Q&A with Dionne Warwick ahead of her San Diego concert on Dec. 18
The singing legend, who turned 82 on Dec. 10, is on the road again. Our interview includes a bonus Q&A.
Before she became one of the biggest-selling female solo artists of the 20th century, Dionne Warwick was a teenaged piano major who earned tuition money as a background singer on records by The Drifters, Dinah Washington, Brook Benton, Solomon Burke and other vocal greats.
Now 82, the five-time Grammy Award-winner laughed heartily when asked what she learned as a young studio session singer that helped her when she became a solo artist in her own right.
“What I learned from working with them is that I didn’t want to become a solo artist!” Warwick said, laughing again.
“Well, they would sit and talk about the trials and tribulations of being out on the road,” replied the vocal legend, who performs Sunday at The Magnolia in El Cajon.
“And I said: ‘If that’s that’s what happened to you when you go on tour, I don’t want to be a part of it!’
“Doing sessions was helping me get through college and things were working out the way I wanted. But because I had a hit record, well, once you do, you have no choice but to follow it up. And that’s what I did.”
That hit, “Don’t Make Me Over,” was written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David. Bacharach discovered Warwick at the recording sessions for The Drifters’ “Mexican Divorce,” which featured backing vocals by Warwick, her sister, Dee Dee Warwick, her aunt, Cissy Houston (Whitney Houston’s mother), and her friend, Doris Troy.
Bacharach subsequently invited Warwick to do demo recordings of songs he and David were co-writing. It was the start of one of the most successful musical partnerships of the 1960s and beyond.
Burt Bacharach isn’t mellowing with age.
During their first decade as a team, Warwick made more than 30 hit singles, all by Bacharach (who wrote the music) and David (who penned the lyrics). Their classics included “Walk on By,” “Anyone Who Had a Heart,” “A House is Not a Home,” “Say a Little Prayer,” “This Girl’s in Love With You,” “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again” and “Do You Know the Way to San Jose,” which earned Warwick her first Grammy Award in 1967.
That victory made Warwick only the second Black American artist to win the a Grammy for Best Contemporary Female Vocal Performance. (The first went to Ella Fitzgerald in 1959.) In 1968, Warwick became the first Black American female artist to sing at a Royal Command Performance in London for the Queen of England.
Her worldwide record sales of more than 100 million attest to the enticing allure of Warwick’s svelte, soulful singing and her ability to make any Bacharach-David song her own.
“In the course of all my years recording and on the road, I never really saw what I do as anything but singing wonderful songs,” she said.
Warwick recently spoke by phone to the Union-Tribune for more than half an hour from her New Jersey home. Here are edited excerpts from that conversation.
Q: Two of your biggest hits are Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “Do You Know the Way to San Jose” and “Heartbreaker,” which was written by and features Barry, Robin and Maurice Gibb of The Bee Gees. You didn’t want to record either of those, did you?
A: Exactly. Those songs just didn’t feel like me. Hal looked at me like I had two heads when I told him I didn’t like “Do You Know the Way to San Jose!” Because of my affection for him, I did record it. “Heartbreaker” was the same thing. I told Barry: “It’s not me.” And he said: “It will be the biggest hit you ever had!” Between him and (Artista Records honcho) Clive Davis badgering me about the song, I did record it.
Q: How happy were you to have been proven wrong?
A: Let’s put it this way: With both those songs, I cried all the way to the bank.
Q: Burt Bacharach is classically trained and well-versed in jazz. The songs he co-wrote for you with Hal were very sophisticated and intricate, with challenging melodic and rhythmic structures, and twists no one else in pop music was doing. How steep a learning curve was that?
A: It was wonderful! It was like taking an exam every time I recorded with Burt and it helped me tremendously. He was a taskmaster, which was great.
Q: You have emphatically stated you will never sing hip-hop. How did “Nothing’s Impossible,” your charity duet song with Chance the Rapper last year, come about? Did it change your opinion of hip-hop?
“I only have one first show on my first-ever arena tour!”
A: I have nothing against hip-hop at all. But me becoming a hip-hop singer, that is never going to happen. Chance and I got together because of my son and worked out a relationship, a friendship.
Q: In the 1990s, you were very vocal in opposing gangsta-rap and its rampant misogyny. How did Snoop Dogg react when you met with him and some of his Death Row Records colleagues back then to call him out on his lyrics?
A: I’m sure that, at the time, they didn’t understand what I was saying. But as they grew older and started having families, they said: “Oh, that’s what she meant.” And if you notice what Snoop is recording these days, he has grown and matured.
Q: Like you, Aretha Franklin and Sam Cooke grew up singing in church and their parents were unhappy when they began performing secular music. How did your parents react when you started doing pop recording sessions as a teenager?
A: Both my parents were very supportive. It was something I could do. I could sing. I was making money. And I wasn’t singing words that were not palatable.
Q: In 1990, you made the album “Dionne Warwick Sings Cole Porter.” In 2019, you made “Only Trust Your Heart,” featuring 13 Great American Songbook classics by Sammy Cahn. Earlier in your career, you sang with Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Joe Williams. What is your first memory of jazz and how has it informed the way you create phrase your vocals?
A: It was a privilege to be in the same room with those icons and to perform with them. I was over the moon. But I don’t categorize music. It’s the same notes we all sing or play; it’s just a matter of how we decide to voice them. When I listen to people like Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan, who were considered to be absolute jazz singers, I just hear music.
Q: You knew Ella and Sarah.
