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Dionne Warwick: A Walk on the Jazz Side

Legendary singer discusses her new album, her appreciation for jazz and her long career in show business

Dionne Warwick's Only Trust Your Heart album cover
Dionne Warwick

Among the myriad voices that surfaced throughout the 1960s, Dionne Warwick’s remains one of the most distinctive and most enduring. The first decade of a career that now spans 50 years was defined by a steady stream of million-selling hits custom-crafted for her by Burt Bacharach and Hal David. Though she rarely departed from the sort of cream-frosted pop that made her a household name, Warwick managed to redefine her unique sound era after era, ultimately specializing in slickly stylized duets with the likes of Jeffrey Osborne, Luther Vandross, Robin Gibb and Johnny Mathis, a trend that reached its apex with “That’s What Friends Are For,” a 1985 union of Warwick, Elton John, Gladys Knight and Stevie Wonder that raised more than $3-million for the American Foundation for AIDS research. In 1990, Warwick made her first recorded foray into jazz, crafting an album of Cole Porter standards for Arista under the direction of producer Arif Mardin. But Clive Davis, then head of Arista, deemed the original sessions too jazzy and the tracks were re-recorded. Now, 21 years later, Warwick is revisiting jazzland, this time with 13 Sammy Cahn tunes. Though that distinct Warwick sound remains as strongly identifiable as ever throughout Only Trust Your Heart (released March 15 by MPCA Records), its edges are now softer, its trademark fortitude less forthright. The results are undeniably beautiful, but also demonstrate that Warwick could legitimately opt for a late-breaking second career as a jazz chanteuse. Just prior to the album’s release, Warwick sat down with JazzTimes‘ Christopher Loudon to talk about the new album, her 50th showbiz anniversary and her work with such jazz legends as Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Joe Williams.

JazzTimes: 2011 marks your 50th anniversary as a recording artist. How does it feel to reach such a milestone?

Dionne Warwick: You know, it’s kind of surreal. When I first began, the kind of music I was recording was so unorthodox. It was like nothing else that was being played on radio at the time, and most people said, ‘Well, she won’t be around that long.’

JT: Unlike the majority of pop singers who burn hot and then burn out, you’ve demonstrated remarkable durability, achieving new hits decade after decade. What’s the secret of your sustained success?

DW: I don’t really know, aside from the quality of the songs that were written for me. And also being true to who I am; and not jumping ships when new musical trends emerged. I remember when Donna Summer happened. At the time, recordings like mine found very little airplay. But she opened her own door. She didn’t jump into my arena, and I didn’t think I should infringe on hers. Everything has a phase, but thank goodness, good music always reigns.

JT: Back in 1990, when you recorded #The Cole Porter Album# for Arista under the direction of the great Arif Mardin, the original intent was to create a jazz album, but Clive Davis, thought it was too jazzy and asked you to re-do it.

DW: I think Arif did an incredible job, but the first run at it was, in Clive’s words, “a little too smoky nightclub.” And I said, ‘Yeah, right, that’s what Cole Porter was all about!’ But he wanted Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire, so we decided to try it that way, and that’s what we ultimately delivered.

JT: Why the decision, all these years later, to re-visit the idea of a jazz album?

DW: Since the Cole Porter CD, I hadn’t really entertained the thought of doing anything of this nature. But I had a wonderful time doing that one, so I thought, ‘Why not?’ The label was looking for someone to do this [type of material]. They met with my agent, and then we got down to the real deal, which is the music. It was a wonderful experience for me.

JT: The playlist is comprised entirely of songs written or co-written by Sammy Cahn, whose songbook includes some 1500 tunes. How did you arrive at the ones you chose?

DW: The label started sending me songs. I got a zillion songs they wanted me listen to. I listened to 15 or 20 a day for a couple of weeks, and gradually narrowed it down to the 13 we got. Some are very familiar. Others are songs that people may have heard before, but aren’t as instantly recognizable. The beauty of the project was that we did it all live, with real live musicians in the studio with me, playing real live instruments. That was very, very reminiscent of the way I recorded [earlier in my career]. We had a good time, making some great sounds.

JT: On the upbeat numbers there seems a strong sense of those great Ella Fitzgerald sessions from the late 1950s with Nelson Riddle.

DW: A more direct influence was Sarah Vaughan. She went to school with my mother, and I knew her as Aunt Sass. She was in my living room a lot when I was growing up, and I adored her. She did a [Cahn] song on one of her albums called “Wonder Why.” Before I heard Aunt Sass’ version, I’d never heard the song before. I immediately said, ‘That’s a must!’ Ray Angry, the piano player who is absolutely brilliant, said, ‘How do you want to do it’ and I said, ‘We’re going to get as close to Aunt Sass as we can, without me making a fool of myself!’ So, he said, “OK, let’s try it.’ And that’s how all of the sessions went.

JT: Though you’ve long been hailed as a superb balladeer, the ballads on this album seem more vulnerable than we’ve come to expect from you, a little more fragile.

DW: When I’m singing songs that weren’t specifically written for me, as most of the Bacharach and David songs I did over the years were, my tendency is to give a treatment that I really know nothing about. Whatever happens to come out of my mouth at that time is, I figure, the way I’m supposed to treat the song.

JT: Any plans to continue in the jazz vein, and deliver more albums of this sort?

