A Conversation with Dionne Warwick

  • Post author:
  • Reading time:13 mins read

December 19, 2019
By Todd Sussman
Photos by David Vance

The words “legendary” and “iconic” are often overused these days, but in Dionne Warwick’s case, they truly apply. Her impact on popular song is immeasurable. Now, the intimate setting of Dionne’s new Las Vegas show is offering fans the chance to see her up close. During our telephone conversation, we discussed that and so much more. All you have to hear is one word from her mellifluous speaking voice, and you know you are talking to a star. 

Dionne Warwick

Todd Sussman: Ms. Warwick, I am elated to be talking with you today. This has been an extremely busy year for you, with two new albums released, a new Las Vegas residency, an upcoming international tour, and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement award, and that’s not even all of it. So first, I must say a huge “thank you” for carving out this time to speak with me.

Dionne Warwick: It’s my pleasure.

Todd: Where do you get the energy for this schedule?

Dionne: (laughs) I’m still wondering myself.

Todd: Frank Sinatra once said you have “the most difficult talent of all in music—staying power.” Many artists have come and gone in the almost six decades since you first started.

Dionne: That’s so true. I thank him for the compliment. That’s for sure.

Todd: You called Frank Sinatra “Papi,” and he considered you a surrogate child. What did you learn from him?

Dionne: Just to be who I am, as he told me a long time ago. That’s what I learned.

Todd: Your beautiful and unique sound invokes emotions in the listener—sometimes romantic, sometimes somber, sometimes joyful, sometimes inspirational, sometimes all of the above. When did you first recognize you had this unique, one-of-a-kind sound?

Dionne: Well, my sound is a mixture of my family, of course. I come from a gospel-singing family. I was just singing the words and the melodies that were written for me and given to me to sing, and I sang.

Todd: What are your criteria for selecting songs to record?

Dionne: Words that I don’t mind saying, that have meaning, and of course, a melody that’s memorable.

Todd: In addition to your expansive catalog of solo albums, you have an entire alternative discography of guest appearances—over 100! On these recordings, you cover a wide range of musical genres, including pop, soul, rhythm and blues, jazz, gospel, lullabies for children, and even television theme songs. It is staggering. What led you to say “yes” to all of these recordings?

Dionne: Well, basically, it’s something that I do normally. And it’s always wonderful to be able to enhance my abilities to do other types of music.

Todd: You are a best friend of the Great American Songbook. The standards—in your hands and, of course, your voice—are magical. Two of your albums that immediately come to mind are the ones devoted, respectively, to the music of Cole Porter [Dionne Warwick Sings Cole Porter] and Sammy Cahn [Only Trust Your Heart]. Is that kind of writing a lost art form?  

Dionne: I believe at this point in time, yes, because of the age group of people who are writing songs today.

Todd: You had a prolific and historic collaboration with Bacharach and David. Recently, Clive Davis said: “Her records with Hal David and Burt Bacharach create the most meaningful artist/composer relationship I can think of in contemporary music history.” It yielded a cavalcade of hits for you, including “Walk on By,” “I Say a Little Prayer,” “Do You Know the Way to San Jose,” and many, many more. When did you first realize you had a recipe for success with that partnership?

Dionne: Well, I don’t think we ever realized that was the criteria. The criteria was to get good music out to people’s ears, and fortunately, that’s exactly what we did.

Todd: After a decade of one hit after the next, Bacharach, David, and you had a well-documented, professional parting of the ways. But just over a decade after that break-up, you and Burt were making beautiful music together again, including the number-one song, “That’s What Friends Are For.” What steps were involved to renew the collaboration?

Dionne: Basically, us. The friendship never really ended. It was just a matter of, when we parted, it was because of, unfortunately, Bacharach and David decided they were not writing together any longer. It did not dilute the friendship between Burt and Hal with myself. It was quite easy when Burt brought me a wonderful song to sing.

Todd: You also wrote a song of your own – both the words and music. The song is called “Two Ships Passing in the Night,” which first appeared on your 1983 album, How Many Times Can We Say Goodbye.  This year, you re-recorded it for She’s Back.I think it is simply elegant. What or who inspired you to write that song?

Dionne: You know, I don’t know. I was in Palm Springs when I wrote that. It was a thousand and twelve years ago (laughs). It just happened. Nothing specific. I guess I was supposed to write a song that night.

Todd: Have you written any other songs after that?

Dionne: No, I haven’t.

Todd: The very first time I saw you perform live was in Miami Beach, Florida, in 1979. For “I’ll Never Love This Way Again,” you expanded on the studio version and added a dramatic coda. Instead of a fade out like on the record, for the final lyric, “hold on,” you did just that. You held onto that final note for an eternity. It seems you wanted to give the audience an experience beyond the recording.  

Dionne: Well, first of all, you can’t fade out when you’re performing live (laughs). There’s no way to do that. So to give an ending to a song, that’s what you have to do.

Todd: It was brilliant. In concert you always offer something creative and different than the studio recordings. What goes into mapping out one of your shows? 

