music, Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. He recalls, “I had people say to me, ‘You’re producing Dionne Warwick. How come you and Kenny Gamble use the same musicians and make them sound so different?’ I said, ‘It’s very easy — Gamble and Huff are great writers of the soul. Creed and I are great writers of the heart.’ There’s a vast difference. It ain’t but about six inches apart, but it’s miles apart when it comes to feeling.”

Charles Simmons and Joseph Jefferson, whose collaborations with Bruce Hawes powered many of the Spinners’ biggest hits, penned the album’s closing song, “Once You Hit the Road”. In a sense, it was torn from the same chapter as “His House and Me”, with Warwick asking “What good is home if you can’t be true to one who’s been giving you love?” Bell cast “Once You Hit the Road” with an irresistible, uptempo arrangement, creating one of the set’s strongest cuts.

“Once You Hit the Road” was duly selected to lead Warner’s promo campaign for Track of the Cat. It debuted on the R&B singles chart the week ending 15 November 1975 and eventually climbed to #5 R&B. Track of the Cat peaked at #137 on the Billboard 200, the singer’s highest-charting pop album since her Warner debut. It fared even better on the R&B chart, where it reached #15, her best showing since one of her last Scepter albums, Very Dionne (1970).

However, “His House and Me” only reached #75 R&B when it was issued as a follow-up single in 1976. Bell remains philosophical about the relatively muted response to the project. “Track of the Cat itself is different,” he says. “When I go into the studio, I might not make a hit record, but I’ll always give you a good record. It might be a little too soon for people or a little too late for people, or maybe it’s not the right thing for people, but I will always invariably give you a good piece of product.”

Though more than 40 years have passed since he produced Track of the Cat, Bell can readily sing the melodies to a pair of songs that didn’t make the album. “One Last Memory”, which recalled the breezy elegance of Warwick’s early ’70s productions with Bacharach and David, and the tuneful “I Found Someone Else” were perfect contenders for the final cut. “The album was too long,” says Bell. “There were all of these great things I wanted to do, but there was a cost factor. The company didn’t want to pay.” Both songs were finally released on Real Gone Music’s We Need to Go Back: The Unissued Warner Bros. Masters (2013), a compilation of Warwick’s previously unreleased Warner Bros. material.

Following Warwick’s fifth and final Warner album Love at First Sight (1977), Clive Davis signed the singer to Arista Records where she’d experience one of the industry’s most celebrated career resurgences. Produced by Barry Manilow, Dionne (1979) spawned two Grammy-winning hits, “I’ll Never Love This Way Again” and “Dêja Vu”. The album ushered in a whole new era of critical acclaim, industry honors, and global success for the singer that continues to the present day.

Reflecting on her sessions with Thom Bell, who received the Recording Academy’s Trustees Award in 2017, Warwick feels an abiding sense of gratitude. “Thom is one of my dearest, dearest friends, and has been for a long time,” she said during her interview at the Apollo. “He was a delight to work with.” Indeed, Bell has produced and composed songs for several music icons, but his recordings with Dionne Warwick are of a special caliber. “No one sounded like Dionne,” he says. “I always wanted to give her the best that I could give her. In keeping with the name ‘Dionne Warwick’, I had to make sure the product was up to par.

“Whatever Dionne did, she did it excellently.”

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