DW: I might, but I’d also like to try a few other genres. I’m contemplating a country album. I feel I’d fit very comfortably with that, because I’ve always closely associated country music with gospel music. The one thing I’ll never try is rap, or hip-hop!

JT: Given how pop-centric your career has been, many people might be surprised to discover how many jazz giants you’ve worked with over the years, like Count Basie.

DW: Big Daddy we called him. What a gentle man. He always had a smile. He was godfather to my dearest friend, Pam. That is how I was first introduced to him. And then I had the pleasure of being on the road and doing a few concerts with him and the band. He was a gem.

JT: You also performed several times with Joe Williams.

DW: Working with him was a dream come true. I got to sing with him at a benefit in Los Angles just prior him making his transition. And that’s when I found out that he and I shared the same birthday!

JT: And Duke Ellington…

DW: I met him early in my career. I happened to me in some foreign country. It was in South America. He was doing a special that I happened to be scheduled on, so I got to sing with the mighty Duke. It was amazing. He was such a kind gentleman, and such a giving person. Singing his music was very much like singing Bacharach and David melodies – you really have to know what you’re doing.

JT: In 1976, you were part of an incredible line-up that participated in the tongue-twisting CBS special The Original Rompin’ Stompin’ Hot and Heavy, Cool and Groovy All Star Jazz Show.

DW: Talk about amazing! The two days we shot that show, I was in heaven. Count Basie, Herbie Hancock, Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Getz and Joe Williams. It was incredible – definitely one of those ‘you had to be there’ times. There was no other way to truly appreciate what was happening in that studio.

JT: Though many still argue that the Great American Songbook is bookended by the 1920s and the 1950s, and is restricted to Porter, Irving Berlin, the Gershwins and their ilk, I’d argue that Bacharach and David should be included among the charter members.

DW: I totally agree. The Bacharach-David songbook will be remembered long after we’re all gone. We were known in the industry as the ‘triangle marriage that worked.’ And when you find something as cohesive as the three of us were, it is very magical.

JT: You mentioned in your memoirs that the one Bacharach-David song you weren’t really sold on was “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?”

DW: And until I re-recorded it, I still wasn’t that thrilled with it. I felt I had to do it because of Hal. He had a close affinity to San Jose. But, I got to cry all the way to the bank.

JT: Though you introduced most of the great Bacharach-David tunes, most have also been covered by a wide spectrum of artists. One of the exceptions is “Promises, Promises,” even though it is such a superb song.

DW: Listen to it and try to count the bars. Then you’ll understand why more people don’t cover that song. When I recorded “Promises, Promises,” nobody was more surprised than Burt, Hal and myself that we had a hit with it. You certainly can’t dance to it!

JT: You were also the first to record Bacharach and David’s “Close to You.”

DW: Yes, long before the Carpenters existed! But I adored their sound. Karen is somebody I still play at home. There are certain voices that simply soothe you. Her voice does that for me.

JT: Another of the greats you’ve had a long professional association with is Johnny Mathis.

DW: He is one of my dear, dear friends, and I am an avid fan. John and I have been friends for more years than either of us would probably want to admit. He is such a gentleman, and boy can he sing! And he gets better and better every year.

JT: Over the years, you’ve become as famous for vocal duets, including several with Mathis, as you have for your solo work.

DW: The one thing I find easy is to perform with friends. Whatever I do is OK with them, and whatever they do is OK with me. The first time I worked with John, I froze in the studio, and everyone laughed at me for a long time. I stood there watching him sing, and completely forgot that I was supposed to sing too. So he turned to me and said, ‘Um, you’re turn!’

JT: You also counted Lena Horne as both a friend and mentor.

DW: She is an icon. She paved the way for a lot of us ladies. She and Marlene Dietrich were the only two women my mother allowed me to call ‘mama.’ Lena was ‘mama,’ and she called me ‘daughter.’ She was so inspirational. She showed such leadership. Every time I saw her or Diahann Carroll or Ella Fitzgerald or Eartha Kitt or Sammy Davis Jr., those were my teachers.

JT: Though he doesn’t always get the credit he deserves, it could easily be argued that Sammy Davis Jr. was the greatest all-around entertainer of the past century.

DW: Absolutely. He did everything, and he did it all well. He danced, he sang, he told jokes, he did impressions, he played drums. And he was amazingly generous. He would literally give you the shirt off your back.

JT: A few years ago, you numbered among the remarkable women honored by Oprah Winfrey as living legends.

DW: That was another ‘you had to be there’ moment. I remember vividly saying to Oprah, ‘This is unbelievable. All you had to say to us was thank you.’ And she said, ‘I am. This is my way of saying thank you.’ It was a weekend that I will always remember.

JT: Another of the giants honored that weekend was Nancy Wilson.

DW: I love Nancy. She’s my pinochle buddy. We’ve watched the sun go down, and watched it come up, and watched it go down again, all while playing pinochle.

JT: Like Nancy Wilson and Lena Horne and Sarah Vaughan, you’ve always taken the professional high road.

DW: I don’t know any other way. It befuddles me watching the singers of today, seeing what they do and how they do it. But I also realize that today it is no longer about audio. It’s all video marketing. And they really know how to do that. But for me, it is imperative to be who I am at all times.

Originally Published