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Dionne Warwick, Twitter Phenom: The 'Say A Little Prayer' Singer, Then And Now

Icons | December 12, 2020

Dionne Warwick Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

With hit singles like "Walk On By" and "Say A Little Prayer," Dionne Warwick emerged as one of the sultriest singers of the '60s, carving out a place between Motown soul and easy listening. She was the favored muse of Burt Bacharach in the '60s -- what more can you say? In terms of chart performance, Warwick ranks only behind Aretha Franklin among female artists. She is one of the great vocalists of her era, a hit-maker who turned it up to 11 in 1985 -- with the all-star single "That's What Friends Are For," which was hailed as the biggest song of 1986.

Warwick Is The Hippest Octogenarian On Twitter

Warwick, now in her 80s, emerged as a Twitter celebrity in 2020, joking around with artists less than half her age, and generally getting the better of them. As youngsters like Taylor Swift and Chance the Rapper confess their respect for this living music legend. Also in 2020, Warwick revealed herself as The Mouse on the hit singing competition series The Masked Singer. Warwick’s talents do extend beyond her witty one-liners as her distinct voice made her one of the most successful popstars in history.

Dionne Warwick Grew Up In A Musical Family

Marie Dionne Warwick was born on December 12, 1940 in Orange, New Jersey into an extremely musical family -- especially gospel music. She has credited some of her greatest influences as Sammy Davis Jr., Ella Fitzgerald, and Frank Sinatra, but most inspirational of all was her own family. Her father Mancel was a gospel music promoter and her mother Lee managed the gospel group The Drinkard Singers, composed of Dionne’s aunts and uncles. One of the members of the group was Cissy Houston, mother of Dionne’s cousin Whitney Houston. Surrounded by gospel music, she first developed her passion when she sang in the New Hope Baptist Choir at the age of six. Warwick originally planned to become a music teacher and enrolled in the Hartt College of Music in Connecticut in 1959, but fate led her elsewhere.

She Got Her Start Singing Gospel

As a teenager, Warwick formed the gospel group The Gospelaires with her sister and cousin who spent their time performing small shows in churches, colleges, and theaters. The shows grew significantly larger when The Gospelaires won a contest at The Apollo Theater, thus gaining the attention of many high-profile artists at the time. The Gospelaires were a hot commodity and started singing back-up for top musicians such as Ben E. King, Solomon Burke, Chuck Jackson, and Ronnie Hawkins. This was all just the beginning of Warwick’s substantial singing career. 

Burt Bacharach Launched Warwick’s Career

During a recording session with The Drifters for the 1962 song "Mexican Divorce," composer Burt Bacharach was entranced by Warwick’s powerful, yet soft voice that brought radiance to his song. Bacharach recalled for Pop Entertainment,

Dionne looked like a star. She just had a kind of look, the way she was dressed, her bone structure, pigtails. I didn’t know she was the best singer. Visually she was just kind of shining through. She came in to sing for Hal and myself about six weeks later and that was it. We heard her by herself and signed her to Scepter and the rest is history. 

Bacharach then signed Warwick to the production company he ran with his lyricist Hal David, which then led to her record deal with Scepter Records (home of The Isley Brothers, The Kingsmen, and Tammi Terrell) that same year. Scepter Records released her first solo single "Don’t Make Me Over," and it became an instant hit for both the pop and R&B world, making Warwick a successful crossover artist. Warwick became a natural superstar from this moment on without any necessary coaching as she learned the music industry from her upbringing.

Great Songwriters Like Bacharach And David Need A Great Voice Like Warwick's

The collaboration with Burt Bacharach and lyricist Hal David was one of the most fruitful in pop-music history, with 39 consecutive singles making the Billboard Hot 100. The first to break into the Top Ten was "Anyone Who Had A Heart" in 1963, followed by arguably her signature song, the languorous "Walk On By" in 1964. Other notable Top-Tens included "I Say A Little Prayer" (1967), "Do You Know The Way To San Jose" (1968), "This Girl's In Love With You" (1969), and "I'll Never Fall In Love Again" (1969). Bacharach explained the evolution of their collaboration to Pop Entertainment:

Once we had Dionne Warwick we had our voice. And the more I saw that Dionne could do musically with the material and how wide her range was and what she was capable of the more chances and the more experimental and the more risks I could take. ... You take a song like “Promises, Promises”, it’s a very hard song to sing but with Dionne it was effortless.

