Interview: Dionne Warwick
Generally speaking, the seasoned showbiz pros tend to be the easiest to interview. No strangers to the rules of the game, they are the ones most likely to give generous, articulate, eminently quotable answers. Deploying their natural charm from the off, they will quickly establish a friendly rapport.
All rules of thumb have their exceptions, and Dionne Warwick has not always given her interrogators the smoothest of rides. Talking on the phone to EG earlier this week, she was certainly never less than courteous – but it was a cool, distanced, rather formal courtesy, which left you in no doubt that telephone interviews are not exactly her idea of fun. It took a concerted charm offensive to soften her guard – but as the interview progressed, her tone grew warmer, her answers more fulsome, and her laughter more frequent.
In recent years, Dionne has become something of a regular visitor to this city, which has been chosen as the first destination on her forthcoming British tour. Clearly, we must be doing something right. “Nottingham has always been very good for me, of course”, she explained. “It’s like most of the UK, which has always been wonderfully receptive.”
On this tour, which goes out under the title My Music and Me, the music will be interspersed with anecdotes from the singer’s 47 years in show business. “You’ll be getting my life story through my music”, she revealed, but she seemed reluctant to be drawn further.
Would this be “from beginning to end”, I enquired, pressing for a little more detail. “From beginning to now”, she corrected, smoothing over the gaffe (and subsequent stuttering apology) with a light peal of laughter.
Naturally, no Dionne Warwick show would be complete without a selection of the Bacharach/David material with which she earned her reputation in the 1960s. Forty years on, these finely crafted classics have been “updated and brought into the 21st century, but primarily you’ll be getting them as they were first recorded. I still enjoy singing them. They’re a big part of me.” The songs were also written specifically for Dionne’s voice, rather than being plucked from a pre-existing pool: an enviable position for any artist to be in.
For many of us, the likes of Walk On By, Anyone Who Had A Heart and Do You Know The Way To San Jose have the power to evoke a kind of lost golden age. Although too much nostalgia can be deceptive at times, Dionne is happy to help us indulge for a while: “It’s always wonderful to remember the good times in your life.” However, when asked to identify her own golden age, the reply was unexpected and somewhat puzzling: “I’ve been truly blessed, but I think I’m still heading towards that golden age.” As to whether she could imagine anyone looking back on the hit music of the 21st century as a golden age: “Not too readily”. The knowing chuckle which followed spoke volumes.
One of Warwick’s greatest qualities as a vocalist is the restrained elegance which she brings to her interpretations. The emotions are clearly expressed, but without resorting to the sort of over-elaborate trills and cadenzas which have infected so many of today’s aspiring divas. Again, a diplomatic reply: “That is their way of approaching things, apparently – and it’s not something that I would practice.”
A new gospel album, Why We Sing, is due out soon. Although many wouldn’t associate Dionne with the gospel tradition, it was in fact the music that she started out with: singing at the local Methodist church from childhood onwards, before forming a vocal quartet (The Gospelaires) at the age of eighteen. Her first big break in the music industry followed a couple of years later.
“I was doing a background session with the Drifters, performing a song [Mexican Divorce] by Burt Bacharach and Bob Hilliard. Burt approached me to do more background work, and demonstration records of songs that he was writing with Hal David. I agreed, and that’s how it all began.” The new three-way partnership soon led to Warwick’s signing as a solo artist, and a debut single (Don’t Make Me Over) that became an instant national hit.
Following such swift success, when did Dionne first realise that her career was secure? “Never. That would have been a little presumptuous, I think! The business is so fickle, and it’s always what the listening ear decides that they want to be listening to. You can’t second-guess people’s thoughts and emotions, and how they happen to feel about a certain sound.”
Another key stage in most artists’ careers comes when the hit-making period is over. Dionne had a longer run than most – indeed, only Aretha Franklin has placed more solo female hits in the Billboard Hot 100 – but how easy did she find it to adjust when the hits began to peter out?
“I happen to be a realist. I approach not only my recording career, but my life generally, as it is. Life has its ups and downs, but it also gave me opportunities to do some of the things that normal people do, as opposed to running around through airports and onto planes. I had an opportunity to start my family, and to realise that there are other priorities that take precedence.”
Although this 67-year old veteran has shown no signs of slowing down, that doesn’t mean that she hasn’t been thinking about it, with some measure of anticipation. “Soon I will be. This is 47 years now, and I’m looking at putting a little bit of a trim on it, very very soon. At this time in my career, it’s time to start thinking about that.”
With these remarks in mind, that earlier comment about a golden age yet to come makes a lot more sense – and perhaps, with imminent retirement looming ever closer, it might also explain that initial frostiness. Why should she have to play the game, when the match is nearly over and won?
That said, there is another key aspect of Warwick’s public life which shows no signs of slowing down. “I’m still supportive of the AIDS issue. Unfortunately it hasn’t gone away, and I made a complete promise that I would stay on board. I likened it to a train ride: we must stay until we get to the very end, and everything is the way it is supposed to be. We have to eradicate it; we really do.”