“I’ve always considered myself first and foremost a messenger,” says legendary singer Dionne Warwick. “That applies to anyone who has the ability to reach people by singing or writing music. We bring the joy that people need to hear, especially with what’s going on in the world right now.”
Born Marie Dionne Warrick on December 12, 1940, in the small town of Orange, New Jersey, she became one of the most successful hitmakers of the past seven decades. Between 1962 and 2000, she placed 69 singles on the Billboard charts, with worldwide record sales of 75 million singles and 25 million albums.
Like many African American contemporaries, including her aunt Cissy Houston who worked with Elvis Presley and Aretha Franklin, and niece Whitney Houston, Warwick’s musical roots can be traced to the church. “It was major. Coming from a gospel-singing family where really everyone was my mentor, that type of music has been with me all of my life. It’s still a big part of it, because you learned early on to understand the worth of a lyric, what it means, and the value of a melody. That background helped me tremendously when I started singing more commercial music.”
Following a chance meeting with the equally legendary songwriting team of Burt Bacharach and Hal David and being signed in 1962 by Scepter Records owner Florence Greenberg, the combined partnership resulted in a long run of hugely successful singles, including “Walk on By,” “Anyone Who Had a Heart,” “I Say a Little Prayer,” “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again” and “Do You Know the Way to San Jose.”
After the association ended in the early ’70s, Warwick found it hard replicating her success with a new label, Warner Brothers. However, she found new life in the ’80s with Clive Davis’ Arista Records, recording such huge hits as the Bee Geespenned “Heartbreaker,” and also “That’s What Friends Are For,” with guest artists Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight and Elton John. She was also part of the star-studded chorus on the multiplatinum single, “We Are the World.”
Following a long absence from recording, Warwick returned in 2019 with the appropriately titled album She’s Back. “I picked the title because people were literally accosting me and asking when I’m making a new album,” she says with a laugh. “So I finally thought, ‘Well, let’s see how I can quiet these people down. Now they know!’ ”
GOLDMINE: As a child, what was the first music that really made an impression on you?
DIONNE WARWICK: There was this disc jockey in New York named William B. Williams on station WNEW. Every single morning, as soon as I got up to get ready for school, that was the first station my mom would put on. So through him, I was exposed to a wide variety of music. He made sure his audience heard a wealth of different sounds, so it wasn’t unusual to hear Ella Fitzgerald, followed by Pavarotti and then Frankie Lymon and The Teenagers. We got to hear some of the greatest music ever, and I really don’t understand what we’re listening to today.
GM: The way music is distributed now is of course very different, so how do you feel about music being streamed over the internet?
DW: Personally, I think streaming is horrible. It seems to be the same 10 records over and over. Nobody is innovative or being creative with regard to what music is all about. A lot of young artists don’t even know what a recording studio is, and there aren’t really any more real record companies. The music industry is no longer the industry that I knew. Everything is computerized and on the internet now with bells on, but the kids like it.
GM: Before you achieved success as a solo recording artist, who were some of the well-known performers that you did backup singing for, on their records?
DW: Oh, my goodness, it started with The Drifters, a group called The Exciters, Ray Charles, Chuck Jackson, Maxine Brown, Dinah Washington, Brook Benton…Golly, there was also a whole list of other people who were just coming up that we were able to do those wonderful “oohs” and “aahs” and “yeah, yeahs” behind them.
GM: Was Ben E. King still a member of The Drifters when you when you sang on “Mexican Divorce,” the first hit record you were part of?
DW: No, Ben E. had already left and had become a successful solo act by that time. Rudy Lewis had taken over as the lead singer for The Drifters when I recorded with them, but most of the original Drifters were still there.
GM: Any special memories of Dinah Washington?
DW: No, not really, but she had a voice that people are still trying to copy.
GM: How did you first meet Florence Greenfield, who was so important to your early career?
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