Dionne Warwick knows how to own a pop standard. From “I Say a Little Prayer” to “That’s What Friends Are For,” that voice—smooth, romantic, indelible—has made her part of the soundtrack of American life. “They’re definitely my songs,” the 78-year-old legend says of the hits she’s racked up over five decades. “Even with multitudes of others singing them, they still know whose song it really is.”No argument there. Warwick was a 21-year-old backup singer when composer Burt Bacharach first heard her voice.“He asked if I’d do a demo recording of songs he was writing with his partner, Hal David,” she recalls. The collaboration resulted in her first smash, 1963’s “Walk on By.” Dozens of memorable, melancholy tunes followed. “Every song had a message of hope, inspiration, joy and tears,” says Warwick, who went on to sell more than 100 million records and win five Grammys.
Born Marie Dionne Warrick (the label misspelled her surname on her first record, and she decided to use it professionally), the singer grew up immersed in music in East Orange, N.J. Her father, Mancel, was a Pullman porter, while her mother, Lee, worked in a lightbulb factory and sang with gospel’s Drinkard Singers. That group also included Lee’s sister Cissy Houston, mother of future superstar Whitney. After honing her voice in church, Warwick took her cues from stylists