Dionne Warwick

It is easier to define Dionne Warwick by what she isn't rather than what she is. Although she grew up singing in church, she is not a gospel singer. Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan are clear influences, but she is not a jazz singer. R&B is also part of her background, but she is not really a soul singer, either, at least not in the sense that Aretha Franklin is. Sophisticated is a word often used to describe her musical approach and the music she sings, but she is not a singer of standards such as Lena Horne or Nancy Wilson. What is she, then? She is a pop singer of a sort that perhaps could only have emerged out of the Brill Building environment of post-Elvis Presley, pre-Beatles urban pop in the early '60s. That's when she hooked up with Burt Bacharach and Hal David, songwriters and producers who wrote their unusually complicated songs for her aching yet detached alto voice. Warwick is inescapably associated with those songs, even though she managed to build a career after leaving Bacharach and David that drew upon their style for other memorable recordings, such that she remains a unique figure in popular music.

Marie Dionne Warrick was born into a gospel-music family. Her father was a gospel record promoter for Chess Records and her mother managed the Drinkard Singers, a gospel group consisting of her relatives. She first raised her voice in song at age six at the New Hope Baptist Church in Newark, NJ, and soon after was a member of the choir. As a teenager, she formed a singing group called the Gospelaires with her sister Dee Dee and her aunt Cissy Houston (later the mother of Whitney Houston). After graduating from high school in 1959, she earned a music scholarship to the Hartt College of Music in Hartford, CT, but she also spent time with her group recording background vocals on sessions in New York. The Gospelaires are said to be present on such well-known recordings as Ben E. King's “Spanish Harlem” and “Stand By Me.” They were at a Drifters session working on a song called “Mexican Divorce” composed by Burt Bacharach when Bacharach, attending the session, suggested Warwick might do some demos for him. She did, singing songs he had written with lyricist Hal David. Bacharach and David pitched one of the songs to Florence Greenberg, head of the small independent Scepter Records label, and Greenberg liked the demo singer enough to sign her as a recording artist. Bacharach and David wrote and produced her first single, “Don't Make Me Over,” in 1962. When the record was released, the performer credit contained a typo; it read “Dionne Warwick” instead of “Dionne Warrick,” and she kept the new name. (Her sister Dee Dee eventually became Dee Dee Warwick as well.)

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