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Dionne Warwick on her rich and vibrant life in music

Dionne Warwick
David Vance
Dionne Warwick

On New Year’s Day 2023 at 9 pm ET, CNN will air the premiere of the documentary Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over that covers the legendary singer’s storied career and life in music. Written and produced by Dave Wooley, the film features archival footage, as well as interviews with friends and colleagues of Ms. Warwick such as Elton John, Stevie Wonder, Bill Clinton, Snoop Dogg, Burt Bacharach and many others. The documentary has already made the rounds of notable film festivals where it has won numerous awards. Warwick spoke with WBGO’s Pat Prescott not only about the film, but also about her own commitment to activism, during both the Civil Rights movement and the AIDS crisis.

Watch their conversation here:

Interview transcript:

Pat Prescott: This is an inspirational story. Everyone needs to see it, especially at the beginning of new year when we need all the inspiration that we can get. I'm so excited about this film. I got a chance to watch it. To see your life really unfold on the screen, it's been a pretty amazing career. A lot of firsts for you. The first African-American to win the Grammy for Best Pop Vocal Performance and by the way, won the Best R&B one at the same time. You’ve sold over a hundred million records. That's a big number, Dionne.

Dionne Warwick: Yes, it is. I wish I'd been paid more for them.

Let's talk about the beginning, because I think most people know that you're a Jersey girl. Where were you born?

I was born and raised in East Orange, New Jersey.

What were the greatest benefits for you of growing up in Jersey? What did your childhood really contribute to the woman you became?

Well, I grew up on a street called Sterling Street in East Orange, which I have described as virtually the United Nations, every race, color, creed, religion…we all interfaced with each other. We all went to school together. I think it gave me a wonderful foundation.

There is some great archival footage in this documentary. You must have an amazing archive, especially since it comes from a period when video recording wasn't all that commonplace. Were you the keeper of your own archive? Or who was keeping up with all this material for you?

No, I think it's all over the place. Everybody has a piece of it. I never really kept any archival information. I just didn't feel that the need for it. But apparently people found it very interesting to find out who and what Dionne is and was. I'm thrilled about the documentary because I think that it gives the complete insight as to who and what I am.

You get a chance to watch your own life unfold. I think that the God-given talent was always there, but it seems that you were really serious about getting better all the time. The way that you approach a craft from the very beginning, you were very professional. I love that segment where they talked about how you really studied. Even though you already could sing beautifully, you wanted to be even better. Where did that drive come from?

It came from my parents, I think, more than anything else. Their whole philosophy for not only myself but my siblings, my brother and sister was, and still is: Be who you are, always. You can't be anyone other than who you are. Be the best you.

You've done a good job of that.  I've known you for many years and you never change, which is commendable.

Good. I like me, you know? I do and I really don't want to be anybody other than me.

You know who else really liked you? Burt Bacharach and Hal David. They've got their fingerprints all over your career. Valerie Simpson, who worked with all of you, is featured prominently in this film, and she called it a musical marriage between the three of you. From the film, it looks like it was an engaging and fun relationship.

It was. We became friends. The industry dubbed us the triangle marriage that worked. I feel that I was so privileged to work with two of the most prolific songwriters and composers of our time, and to be able to sing such incredible words that Hal David wrote and the very difficult sometimes music that Bacharach composed.

That music really wasn't easy to execute, but it kept you on your toes. I think that's a part of what has made you such an amazing singer is that you teamed up with people who also had a higher level vision of what music could be.

Absolutely. And we were so different from anything that was happening during the period of time that I started recording in the ‘60s, with little groups. Those single recording artists were not singing anything near what I was singing. I think that truly is the reason that all those songs that I sang from the ‘60s to this very day are still as prolific today as they were then.

Dionne Warwick "I Say A Little Prayer" on The Ed Sullivan Show

It is true. They did stand out, but they did fit in. I remember that period very well. You made me feel proud to be a Black woman. I was a teenager in a world where I didn't really see myself very much. You were brown-skinned like me. You were beautiful, fashionable, elegant, confident and most of all, you were singing that beautiful voice with intention and with swagger. I could feel your confidence. Plus, you were unapologetically Black. I can't say enough about how comfortable you seemed in your own skin. That was a powerful image for young Black people to see.

I feel that, before me, my mentors gave me that confidence. People like Lena Horne who was a very proud Black woman. Diahann Carroll. Sarah Vaughan. These ladies basically molded me. I wanted to do what they were doing, where they were doing, how they were doing it, and looking the way that they looked. I was totally influenced by them.

In the film, you get a chance to see the images that you projected with all that elegance. How intentional was your image and the way you presented yourself?  Where did your sense of fashion come from?

