Before the fall of 2020, not many people would have associated the legendary singer Dionne Warwick with humor. Her more than 60 years of releasing some of the most sophisticated songs ever recorded, and her classy stage presence belies the irreverent hilarity the singer let loose a little over a year ago when she took over tweeting on her Twitter account.
Warwick’s comedic timing is spot on and her focused wit takes no prisoners. Her social media following has increased tenfold, garnering her significant attention from most of us, including folks like Snoop Dog, The Weeknd and Chance the Rapper, which led to her recording a song with the latter. Her social media star rose so rapidly that Twitter founder Jack Dorsey invited her to to be a member of his staff, dubbing her “Employee of the Month,” an artist mounted a smash “Dionne Warwick: Queen of Twitter” exhibition at the Newark Art Festival and, recently, she killed it in an interview with her doppelgänger on a Saturday Night Live send up of her, “The Dionne Warwick Talk Show.”
Even before the age of the Internet, it was an understatement to say that Warwick has been influential. She’s earned five Grammy Awards and sold more than 100 million records throughout her career. And the list of legendary performers who say they were called to the profession after experiencing the Warwick magic is impressive.
“What she did just pierced me to the core. To the DNA,” said singer-songwriter-producer Luther Vandross about hearing Warwick’s “Anyone Who Had a Heart,” which he covered in 1986. “I decided right then and there that that is what I wanted to do. That is what I wanted to do with my life.”
Multi-genre guitarist Carlos Santana, once told an interviewer that he developed his distinctive guitar sound by trying to imitate the sound of Warwick singing the music of legendary songwriter Burt Bacharach.
The list goes on to include singer-songwriters and producers Angela Bofill, Alicia Keys, Quincy Jones and Earth, Wind and Fire’s Phillip Bailey, who says Warwick was his greatest influence because of her singing style. And then there’s her cousin, mega-star Whitney Houston:
“My mother, my cousins Dionne Warwick, Dee Dee Warwick, and Aretha Franklin are my greatest inspirations,” said Houston. “My mom taught me about this business. I learned about class and elegance from watching Dionne on stage.”
Warwick, a classically trained artist, was attending the University of Hartford in Connecticut on a music scholarship when she impressed Bacharach while singing in a back up session for the doo-wop group, The Drifters. Also counting opera singer Leontyne Price and soul star Cissy Houston (Whitney’s mama) as relatives, Warwick began singing in church not too long after she was born in 1940 in East Orange, New Jersey.
As a child, she sang as a soloist and back up for the renowned Drinkard Singers, a gospel group composed of her mother, aunts and uncles. During her teens, Warwick and her sister Dee Dee started their own gospel group, The Gospelaires, and traveled to New York for regular session work with 1960s singing sensations, including Dinah Washington, Brook Benton and Solomon Burke.
Warwick signed a recording contract in 1962 and released her hit first single, “Don’t Make Me Over,” launching a pioneering career and becoming responsible for quite a few firsts.
From 1963-1966, she became the first crossover artist to have a dozen consecutive Top 100 hits. The icon has charted on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 Singles 69 times – second only to Franklin in the rock era of music. Her classics include “I Say a Little Prayer,” “Walk on By,” “and “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?,” a song which made her the first African American solo female artist to receive a Grammy Award. The same year she became the first African-American female artist to appear before the Queen of England (1968) she also became the first female artist in the history of the Grammys to win in both the pop and R&B categories in the same year.
“My music…is whatever the listener decides it is. It has no genre,” Warwick said to the Asbury Park Press. “It is music — period. I hit the same eight notes in my music as everybody else. I don’t define myself. I let you define me.”
In the 10 years she partnered with songwriting team Bacharach and Hal David, she recorded 30 hit singles, close to 20 best-selling albums and received a second Grammy for the album “I’ll Never Fall In Love Again.” Warwick split with the songwriters in 1971 and went on to join Warner Brothers, where she signed a five-year, $5 million contract, the largest deal for a female recording artist at that time.
Warwick is known for leveraging her outstanding career to advocate for causes – particularly HIV/AIDS. She scored one of the biggest hits of her career with “That’s What Friends Are For.” Stevie Wonder, Elton John and Gladys Knight also appeared on this 1985 No. 1 hit which raised money for AIDS research.
Her foray into television was successful as well. She hosted the syndicated music TV series Solid Gold and the Soul Train Music Awards and starred in her own show, “Dionne And Friends.” PBS created the documentary “Dionne Warwick: Then Came You,” in 2018, last year, a second film about her life, “Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over,” was released on the festival circuit, and Chicago’s Black Ensemble Theater has produced several runs over the years of “Don’t Make Me Over (In Tribute to Dionne Warwick).” Chronicling her own life, she’s released two autobiographies, as well as two children’s books.
Warwick attributes her stellar career to good advice she’s received from several close to her, including the incomparable singer-actress Lena Horne. “Lena Horne was one of my major mentors,” Warwick told “Entertainment Tonight” last year.
“I called her mama, she called me daughter. She was one of the many mentors that I had, but she was one of the very special ones to me. Because of the way she treated me…The one thing I never forgot and never will forget, and have passed it on to my children and my grandchildren, is what she told me many, many years ago. And that was, ‘Be who you be. You cannot be anyone other than that.’ That’s something I never forgot, and anybody that knows me knows that Dionne is always Dionne.”