Warwick Became A Singing Sensation In The 1960s

As her pop career was in full swing, Warwick married actor/drummer William David Elliot and had two sons with him, but they divorced in 1975. Warwick’s soothing voice captivated listeners as it created a sense of peace, while at the same time inspiring powerful emotions as her passion exuded through her songs. She became the first African American solo female to receive a Grammy in 1968 with her single "Do You Know The Way To San Jose," and by 1970 Warwick had released upwards of 20 best-selling albums. She was a role model for females, African Americans, and singers all around.

Warwick Explored Different Avenues In The 1980s

Bacharach and David made the decision to split in 1972 despite their recording contract agreements, forcing Warwick to sue the duo (although they still remained friends). That year she signed with Warner, an affiliation that produced no major hits for her. She did have one biggie in 1974, the #1 "Then Came You," which was recorded with The Spinners and released on their label, Atlantic. (While "Then Came You" was Warwick's first pop #1, it should be noted that both "Walk On By" and "Reach Out For Me" had topped the R&B chart in the early '60s.) 

Hoping for more solo success, Warwick switched to Arista Records in 1979. With this new label, she enjoyed another hit with her million-selling "I’ll Never Love This Way Again." In the ‘80s again with a couple collaborations including her work with disco favorites The Bee Gees on her Heartbreaker album and her participation with Gladys Knight, Elton John, and Stevie Wonder in their heartfelt song "That’s What Friends Are For." Written by Burt Bacharach and Carole Bayer Sager, "That's What Friends Are For" was the best-selling single of 1986 and won two Grammy Awards. 

 This decade also saw Warwick’s involvement in television utilizing her dazzling and bright personality to host music shows including Solid Gold, The Soul Train Music Awards, and Dionne And Friends. She often showcased her own singing talents on these shows as well.

Warwick Is A Dedicated Activist 

Warwick stays as busy as ever in the present day at 80 years old by continuing to perform and tour. The celebrity has always used this fame and fortune to give back to the community, and she still makes a difference as a vigorous activist and philanthropist. She served as the U.S. Ambassador of Health during the Reagan administration and as the National Global Ambassador for Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) during George Bush’s presidency to serve humanitarian causes. Warwick is extremely passionate about spreading awareness about AIDS and has raised millions of dollars through her efforts. She is currently on the board of We Are Family Foundation, an organization that creates programs to support cultural diversity and mentor young children around the globe. Warwick is truly an inspiration both as an entertainer and as a caring human being.

Tags: Burt Bacharach | Dionne Warwick | Famous Singers | Hal David

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Emily Morenz

Author

Despite her younger age, Emily Morenz (Emo) is a serious 1960s/1970s enthusiast who is pretty much the Austin Powers of this decade. Through her all-vintage wardrobe, obsession with old time rock 'n' roll, and her mid century bedroom and 1,200+ vinyl collection you might think she just stepped out of a time machine. Emo plays the rare gems of the ‘60s and ‘70s on her radio show on OC’s 101.5 KOCI and teaches rock ‘n’ roll history on her podcast “The Rock & Roll Sweetheart.” When there's not a pandemic, she's rockin’ out with all the middle aged-men at every single classic rock concert happening around the town, and she will battle her away to front row and dance hard. Paul McCartney even once brought her up on stage to dance...while she was in a walrus costume. You also might find Emo surfing waves, skateboarding through a neighborhood, groovin' '60s gogo style, and pretending like she can play bass. And she's obsessed with peanut butter and corgis.