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Happy birthday, Dionne Warwick

Dionne Warwick was spotted by Burt Bacharach while she was singing background on the Drifters’ “Mexican Divorce” with her sister Dee Dee, her aunt Cissy Houston and their friend Doris Troy in the summer of 1961. She was 20 years old. A year later she recorded “Don’t Make Me Over”, the first of her string of hits written by Bacharach and his lyricist, Hal David.

She had grown up singing gospel music alongside members of her family in the Drinkard Singers and the Gospelairs before studying music at a college in West Hartford, Connecticut. Her musicianship enabled her to cope with the unusual interval leaps and mixed time signatures that Bacharach introduced to the pop music of the early 1960s, blending R&B with Broadway; her poise, her control, her distinctive timbre and her avoidance of gospel gestures such as extravagant melisma and roughened texture made her voice the perfect instrument for this unique purpose.

I love almost everything Dionne ever did, from the early Bacharach masterpieces of “Anyone Who Had a Heart” and “Walk On By” right up to “I Can’t Wait Until I See My Baby’s Face” with Jerry Ragovoy and “His House and Me” with Thom Bell. But there’s a special place in my affections for an album called Here I Am, released in 1965, in which the Bacharach/David/Warwick combination reaches a series of peaks.

A couple of those peaks are ballads, written, arranged and performed with exquisite delicacy: “In Between the Heartaches” and “If I Ever Make You Cry”. But even more remarkable to my ear is “(Here I Go Again) Looking With My Eyes (Seeing With My Heart)”, an epic of orchestra pop remarkable not just for the double set of brackets in its title but for an astonishing swirling momentum driven not so much by a conventional rhythm section as by the strings, the choir and periodic fusillades of percussion: tympani, tubular bells, boo-bams. And on top of it all, Dionne is doing as she always has done, negotiating Bacharach’s melodic twists, inhabiting Hal David’s words, singing like a real person who happens to be in possession of a divine gift.

Today, it’s exactly 80 years since Marie Dionne Warrick was born in Orange, New Jersey. A very happy birthday to her, with deepest gratitude.

12 Comments Post a comment
  1. Peter Zec #

    Amen to that! Two programmes about her on BBC4 last night. She also tweeted (!) in last day or so. Don’t Make Me Over (so much control!) and the sultry Walk on By sit proudly amongst all sorts of other stuff on the iPod in my car.

    December 12, 2020
  2. Dawn Roberts #

    I saw those on BBC4 last night and loved her rendition of Barbara Striesand’s All Is Fair In Love.
    Happy Bithday Darling Dionne!

    December 12, 2020
  3. Adam White #

    Couldn’t agree more with your praise for, and wonderment about, Dionne. And yes, “Looking With My Eyes” is a truly extraordinary piece of work.

    December 12, 2020
  4. Andy Fortune #

    Maybe it’s because of “her avoidance of gospel gestures” that I’ve never really considered Dionne to be a soul singer, remarkable though she is.

    December 12, 2020
  5. ‘Here I am’ is one of the oddest hits ever ‘melody-wise’. It’s so avant-garde melodically. Maybe influenced by ‘Bali Hai’. There are so many other Dionne gems that failed as singles: ‘Odds & Ends’, ‘Walk The Way You Talk’, ‘Paper-Mache’ are three of the very best. I love the later ‘Be Aware’ from a point where Bacharach/David are becoming more meaningful and ‘message-orientated‘ both. I wish she’d have given a whirl to Jackie de Shannon’s ‘Come & Get Me’ … another Burt/Hal mesmeriser.

    December 12, 2020
  6. Thank you for this blog post. Clearly I have a lot to learn about Ms. Warwick and her recording career. Now I will find and listen to HERE I AM.

    December 12, 2020

    I love those great 60s recordings by Dionne Warwick, but I haven’t followed her subsequent career that closely – clearly my mistake. Earlier this year I bought a tremendous Ace/Kent compilation titled ‘Ready or Not – Thom Bell: Philly Soul Arrangements & Productions 1965-1978’ which concludes with a track by Dionne Warwick titled ‘Track of the Cat’. It’s apparently from an album of the same name, and if this (longish) title track is representative of the rest of the album it should be well worth seeking out. If she recorded other albums with Thom Bell, I may have some catching up to do!

    December 13, 2020
    • Andy Fortune #

      “Track Of The Cat” was the only album Dionne recorded with Thom Bell though he did produce her duet with the Spinners “Then Came You” and it’s B side “Just As Long As We Have Love”.
      Prior to that she recorded an album “Just Being Myself” with Holland and Dozier which is worth a listen.

      December 14, 2020
    • adycroasdell #

      Once You Hit The Road is a superb track from that album and on 45.

      December 14, 2020
    • Evan Parker #

      I am a bit late responding to this one. I don’t know how I missed it.
      Not much to add to what’s already been said, but the song “Here I Am” is my favourite on what is my favourite of the Scepter records. The alchemical formula Warwick/Bacharach/David
      has never been equalled. “Hasbrouck Heights” – a curative for those “tired of neon lights”.

      April 20, 2021
  8. I’m with you on Here I Go Again, a very interesting composition, delivered cannily. I must mention Lou Johnson who was Bacharach’s male vocal of choice and surpasses Dionne on some that they both covered.

    December 14, 2020
  9. thanetman1231 #

    Thank you Richard for your thoughtful and memorable tribute. Arguments about which genre she belongs to strike me as pointless, and essentially small-minded distractions. Her gifts exceed categories, save perhaps the Francophile concept of the chanteuse. I am impressed that she continues to revise and expand her core songbook with new material such as “99 Miles from LA” on her 2012 Now album. She certainly deserves our most sincere thanks and gratitude.

    December 17, 2020

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