Date of Interview: 10/05/2011
Few artists can boast a music career one decade in length let alone five. Dionne Warwick – in spite of the industry’s unpredictable twist and turns – defied the odds. The singer’s humility is the primary reason for the covering of one little-known fact: Warwick ranks second as the most-charted female vocalist on Billboard’s Hot 100. (With singles released between 1962 and 1998, only Aretha Franklin ranks higher.)
In celebration of the singer’s 50th year in entertainment, Dionne Warwick was gracious to make time in her busy schedule to settle down for an interview with Clayton Perry – reflecting upon her early years as a background singer, the influence of her grandfather, and the importance of friendship and relationship-building.
Clayton Perry: Congratulations on meeting a remarkable milestone in your professional career: the celebration of your fifth decade in the music business! Having attained such longevity, there are many behind-the-scenes decisions that shaped and altered the course of your career. Is there a career-defining moment that attributed to your ability to maintain this longevity?
Dionne Warwick: You know, it’s a very interesting question. I don’t know. I’ve just been truly blessed, you know, in that the general public has found that they wanted to support this career of mine by buying the recordings and showing up at my shows. You know, it’s been a wonderful, wonderful ride; it has. And I’m anticipating a little longer. But that’s all I can think is that I’ve just been blessed.
Clayton Perry: Your blessings have appeared in both the physical world as well as the spiritual world. Considering your body of work, along with the countless accolades attached to it, is there a particular recognition that you feel is often overlooked?
Dionne Warwick: I think I’m getting what I’m due. I don’t want anybody else’s due. I just want mine. I have been able to be more personal publicly. You know, me! And I have been approachable, when the need was there; it was very easy to speak.
Clayton Perry: Although you were blessed with a natural talent to express yourself vocally through song, I admire the fact that you spent a considerable amount of time studying your craft and graduating from college. In what specific ways did your formal education influence your natural, raw talent? And what life experiences led you to the academic world?
Dionne Warwick: I think they walked hand-in-hand. My major was education, and my minor was piano. And with the melodies of Burt Bacharach, I concluded that you’ve just got to have a degree in music to sing properly what he had written. So my early experiences helped me dramatically in my recordings, especially the ability to read music.
Clayton Perry: Burt Bacharach has always praised your vocal ability. One statement, in particular – from TIME (July 14, 1967) – was very powerful. He noted that you “[have] a tremendous strong side” and found you to be “a delicacy when singing softly” something akin to “miniature ships in bottles.” Musically, Bacharach made it clear that you were “no play-safe girl” and that you infused a great deal of emotion in your work. Reflecting upon these words, how do you evaluate your singing style?
Dionne Warwick: Since I began in this industry, people have tried to place me into a category. I find it very beautiful that I’ve never been able to be categorized.
Clayton Perry: What is it that you think it is about the quality of your voice that makes it difficult to categorize?
Dionne Warwick: I would like to think that it’s just soothing.
Clayton Perry: Oftentimes when people possess a genuine, raw talent, a certain level of confidence – or perhaps over-confidence – deters them from pursuing the educational route. What guided your inner compass?
Dionne Warwick: Well, you know, I’m not foolish enough to think that these vocal chords are going to hold up forever! [laughing] But you have to have something that you can rely upon to continue learning.
Clayton Perry: That is very true. What insight can you share on your early years as a background singer and the various gigs that you engaged in and around New York City? Before embarking on your solo career, what professional lessons learned during this period guided you during the transition process?
Dionne Warwick: You know, background work was the very beginning. And from that, of course, my association with [Burt] Bacharach and [Hal] David were demonstration records. When they sent a demo to Florence Greenberg at Scepter Records and came up with a she wanted, that was the beginning of my career. Luckily, I’ve always been curious, willing to learn, and able to relate to people.
Clayton Perry: There is much to be said about the importance of being able to relate to people from all backgrounds. Growing up, I vividly remember “That’s What Friends Are For” serving as an early piece of my life’s musical soundtrack. Speak about the power and importance of friendship and relationship-building.
Dionne Warwick: Well, you know, I’m a firm believer that the only way that anything can be solved or begin is by communicating. You have to speak. And that’s how I did it. People talk to each other. And I think that’s very, very important. I can boast that I have some true friends who surrounded me as I surrounded them; and I had just as many acquaintances. It’s very, very humbling to know that somebody, somewhere is not only thinking about you, but will do for you.
Clayton Perry: Even though I am considerably younger, I am surprised by the rapid and widespread changes that I have witnessed within the worlds of R&B and Gospel music. Having been born and raised in the church, did you have any reservations navigating and establishing a career within the secular music domain?
Dionne Warwick: My grandfather was a minister. When the opportunity came, I had a long talk with him. As a matter of fact, he was my biggest fan. But he also let me know that as long as I’m driven, and I was using the voice that God gave to me in a proper manner, he was definitely in my corner; so it didn’t matter what anybody else said.
Clayton Perry: With your grandfather standing firmly in your corner, have you ever been intrigued by the large number of successful singers in your “family tree”? What are your thoughts on the question of nurture-versus-nature, as far as musical talent is concerned?
Dionne Warwick: No. It was truly ordained. That’s the way it was supposed to be. I just think it’s the way God planned it, you know.
Clayton Perry: When you examine the blessings of your life, as written in your recent autobiography, My Life as I See It, what do you hope your music has done and will always continue to do for its listeners?
Dionne Warwick: Oh, boy! Giving people a sense of joy and smiles. When I look into my audience, I have seen that this is something that I have been able to do. And that’s an incredible feeling – bringing a smile into people’s lives. It is a feeling that cannot be described.
Clayton Perry: You have seen the music industry grow and evolve from the time of the Apollo Theater’s historic birth and legendary existence. Over time, what changes have you found to be most unexpected?
Dionne Warwick: There is only one thing I can say: this is no longer the industry I was raised in.
For more information on Dionne Warwick, visit her official website: http://www.dionnewarwick.info