There are days, even now, when only the sound of Dionne Warwick will do. How strange, then, that between 1972 and 1978, when she was in her prime and had the strength of a major record company behind her for the first time, she couldn’t buy a hit.
Try to put yourself in her shoes on the day in 1977 when she sat in the control room of A&R Studios in New York City with her new producers, Steve Barri and Michael Omartian, listening to this final mix. There would have been just a single thought in your head: whatever it is that makes a hit, this one’s got it.
Dionne had already been with Warner Bros for five years, after leaving the independent Scepter Records, where she had spent a decade and enjoyed that astonishing string of hits with Burt Bacharach and Hal David, to sign a $3m contract with a major label in the clear and reasonable expectation of further and even greater success. But her move coincided with the acrimonious sundering of the Bacharach/David partnership, which gave her new label a very nasty shock. The trio made one more album together — Just By Myself, released in 1973 — before a row between the two songwriters resulted in a prolonged series of lawsuits all round.
The hasty search to find new collaborators saw her shuffled, over the next six years, between Holland-Dozier-Holland, Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson, Jerry Ragovoy, Thom Bell, Randy Edelman and Joe Porter. Amazingly, none of them could come up with the hit for which she was so anxiously waiting in order to prove that her early success had not been completely dependent on her original Svengalis. The sessions with the Barri-Omartian team represented the last throw of the dice.
“Do You Believe in Love at First Sight” — which you’ll have heard if you clicked on the first link — is included in a compilation called The Complete Warner Bros Singles, which came out earlier this year on the Real Gone Music label, a Warner/Rhino offshoot. It astonishes me now, as it did then, that it failed to give her another hit. Curiously, the song — written by Frank McDonald, Chris Rae, Ron Roker and Gerry Shury — had been Britain’s entry in the previous year’s Eurovision Song Contest, when Polly Brown, late of Pickettywitch, brought it home in 10th place.
Polly Brown was a pretty good pop singer, but she wasn’t Dionne Warwick. This version of “Do You Believe in Love at First Sight” is irresistible: three minutes of pop perfection. If it lacks the emotional depth and musical inventiveness of a great Bacharach/David song, it is nevertheless beautifully constructed and performed, full of good things like a great hook, a bubbling bass line, an exultant lead vocal.
The earlier sessions with Jerry Ragovoy produced a track that is among my all-time Dionne favourites: in my view, her exquisitely sultry version of “I Can’t Wait to See My Baby’s Face” shades earlier treatments of this fine song by Baby Washington, Pat Thomas, Aretha Franklin, Dusty Springfield and even Dee Dee Warwick, Dionne’s sister — all of them terrific in their own right, with Dee Dee’s being the closest contender.
Dionne’s album with Thom Bell, Track of the Cat, contained some piercingly lovely songs, such as “His House and Me”, “Ronnie Lee”, “Love Me One More Time” and “Once You Hit the Road”, exposing the incomparable Philadelphia producer/arranger/composer’s debt to Bacharach, in particular the use of syncopation to create hooks. But Bell couldn’t repeat the formula that delivered “Then Came You”, with which he had given Warwick a No 1 in collaboration with the Spinners.
Fortunately, that wasn’t the end of the the story. After Dionne and Warner Bros parted company in 1978, a move to Arista and collaborations with Barry Manilow and Barry Gibb propelled her back into the charts. The preceding period was quietly forgotten as the Manilow-produced “I’ll Never Love This Way Again” and the Gibb-composed “Heartbreaker” lengthened the list of her greatest hits.
Now, in addition to the complete Warners singles collection, Dionne’s unhappy time with the Burbank label is commemorated by We’ve Got to Go Back, a new Real Gone Music compilation containing 19 songs that never found their way on to the release schedule. It’s aimed at completists and obsessives like me, I suppose, but the Holland-Dozier tracks “Too Far Out of Reach” and “It Hurts Me So” are fine examples of early-70s soul, and “Am I Too Late” and “I’ll Never Make It Easy (To Say Goodbye)”, supervised by Joe Porter, are gorgeous grown-up ballads. I wouldn’t want to be without them.
It was sad to read about the financial problems that drove her to declare bankruptcy earlier this year. She deserves better than that.
* The photograph of Dionne Warwick is from the sleeve of We Need to Go Back: The Unissued Warner Bros Masters and is uncredited.