Five-time Grammy winner Dionne Warwick has been in the news for large and small reasons throughout 2023. It began with a biographical documentary, “Don’t Make Me Over,” that aired on CNN on Jan. 1, followed by the death on Feb. 8 of composer Burt Bacharach, who wrote most of her hits with lyricist Hal David.
On a lighter note, she collaborated on a gospel song with Dolly Parton, “Peace Like a River,” and made social media posts, giving props to rapper Doja Cat for sampling “Walk On By,” one of her Bacharach and David hits.
On Dec. 3, Warwick will be recognized for her more than 60 chart hits and activism at the Kennedy Center Honors, a Washington, D.C., ceremony that annually celebrates people in the performing arts who have made significant contributions to American culture. Other members of her class are Billy Crystal, Renée Fleming, Queen Latifah and Barry Gibb of the Bee Gees, who wrote Warwick’s 1982 hit “Heartbreaker” with his late brothers Robin and Maurice.
Warwick, 82, discussed the high points of her career in a recent phone interview from her home in New Jersey, where she was born in 1940.
She is the niece of gospel singer Cissy Houston and the first cousin of the late Whitney Houston, Cissy’s daughter. She got her start in music singing in church and as a teenager joined a gospel group that won an amateur night contest at Harlem’s famed Apollo Theater.
From there, she put herself through college doing session work in recording studios, gaining the attention of Bacharach and David, who launched her solo career. She recorded for Scepter Records throughout the 1960s and then spent five years with Warner Bros. Records in the 1970s. Producer Clive Davis invited her to join his label Arista, in the 1980s, launching a resurgence in her career and hits such as “I’ll Never Love This Way Again.” Davis went on to mentor Whitney Houston.
The interview touched on many of these topics, as well as taking a detour into “The Masked Singer,” a Fox game show that had her performing dressed up as “the Mouse” in 2020.
Here are the highlights.
Congratulations on your upcoming Kennedy Center honor. Do you have any thoughts about that?
Very excited. And thrilled to finally be recognized for my body of work.
Do they include you in the planning, or will they just surprise you?
I kind of made it clear that I’d like to be totally involved.
How do you narrow down your wide repertoire for your concerts?
It’s not an easy task, I’ll tell you that, to narrow it down. But after doing this for as long as I have, I get feedback from people. “This is my favorite song,” or, “Are you going to sing this one?” They basically almost put the show together themselves.
What are the songs that you absolutely can’t get off the stage without doing?
A lot. There’s “Walk On By” of course, “Say A Little Prayer,” “San Jose,” “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again.” The repertoire is basically the recordings that everybody has supported over the years.
What are the challenges of singing Burt Bacharach and Hal David songs, not just the music but the lyrics?
The lyrics are the easiest part of singing. Hal David, I never referred to him as a lyricist. I referred to him as a poet. He had an indelible way of speaking to the heart, not at it. I was a joy to be able to sing and say words that people actually needed to hear and wanted to hear.
The music was complex at times, wasn’t it?
Absolutely. I’ve always said that Burt marched to his own drummer. If you wanted to sing his music you had to march along with him. The fortunate part of it was that I’m a music student and I read music. It was almost like taking an exam every time I sang his melodies.
What did you learn from singing in church?
The value of words, and the meaning of words. Just basically the feeling that gospel music gave me. It was a feeling of joy and hope and inspiration, all the things that I think people really need.
There are complex emotions in Bacharach and David songs. Is that hard to navigate?
Sometimes, but you’re giving the feelings of the composer. I don’t know how, I guess it’s just an innate talent that I have, of portraying what was being said. You know, you kind of have a way of pulling emotions out of yourself when you see and read a certain passage. I was much too young on many of the occasions that I sang Hal David’s lyrics. People kept say, “Boy, you’ve lived a hard life.” I hadn’t begun my life yet. This was the life of the man who wrote those words.
Have audiences changed over the years?
Oh yeah. Absolutely. And for the better, actually. I must say that. The age range has changed quite a bit. I’m seeing more and more youngsters sitting in the audience.
You recently put up a video about Doja Cat sampling “Walk On By.”
Yes, even she has said, “Oh, this is good music. Let’s see what I can do with this.”
What was it like doing “The Masked Singer”?
It was the most fun I’ve had in a long time. It was wonderful. I knew that I was not going to last on the show very long. Everybody recognizes my voice almost immediately. It was a joy to be able to sing at least twice on the show.
Was the costume comfortable?
Hm-mmm. Everybody was saying, “Was that a heavy thing?” It was as light as a feather. I don’t know about the other contestants, but mine was really very, very light, and I loved the gown they had me in. They wanted to continue the elegance that I portray on stage. And as terrified as I am of mice, I had a mouse on my head. It was the cutest little thing!
Can I ask you about the Apollo Theater? What does that venue mean to you?
That’s where I actually did my very first stage performance. The gospel singers who were doing the program there had the night off. And I and the other members of the Gospelaires entered the contest and won. There’s the old saying, if you can make it at the Apollo Theatre you can make it anywhere, and that is absolutely the truth. That particular audience has seen it all. And they will let you know, yeah, you got it or no, you don’t have it without any reservations whatsoever.
Do you recall the first time you were in a recording studio?
Oh sure I do. We did background work. The very first session we did was for Sam “The Man” Taylor and Matthew Brown at Savoy Records. We were teenagers at that time. And then we did background for many, many incredible artists of the time. I remember vividly when I first met Burt, as a matter of fact. We were doing a background session for the Drifters. And there was a song that Burt had written with another songwriter, Bob Hilliard — God rest him. It was called “Mexican Divorce.”
What was the Scepter label like?
“Florence Greenberg, who owned and operated Scepter Records, was a typical Jewish mother. The joy of being part of the Scepter roster was that we were all treated like her children. She was very, very caring. She looked after us. She wanted to make sure that we were well taken care of and loved. She coddled us and she scolded us. She did all the things that a mother would do. I got to know her very, very well. It was a sad day when they had to shut down Scepter Records.
How about Arista?
Arista had the same feeling. That was the joy after leaving Warner Bros. I have an analogy to my adventures in the record companies that I’ve been with. Scepter Records, my mom, sent me to my uncle’s at Warner’s. And I left my uncle’s and went to my surrogate father at Arista — Clive Davis. I was back with my family.
Barry Gibb is going to be honored alongside you at the Kennedy Center.
I’m very excited about that. Barry’s a dear friend, and I’m really looking forward to hanging out with him. And I was also very excited that Queen Latifah, a young lady from East Orange, N.J., where I’m from, is also being honored. It’s going to be an old home week.”