Dionne: Well, you know, when you record, it’s one thing. You are standing in front of a microphone and in the studio. When you’re performing, it’s before an audience, and you want them to feel and hear the emotional part of the song that has been recorded. It’s two different entities, performing live and recording.

Todd: Your current live endeavor is a residency in Las Vegas at Caesar’s Palace. You are performing there at Cleopatra’s Barge, a smaller, much more intimate room than the usual, grand concert halls you have graced. I read the seating capacity is 165 people in this venue. What is that like for you, to have the audiences so close? 

Dionne: It is wonderful to be able to look directly into the face of someone, and literally to speak to them directly, and to be able to know that they are enjoying what is being done.

Todd: Coming soon is your international tour, She’s Back: One Last Time. Your tour stops include Belfast, Dublin, Glasgow, Liverpool, London—the list goes on. I was taken aback when I saw the words “one last time.” Are you saying farewell to touring abroad or to touring period?

Dionne: No. I am saying I am slowing down, basically.

Todd: And you surely deserve to. The humanity in your music has never shone more brightly than in your recordings designed to increase awareness and raise funds for a particular cause, including “We Are the World,” to end hunger in Africa, and “That’s What Friends Are For,” for AIDS research and prevention. Have you seen how music has made a difference in addressing these issues?

Dionne: Absolutely. We were able to do a multitude of good with food going to Africa with “We Are the World,” and I’m certain that you’ve been noticing how we’ve improved the medical areas of the HIV/AIDS cause.

Todd: Excellent. On December 28, you will appear at the Peace Starts with Me rally at the Prudential Center, in Newark, New Jersey, a gathering of thousands of people from a wide variety of national, racial, and religious backgrounds, to stand united for peace. Will you be singing or speaking or both?

Dionne: I will be singing.

Todd: Are you able to share what you will be singing?

Dionne: “What the World Needs Now Is Love,” because there is not a better song to sing.

Todd: Beautiful. A few years ago, you released some gorgeous Brazilian songs—five previously unreleased outtakes—from your Aquarela do Brasil sessions. The original album from 1994 was a passion project for you.

Dionne: In addition to those songs that I had put on an EP [the mini album, Tropical Love], as opposed to a full CD, I do intend to do another Brazilian CD. I have no clue as to when, but it will be done. That’s for sure.  

Todd: Musicals built on an artist’s catalog of hits are very popular on Broadway…from ABBA to Cher to Donna Summer to Tina Turner, just to name a few. Are there any plans for a Dionne Warwick Broadway show?

Dionne: Um, I don’t know. That’s something to give thought to. There is a possibility of that.

Todd: You have taken on a few acting roles in your long career.  Would you like to revisit acting, for either the big screen or the small screen?

Dionne: Well, of course. You know, I still have the Oscar, the Emmy, and the Tony to get.

Todd: I hope you get them all. This year presented many gifts for Dionne Warwick fans, including two new albums!  The most recent, Dionne Warwick and the Voices of Christmas, pairs you with some unexpected duet partners, such as Aloe Blacc and Chloe X Halle. You are generously shining the spotlight on these newer talents. Aloe Blacc has a remarkable voice. What was it like recording with these newer artists?

Dionne: It was wonderful. First of all, getting to know them and appreciating their talent. That is the reason I asked them to join me on The Voices of Christmas.

Todd: I told some friends I would be speaking with you today. The unanimous response was, they are thankful you are still doing shows, and they want you to know how meaningful both you and the songs are to them.

Dionne: Oh, that’s wonderful, and thank you for sharing that.

Todd:  Thank you again for your time today. You are exceptional. Please know, I will be attending your Las Vegas show this February. I did buy the meet and greet package.

Dionne: Wonderful. Thank you, Todd. I look forward to meeting you.

For Dionne’s tour dates and the latest news, visit officialdionnewarwick.com

Todd Sussman

Todd Sussman is a graduate of Columbia University, where he studied journalism and film. A longtime entertainment writer, he is the author of the Blockbuster Video books, The Greatest Movies of All Time, Volumes 1 & 2. He began his writing career as the film critic for The Miami News and soon became the editor of Blockbuster Video Magazine. For his work on the magazine, Todd received an Addy Award for Best In-House Publication, one of several Addy honors he holds. The Walt Disney Company commissioned him to write an interview promoting the film, Who Framed Roger Rabbit (for which Todd wrote the questions as well as the answers, in character as the beloved Roger Rabbit). He had the privilege of working as the Liner Notes Editor on the following projects for Barbra Streisand: Encore (her 11th Number One album), Release Me 2 (with various collector editions), and her tour program for The Music…The Mem’ries…The Magic! He also edited the liner notes for: A Capitol Christmas - Volumes 1 & 2, Neil Diamond’s Classic Diamonds, Nat King Cole & Friends’ A Sentimental Christmas, and Kristin Chenoweth’s Happiness Is Christmas. Recent cover stories for Cabaret Scenes include Johnny Mathis, Kristin Chenoweth, and Stephen Schwartz.