A: Very well. They were two of my major mentors, along with Lena Horne, Diahann Carroll and, of course, “Mama” Marlene Dietrich.
Q: Marlene introduced you on stage when you made your Paris concert debut in the 1960s. Did Burt Bacharach play a hand in that, since he’d previously been her musical director?
A: Absolutely. Burt let her know I was coming to Paris and to please take care of me. And that she did, believe me!
Q: In 2020, you became known — almost overnight — as “The Queen of Twitter.” Why did tweeting strike such a big chord with you?
A: Basically, when I was introduced to it by my niece, Britney, I was looking at some of the things being said by young people on Twitter and it wasn’t pleasant. I felt they all needed to feel the presence of a grown-up online. Once my presence was established, I gave them words of encouragement, and also instruction, to always say what you want. I also (conveyed) there is a way to say it that isn’t ugly or nasty, and to always end with a smile. And I think they got it.
Q: Have your feelings about Twitter changed now that Elon Musk has bought, and is running, Twitter?
A: I don’t know yet. I know a lot of people are leaving Twitter. I have not met him. I need to meet him to see what his intent happens to be before I make my decision. I’ll wait and see what Elon Musk has in mind.
Q: Your 1995 album, “Aquarela do Brasil,” featured a terrific version of Duke Ellington and Juan Tizol’s “Caravan,” and some great songs by Dori Cayimi, Djavan and other top Brazilian songwriters. Did you get to know any of them and how did living in Brazil deepen your insights into performing that music?
A: Absolutely, I loved Brazil and still do. I considered it my second home and I got to know a lot of the people who have become friends and I revere my friendships with them. The music there is, as I’ve said so many times, a happy music and makes you smile, which is why I love not only listening to it but singing it.
Q: Do you speak Portuguese?
A: No! (laughs) Everyone in Brazil wanted to speak English with me!
Q: Did you get to know the great singer-songwriter Milton Nascimento?
A: Absolutely. Wonderful man. And I had the pleasure of recording with him on one of his albums, on the song “Bridges,” which he wrote.
Q: You started doing studio session work as a singer in your teens when you were a student at Hart College, which you attended after earning a scholarship. What were your goals?
A: I wanted to be a music teacher. Piano was my major and teaching was my minor.
Q: Did you manage to maintain your studies even after you became a full-time professional musician?
A: Yes. I finished my studies on the road. I prevailed upon my professor and he let me do that, so I was able to complete my studies while I was on tour.
Q: Ray Charles told me that when he was picking songs to record by other writers, he felt he had earned the right to change the music if he wanted. But he said that if he didn’t feel a deep and immediate emotional connection with the lyrics, why bother? What is your criteria when you are considering songs to record?
A: Well, lyrics are absolutely first for me. I’m very, very conscious of the message I’m getting to people’s ears and I have to want to sing what I’m singing. So, as far as I’m concerned, the best lyricist was Hal David.
Q: Hal was 10 years older than you and a lot of his lyrics seemed to be expressing the perspective of someone who had more life experiences than you had at such a young age.
A: He was. And I was expressing for him, in song, the way he was feeling.
Q: The new movie, “Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” opens on Dec. 23. Whitney and you were first-cousins. Did you have any involvement in the movie?
A: None, whatsoever.
Q: Would you have been open to providing your input?
A: If asked, of course. But that was not something I was asked to do, or felt obliged to do.
Q: What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Whitney?
A: That I miss her very, very much.
Q: Is it coincidental you and Whitney were both signed to a record label run by Clive Davis?
A: No, not necessarily, He ran a record company and he had good taste.
Q: The documentary “Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over”
was released last year. Has there been any talk about making a feature film about you?
A: Yeah, I’ve been approached at times. I think the documentary truly speaks for me. I’m not sure if a (feature) film is what should be happening yet.
Q: Are you closed to the idea?
A: No, I’m not opposed to it.
Q: You have so many hit songs to your credit that it would seem quantitatively impossible to fit them all in one show. How do you decide what to include?
A: I sort of have an idea as to what people really want to hear and expect me to sing. I’ve been pretty successful so far!
Q: Am I right that there are more songs than you can fit in a single concert?
A: Yeah. I have a medley I have done on several occasions, an almost 40-minute-long medley! It’s a lot of singing, believe me.
Q: Are there songs you stretch out on in concert?
A: All of them! Every single one of them! And I take the liberty of updating them.
Q: How were you impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown of live events?
A: It will sound completely insane when I say this, but I had the best time. Those two years gave me a chance to get to know me again, to get to know my home again and sleep in my own bed. It was wonderful for me. Fortunately, I stayed healthy and I was not affected by the pandemic at all.
Q: Did being off the road that long impact your singing?
A: It wasn’t really affected at all. I liken my voice and my ability to sing to a God-given gift. And I never did things with it that were not good for my vocal cords. This is a very special gift and if I had done something detrimental to it, (God) would take it away.
Q: How often do you practice your singing when you are at home?
A: I never do. When I sing, I do it as my profession and I take it very seriously. I remember being on tour with Johnny Mathis and he was a stickler for warming up before he went on. He would warm up for at least an hour before he went on stage.
I asked him: “Aren’t you hoarse by the time you get out on stage?” He said: “No, I need to warm up for an hour.” And I said: “My opening song is my warm up!”
When: 8 p.m. Sunday
Where: The Magnolia, 210 East Main St., El Cajon
Tickets: $49.50-$64.50, plus service fees.
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