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October 24, 2007

The Real Thing

Totally Unrelated Blog-a-Thon: What we can -- and should -- learn from Dionne Warwick

No one believes me, but the defining moment of Dionne Warwick's career occurred in 1986 with one couplet in an otherwise terrible song. It arrived halfway through the opening verse of "That's What Friends Are For," her collaboration with Stevie Wonder, Elton John and Gladys Knight, when Warwick sang:

"If I should ever go away, then close your eyes / and try to feel the way we do today."

It shouldn't have worked at all, and later on, when John gives the melody his own lyrical twist, so begins the track's smoldering implosion into self-conscious rubble. You can't really fault Wonder -- he obviously didn't see it coming -- and poor Knight's body was never found. Warwick, on the other hand, not only escaped, but introduced the tune on an indefinite basis to a live repertoire featuring decades' worth of songs by popcraft geniuses like Burt Bacharach, Hal David and Barry Gibb. It's usually performed as part of a medley early in her set, and she only sings her verse, lest the microphone turn to treacle in her hands and diabetic shock overtake the room.

So why does it work, and why do loyal fans continue to lay out upwards of $90 a head to hear Warwick sing what, in the hands of lesser artists, have proven to be some of the 20th century's most overwrought ballads? It's not just to see a real survivor in person (even I might argue that Warwick hasn't technically "survived," but more on that later), but rather to hear -- to closely, carefully listen to -- the rare sound and even rarer soul of someone who means it. Her gift supersedes that breathy contralto of the mid-'60s; as the standing-room only crowds promised at Warwick's three New York-area shows this week (including two near her hometown of East Orange, N.J.) will attest to the person, she is an interpreter almost too good at her job -- a profound artist both blessed and cursed with sincerity that too often in the last 30 years revealed the limitations of contemporary sources.

Born Marie Dionne Warrick on Dec. 12, 1940 (the second "w" resulted from a misspelling on her first single, "Don't Make Me Over"), Warwick first attracted notice as the leader of a gospel group that contributed backup vocals to records by Bobby Darin, the Shirelles and the Drifters, the latter of whom tracked the Bacharach song "Mexican Divorce" with Warwick in 1961. First impressed by her pipes (she sang "louder than everybody else," Bacharach later told Ebony Magazine), the composer and his lyricist Hal David pulled her aside and booked her for a few Scepter Records demos later that year. She was recording solo singles by late 1962 and had her Top 10 breakthrough in November 1963 with the crushing "Anyone Who Had a Heart."

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"Anyone" conveyed Warwick's most sensitive take on the message of her three previous Bacharach/David singles: Love me, you motherfucker, because I'm nothing without you. That sensitivity occurred primarily through dynamics. The sassy belter of "Don't Make Me Over" and "This Empty Place" all but whispered the new hit's first two verses, opening up the final chorus for a robust, literally pitch-perfect anchor that pulls your heart out every single time you hear it. Warwick's marriage of authenticity and unadulterated talent spoiled the song for every wanna-be who followed; take Wynonna Judd, who performed "Anyone" at an all-star tribute to Bacharach in 1998. Her notes glance, ending too prematurely to leave a mark. She convinces you of nothing except that anyone who had a brain would simply change his locks and his phone number.

Not so with Dionne Warwick. The sentiment would come to define her; thematic variations like "Do You Know the Way to San Jose" (homesickness), "The Windows of the World" and "What the World Needs Now" (social unrest) scored big as well -- her partnership with Bacharach and David yielded 12 million records sold in four years. Even her last Top 40 solo hit, 1982's "Heartbreaker," was a staggering throwback to vulnerability virtually unheard of in the Reagan era: "I made a life out of loving you/Only to find any dream that I follow is dying." Indeed, Warwick had been married and divorced twice since 1963 (from the same man, natch), and her faith in astrology had been shaken when a numerologist's addition of an "e" to her name preceded a particularly grave run of professional and romantic misfires. She famously dated Godfather bit player Gianni Russo, who killed a pair of supposed drug kingpins in his Vegas restaurant in 1989.

The duress -- not to mention years of cigarette smoking -- affected the physical quality of her voice, and attempts at reinvention upon reinvention failed. Albums of Brazilian music and jazz standards capsized at record stores. She upheld the politically liberal paragon of heartbreak and defiance, yet never attracted the renaissance audience of gay men who flocked to assiduously packaged peers like Cher (whose version of the Alfie title track in fact dramatically undersold Warwick's in 1967). Granted, she's not exactly an easy public figure to love: She owes California more than $2.6 million in back taxes. She denies a 2002 pot possession rap to this day despite doing community service in exchange for Miami police dropping the charges. An obsessive patron of clairvoyants since her childhood visits to Coney Island, she has yet to live down her years of work as the spokeswoman for the infamous infomercial gurus at Psychic Friends Network. Her AIDS charity reportedly contributed less than 5 percent of its $2 million fund to actual research, squandering the rest on first-class travel and high-end expendables, a charge she also continues to deny.

Yet in an era when cultural observers are increasingly eager to classify pop stars' malfeasance among the richest symbols of their complexity, Warwick is an artist whose work stands apart from her bruised persona. The most recent example of this presented itself last week on the Today Show, where she took time out of her ongoing world tour to perform "I Say a Little Prayer" for the winners of the show's annual wedding contest. It was a bloodbath of bad taste (watch it for yourself, if you can), perhaps the single most grating network TV segment since Army Archerd abetted the courtship of Rob Lowe and Snow White at the 1989 Oscars. Beneath those suffocating layers of kitsch, however, were The Real Thing. Even the half-wits at NBC knew nobody but Dionne Warwick can sing that song, just as those in her audience around the city this week know that her canon comprises dozens of songs just like this. Which, for better or worse, results in moments just like that.

But I think it's far better than it is worse. It's not the advantage of the originator either; not even Bob Dylan has a monopoly on the best versions of his own songs. Rather, I think it's an emotional edge -- her faith in the flashpoint veracity of music, the same quality great film actors bring to take after take -- that so overwhelms me. Which I guess is why, despite myself, I always go back to "That's What Friends Are For": Someday soon you may just need to close your eyes and try to feel the way we do today. Oh, and keep smiling.



Comments (1)

You are truly brilliant, Stu. You really, really are.

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