By Tatum Jenkins, Music Coordinator
To celebrate Black Music Month, we are excited to be bringing back our Vault of Soul series by spotlighting a soul artist every Friday of June. Step inside the vault to discover the life and legacy of some of the world's greatest soul artists, both past and present. Continue reading to learn about Dionne Warwick’s music career and lasting influence.
Marie Dionne Warrick was born in December 1940 in Orange, New Jersey to her parents Lee Drinkard, manager of a famous family gospel group the Drinkard Singers, and Mancel Warrick, a porter, chef, record promoter, and accountant. After high school, she followed her passion for music by attending Hartt College of Music. There, she began singing backup vocals for artists. While doing backup vocals for The Drifters, songwriter Burt Bacharach and composer Hal David took notice of her amazing voice and stage presence. She signed months later to Scepter Records in 1962.
A SUCCESSFUL SOLO DEBUT
Her first single, “Don’t Make Me Over,” came out in 1962. On the song’s label, her last name was spelled incorrectly – Warwick instead of Warrick – and her stage name was created. The song became a top 40 pop hit and a top 5 R&B song on the charts. Three years later, her song “Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” was chosen to be included in the soundtrack of the James Bond movie Thunderball.
In the 1960s and early 70s, she sold over 35 million singles albums internationally, making it one of her most successful periods as an artist. In 1969, she even ventured into the television industry with The Dionne Warwick Chevy Special and into the music business sphere by starting her own label a year later. She signed with Warner Bros. Records for $5 million, the largest contract offered to a female vocalist at the time, in 1971.
FACING SETBACKS & FINDING SUCCESS AGAIN
A year after signing with them, her producer and songwriter split up, thus terminating their partnership with her. Following this break up of her major musical support and creation, her career stalled in the seventies. She changed her last name to “Warwicke” as her astrologer friend suggested it would bring her good luck. Instead, it followed a string of disappointments. She changed the spelling back a few years later. She had one hit song, “Then Came With You” with the Spinners, and recorded five albums with Warner. Her contract ended in 1977.
In 1979, she signed with Arista Records and found success again. She won two Grammys for her songs “I’ll Never Love This Way Again” and “Deja Vu.” Warwick also became the first female artist to win Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female and Best R&B Vocal Performance, Female in the same year. A year later, she began her show Solid Gold, featuring performances of popular songs of the week and duets with Warwick and her co-hosts. The show ran from 1980-1981 and again from 1985-1986.
EXPANDING HER IMPACT
Dionne Warwick helped raise money for the American Foundation for AIDS Research in 1986 by teaming up with Elton John, Gladys Knight, and Stevie Wonder for a benefit single called “That’s What Friends Are For.” The song was wildly successful.
In the ’90s, she returned to television doing infomercials for the Psychic Friends Network, a telephone psychic service. She stopped being a spokesperson for the company in 1998 due to their bankruptcy, however, and began making music again. While none of her songs charted, she became popular on the news. Her AIDS organization, The Warwick Foundation, was accused of donating less than 3% of its money to AIDS groups. The IRS investigated, leading to its dissolution.
This was merely a small hiccup in her career. Warwick went on to become the Goodwill Ambassador of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in 2002, has continued to release albums and even came out with an autobiography in 2011. Just this year, she was nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
WHO INFLUENCED DIONNE WARWICK
People have a hard time pinning down her influences because, though she started by singing gospel music at her church, she’s not really a gospel singer. They even straddle the line between jazz and R&B when trying to describe her voice. However, she cites Sammy Davis Jr., Frank Sinatra, Lena Horne, Ella Fitzgerald, and Sarah Vaughn as performance influences. And she cites the women in her family as musical and style influences.
WHO DIONNE WARWICK INFLUENCED
Barry Gibb, a member of the Bee Gees, loved Warwick’s music so much that he gushed to the head of her label, Clive Davis, about her. Because of this interaction, Davis set up a meeting with the two of them and they started working together. Gibb helped write and produce most of her 1982 album Heartbreaker.
- Best Female Pop Vocal Performance (Grammys, 1969, 1971, 1980)
- Best Female R&B Vocal Performance (Grammys, 1980)
- Billboard #1 Single of the Year (1987)
- Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal (Grammys, 1987)
- Lifetime Achievement Award (Grammys, 2019)
- Favorite Female Singer (People's Choice Awards, 1975)
- Soul Train Legend Award (2013)
“THEN CAME YOU” - THE SPINNERS, DIONNE WARWICK (1974)
While my favorite Dionne Warwick song, she didn’t like it when they first made it. In fact, producer Thom Bell said, “Dionne made a (strange) face when we finished [the song]. She didn't like it much, but I knew we had something. So we ripped a dollar in two, signed each half and exchanged them. I told her, 'If it doesn't go number one, I'll send you my half.' When it took off, Dionne sent hers back. There was an apology on it." It was her first song on the Billboard Hot 100, and her only hit during the early 1970s. Even though The Spinners were a popular group, it was their first number one hit too. It was nominated for a Grammy for Best Pop Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals but lost to “Band On The Run” by Paul McCartney & Wings.
“THAT’S WHAT FRIENDS ARE FOR” - DIONNE WARWICK FEAT. ELTON JOHN, GLADYS KNIGHT, AND STEVIE WONDER (1985)
Warwick and her collaborators recorded this song to benefit the American Foundation for AIDS Research, ultimately raising $3 million. In explaining her motivation to record the song, she said, "Working against AIDS, especially after years of raising money for work on many blood-related diseases such as sickle-cell anemia, seemed the right thing to do. You have to be granite not to want to help people with AIDS, because the devastation that it causes is so painful to see. I was so hurt to see my friend die with such agony. I am tired of hurting and it does hurt." Not only was it successful for the fundraising campaign, but the song also won the artists two Grammys for Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals and Song of the Year, and Billboard named it the most popular song of 1986.
“WALK ON BY” (1964)
One of her first and most popular singles, ”Walk On By” solidified Warwick as a fixture on the top charts. It peaked at number 6 on the Billboard Hot 100. The song has since been covered multiple times, with Isaac Hayes even charting with it five years post-release. Rolling Stone named it one of the 700 Greatest Songs of All Time, ranking it at number 70. She is the second-highest-ranking female soloist on that list behind Aretha Franklin’s “Respect.”
You can revisit past Vault of Soul articles here, featuring artists such as Mavis Staples, James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, and more.
Interested in exploring the Soul genre beyond the vault? Be sure to tune into 88.9 every night between 10 pm and 2 am for The Secret Spot. Let host D Danubian wind you up and simmer you down with a blend of R&B, Soul, and Slow Jams.
Also, be sure to check out ERS+, our new HD radio experience. Take a deep dive into R&B and Hip Hop with the legendary voices of Soul alongside new and pioneering MCs. Find ERS+: Boston’s Black Experience online at WERSPlus.Org