Anyone Who Had a Heart

In the late 1980s, I attended the Royal Albert Hall to see Dionne Warwick in concert. By that time, I had become obsessed with her renditions out of the Burt Bacharach/Hal David songbook and I just had to see the lady perform them live. On the night, song after song hit the spot and she herself was a consummate performer. I figured then, I’d only see her once and that has proved to be the case, but after watching ‘Don’t Make Me Over,’ the recent documentary on her life and career, I have begun once again, to listen to her back catalogue and man, it is still something else.

She was born Marie Dionne Warrick in East Orange, New Jersey in the December of 1940. Her dad Mancel worked as a porter on the railways for the Pullman company and her mum Lee, was the manager of The Drinkard Singers , a well-known and very popular gospel group from the area. Young Marie sang in Baptist church and gospel choirs from the age of 6. After finishing High School, she then studied at the Hart College of Music. Her and her sister Dee Dee, then formed a gospel group themselves, The Gospelaires and performed at The Apollo in Harlem. There one evening, the door opened to a new career.

Dionne –  ‘A man came running frantically backstage at the Apollo and said he needed background singers for a session for Sam ‘the Man’ Taylor and old big-mouth here spoke up and said, ‘We’ll do it!’ and we left and did the session. I wish I remembered the gentleman’s name because he was responsible for the beginning of my professional career.’ 

As a result of the session going well, she started to pick up backing vocal work at recording sessions in New York, working for the likes of The Drifters, Ben E. King, Chuck Jackson, Dinah Washington, Ronnie ‘the Hawk’ Hawkins, and Solomon Burke. 

It was also whilst working there, that she met Burt Bacharach and Hal David, whilst singing in on their song Mexican Divorce.

As Burt said at the time  – ‘She has a tremendous strong side and a delicacy when singing softly — like miniature ships in bottles.’

She signed to Burt and David’s production company and they in turn signed with Scepter records in 1962. She released her first solo single Don’t Make Me Over that year  which went to number 21 in the US charts. A printing mistake saw her surname spelt as Warwick  on the record label, which she liked and then adopted.  Her debut album ‘Presenting Dionne Warwick’ was released in early 1963, containing the original demo of Make it Easy on Yourself, a song which had been given to Jerry Butler as a single. After leaving school to pursue her new career, she immediately toured France and was crowned the ‘Black Pearl’ in Paris when her fans realised, she was black. The confusion was caused by the record company putting a white woman on the cover of her records as was standard back then. The highlight of that tour was headlining The Olympia and being introduced on stage by Marlene Dietrich, who had taken the young Dionne to her heart.

Wonderful songs then followed in the next couple of years, including Wishin’ and Hopin’, The Look of Love  Anyone Who Had a Heart, Walk on By, and of course, Do You Know the Way to San Jose.

She married William Elliott in 1966, but quickly changed her mind.  However, after a ‘quickie’ divorce, they got back together in 1967, and went on to have two sons, David in 1973 and Damon in 1975. That was also the year they separated, this time for good.

Her sister Dee Dee also went on to have a successful singing career, as did her maternal aunt Cissy, a well-respected gospel performer, and the mother of Whitney Houston.

Her mid to late ‘60s period saw hits with Message to Michael, Alfie, Trains and Boats and Planes, (The Theme from) Valley of the Dolls, I’ll Never Fall in Love Again, I Just Don’t Know What to do With Myself and I Say a Little Prayer.

By the end of 1971, she had sold in excess of 35 million records internationally, and that  year she left Scepter Records for Warner Bros. picking up a $5million contract as she did so. Her biggest hit with her new label, being the duet Then Came You with the Spinners.

She left Warner at the end of that contract and signed to Arista in 1979 and hit the charts almost immediately with I’ll Never Love This Way Again (one of my dad’s favourite tunes, by the way)  which also won her a Grammy. Then in 1982 she had a massive hit with Heartbreaker, written for her by The Bee Gees,  which went on to sell over 3 million copies worldwide.

As part of the USA for Africa campaign which ran alongside the Band Aid project in 1985, she sang on We Are the World alongside Diana Ross, Ray Charles, and Michael Jackson, who also co-wrote the track with Lionel Ritchie. By this time, Dionne was living in Brazil, and she stayed there for near on 23 years.

After a few acrimonious years, she reunited with Burt Bacharach, for the song That’s What Friends Are For, which he had co-written with his then wife, Carole Bayer Sager.

‘We realised we were more than just friends. We were family. Time has a way of giving people the opportunity to grow and understand. Working with Burt is not a bit different from how it used to be. He expects me to deliver and I can. He knows what I’m going to do before I do it, and the same with me. That’s how intertwined we’ve been.’

She was joined on that single by Gladys Knight , Elton John and Stevie Wonder and the single was used to raise funds for the American Foundation for AIDS Research. 

It went on to raise over three million dollars for the cause.

Working against AIDS, especially after years of raising money for work on many blood-related diseases such as sickle-cell anaemia, seemed the right thing to do. You have to be granite not to want to help people with AIDS, because the devastation that it causes is so painful to see. I was so hurt to see my friends die with such agony. I am tired of hurting and it does hurt.’

In quieter times, during the 1990s, she fronted ‘info-mercials’ for the Psychic Friends Network, and earned, it was said, 3 million dollars as their spokesperson. The company later filed for bankruptcy in 1998.

‘It was during a period of time when I was not recording. You know, it kept the lights on in my house and food on my table. It was an earning power. I earned money that I normally would have earned if I was on the road. It’s very simple. You ask anybody in the world: ‘What’s your sign?’ and they’ll say it.’

As a ying to that yang, in 2002, she was nominated to be Goodwill Ambassador of the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations.

Due to various accountancy mismanagement issues she was then declared bankrupt in 2013, owing nearly $10 million in personal and business taxes. Of course, she fought back and appeared on a variety of TV shows and undertook a residency in Las Vegas. To signify that she was back in the game, she picked up a lifetime achievement Grammy in 2019. To date, her records have now sold over 100 million copies worldwide

Elton John – ‘(her songs) are just perfect works of art. They were a bit like Picassos.’

Burt Bacharach – ‘Dionne had this huge range, (when we first 

met in 1961) she had pigtails and dirty white sneakers and she just shone. She’s very delicate, and then she’s very explosive. Very unusual to have a singer who can do that.’

Last word to the lady herself – ‘The music I was singing was nothing like anything that any of them were singing, black or white. So, they really didn’t know what to do with me. (I’ll continue) as long as I’m giving people the pleasure that they seem to have when they come to my concerts, and I’m doing it to the best of my ability. But when I feel that I have altered in any way, vocally, appearance wise, or any of the other things that go along with it, that’s when I should gracefully bow out. 

Well, you know, nothing lasts for ever.’


The Mumper of SE5

Read The Mumper’s other weekly musings on ‘The Speakeasy’ blog page




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