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The Voice - Dionne

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The Voice

“Dionne is a magical singer,” Hal David exclaims. “She’s a very good musician.” He searches for just the right word to describe the woman who made so many of his lyrics famous. “She was a great collaborator.”

It’s an apt description. Far more than most artists who are linked to a songwriter or songwriting team, Dionne Warwick was virtually a third member of the Bacharach/David collaboration. She was so good in her role that Bacharach & David could write without any sense of constraint.

“The more I saw what she could do, the more chances I could take as a songwriter,” Bacharach said in 1995. “I could write something that could be a couple of octaves in ranch, something I wouldn’t dare do for another singer.”

“Technically, she could do almost anything,” David concurs. “She was unafraid. She was just far and away the best interpreter we had. She came to us very early in the game, and we just grew together.

“We had, over the years, recorded with some people who had wonderful voices but were surprisingly unmusical. It took forever to get it right – and sometimes [they] never [did]. With Dionne, it always came out right. It didn’t take much for her to grasp and express the nuances – the little something that’s impossible to put down on paper. You could explain it once and she would get it.”

David downplays the idea that he and Bacharach tailored songs for Warwick: “To a large extent, Burt and I just wrote songs and then we gave them to Dionne. She could do them all.”

“And she did it almost effortlessly,” Bacharach said in 1993. “The range didn’t matter. The difficulty didn’t matter. I don’t think there was another singer who could have listened, taken direction, and then delivered the way Dionne did.”

The granddaughter of a Methodist minister, Warwick is part of a musically gifted family. Her mother and her aunt, Cissy Houston, formed the Drinkard Singers and became stars on the gospel circuit. Houston, Warwick, and her sister Dee Dee Warwick sang as the Gospelaires.

It was as a member of the Gospelaires that Warwick met Bacharach. The group was hired to sing backgound vocals on The Drifters’ recording of the Bacharach/Hilliard song “Mexican Divorce.” Following the session, Warwick began making demo records for Bacharach & David. But she was too good to stay in that role for long: “It was quite clear she was unique and terrific,” David says.

In 1962 Warwick signed with Scepter Records and promptly landed here first national hit, “Don’t Make Me Over.” The opening lines of that song established key elements of Warwick’s recording persona: cool, assured, understated. As the song built to a stirring climax, it revealed Warwick’s remarkable range and control.

Warwick’s vocal mastery was even more apparent on “Anyone Who Had A Heart,” which became her first Top 10 hit in early 1964. The elegant torch song changes time signature in almost every bar. But Warwick keeps your focus on the emotion of the story, not the complexity of the composition. Critic Vince Aletti has called the recording one of Warwick’s best: “Dionne sings with an amazing combination of lovely purity and aching, uncomprehending emotion. The song smolder with a just-under-the-surface intensity that comes pounding up with unexpected force at the end, the closing cries all themore powerful for the opening restraint.”

Warwick put her gospel training to good us on “Walk On By,” which builds to a spirited call-and-response coda. The stylish single became Warwick’s second Top 10 hit and brought the diva her first Grammy nomination, for Best Rhythm and Blues Recoding of 1964. In 1998 it was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.

Like any great champion, Warwick makes even the most challenging feats seem effortless. She proved the point in 1968 with her seamless performance of “Promises, Promises,” a Broadway show-stopper that shifts time signatures with exhilarating abandon. Attempting to sing the song is like trying to ride a bucking bull. But Warwick hardly breaks a sweat.

One of Warwick’s most demanding assignments was “Check Out Time,” a brooding narrative ballad which appeared on her 1970 album, Very Dionne. As the story unfolds, Warwick builds from an almost cowering fear and hopelessness to a position of clarity and strength. An actress would do well to capture that journey in a two-hour movie; Warwick pulls it off in a three-minute pop song.

For all the sophisticated Bacharach/David songs that she has recorded, Warwick received her first two Grammy Awards for two comparatively light pieces, “Do You Know The Way To SanJose” and “I’ll Never Fall In Love Again.” But these songs, in their own way, tested her skills. “San Jose” is rather wordy, but Warwick never seems to strain. And her dry, understated approach to “I’ll Never Fall” makes the most of David’s witty lyric.

To Warwick’s chagrin, numerous performers – from Cilla Black to Cher – recorded “Alfie” before she did. But Warwick’s delicate, exquisitely nuanced version remains definitive. Warwick even found success in perhaps her most thankless errand – a remake of “This Guy’s In Love With You” that was released less than a year after Herb Alpert’s version soared to #1. If ever there was a song that didn’t need to be remade, this was it. But Warwick’s warm, subdued interpretation – less dramatic than Alpert’s, but no less heartfelt – made the Top 10 and brought her another Grammy nomination.

Throughout their long partnership, Warwick and Bacharach seemed to bring out the best in each other. In a 1987 profile in The New York Times, critic Stephen Holden observed: “While other singers and composers in the rock era have enjoyed fruitful longstanding professional relationships, none has had such oddly perfect chemistry as [Warwick and Bacharach]. In some mysterious way, is melodies bring out a lightness and urgency in her that no other composer has elicited. She, in turn, imbues his staccato punctuated melodies with an ideal blend of elegance and soul.”

In a separate 1987 interview, Bacharach put it more simply. “This lady belongs singing my song.”

When Bacharach & David had a falling out in 1973, the two men found themselves unable to work together, despite a prior agreement to produce an album a year for Warwick. In 1975 she sued them for breach of contract. Three years later she was awarded an out-of-court settlement.

In the ’70s and early ‘80s Warwick worked with such top producers as Holland-Dozier-Holland, Thom Bell, Barry Manilow, Barry Gibb and Luther Vandross. She made some excellent records, picking up two more Grammys in the process. But none of these hits made anyone forget the Bacharach/Warwick teaming.

The road to a rapprochement began in 1983, when Bacharach and Carole Bayer-Sager wrote “Finder Of Love Songs,” the theme song to an Aaron Spelling TV show. Spelling suggested that they have Warwick sing the song, Bacharach agreed and placed a call to his ex-partner.

“I invited him to my house, and it was a very emotional reunion,” Warwick said in 1987. “We sat around and reminisced and shed a few tears and it was mended.”

“Finder Of Lost Loves” turned out to be just the warm-up for “That’s What Friends Are For,” the gently philosophical ballad that became Warwick’s all-time biggest hit. The warm and graceful song was the #1 single of 1986 and brought Warwick her fifth Grammy Award. Warwick returned to the airwaves the following year with the sleek “Love Power.” It was her 35th chart hit composed by Bacharach.

“There’s something magical about the combination of Burt and Dionne,” Sager says. “I feel as if Dionne was born to sing Burt’s melodies, and he was born to compose for her.”

– Paul Grein

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