Marlene Dietrich introduced me to the couture, the designers of Paris and France. I met all these most incredible designers of today before they became as well known as they are. These people were throwing clothing at me, and it came because Marlene introduced me to these people. I thought, “Well, these are the images that I have been following, so I guess this is what I'm supposed to be doing.”

That is exactly what you did. Another thing that you see in this film is your spirit of activism. It seems that it was kind of born during that first Chitlin circuit tour when you first met Jim Crow. What was that experience like and what kind of emotions did that bring to you that have stayed with you?

He wasn't a very nice person. He wasn't somebody I really wanted to get to know at all, Mr. Crow. Coming from the northern regions of the United States where I lived, I had never really been confronted with anything about that nature. It was a lesson. It really was something that I suppose I had to learn like everyone else. I didn't have to like it, nor did I have to partake in it. I felt that I didn't have to, so I didn't. I find discrimination especially for the reasons that we were being discriminated against—for the color of our skin—stupid. And it's a word I don't use frequently. I think it’s a horrible word—stupid—but I feel that that's what it was. And I didn't want to be a part of that stupidity.

Even back then, you were never one to hold your tongue, were you? That seems to be a recurring theme throughout your story.  People said, “Dionne don't.” And you just did what you wanted to do anyway.

Exactly. The word no never meant anything to me, ever. Because behind every no had to come a yes. Always, And that's the way I feel to this very day. You can say no all you want to, but I will say yes.

You broke down a lot of racial barriers. bringing people together through music. That is a really big part of what your career has always been about. How important was it for you to be yourself and to still be accepted by not only white people who objected to your Blackness, but also by Black people who initially thought you were too white? “She sounds like a white girl.”

In fact, I was depicted as a white woman on one of my CD covers.

What a shock when you came out on stage, right?

Exactly. Oh my God. Grandpa who was a minister taught us that we were all put on Earth to be a service to each other. And I find that quite easy to do. I really do. I think there is no way in the world if I see someone who is in need and I feel I have the wherewithal to help them, then I'm going to do it. There's no reason why I shouldn't.

That is an ongoing theme in your life too.  When I see some of the early images from the ‘60s, the resemblance between you and your cousin Whitney [Houston] is startling, especially in those sequences at the beginning of the documentary. Whitney even traveled with you on the road, right?

When she was a little girl, I took not only her, but all my cousins. I had Felicia, who is also my cousin. God rest her soul, she just passed recently. I took them on the road with me because I had both of my boys on the road with me. I said, “Well, let's make it a family affair.” As it turned out, all my musicians would bring their children out. So the kids were as much a part of my tours as I was. Whitney was a little devil. She was a little instigator. She got everybody in trouble most of the time. But all of them were very dear to me. They were like my own babies and I treated them as such. They got very accustomed to it.

Not only did you see though that physical resemblance that people who are related to have, when I would watch the performance video that's part of the documentary, it seems pretty clear that she must have studied you. Am I right?

I think you are. Yes, she would stand backstage and watch me. On the occasions when she would come to see me perform, she picked up little traits that I had, like tipping the microphone.

Not just a great musician is Dionne Warwick. She's also a great human being and an activist. You weren't just an advocate for African American causes. You were in the vanguard of the US’s AIDS movement with what you did and what you sacrificed to increase awareness and compassion for people affected by AIDS. In the film they said tens of millions of dollars and counting have gone to AIDS research from one little song, “That’s What Friends Are For.” How did that thought come to you and how did you put that all together?

This thing called AIDS, nobody knew what it was until Rock Hudson put a face on it. I call myself nosy. My grandfather said, “No, you're not nosy, you’re inquisitive.” I said, “OK, I'll be inquisitive.” I wanted to know what this thing was that was taking the lives of so many people within my industry. We’re losing lighting people, sound people, dancers, makeup people, hair people. They’re leaving us. “Wait, something is wrong here and we gotta find out what this is, not only out of concern about that, but also my own self being.” I said, “Well, let's stop talking about it and start doing something.”

As a result of my being an advocate for this, I do believe that it reached the ears and eyes of President Reagan, for some reason, who made the decision to make me the Ambassador of Health. Sort of “You go get 'em, girl.” That kind of thing. And I did. I traveled the entire world, not as a full-fledged ambassador, but as a goodwill ambassador to talk about what was being done about this situation in other countries who have buried their heads in the sand. Visiting their health affiliations and the medications that they were using to combat it, I started bringing it back into the States. Coming through Customs, they’d say, “What are you bringing now, Dionne?” “I'm bringing in drugs.” “What? Then what are you doing?” I said, “Yes, for AIDS.” They wouldn't even want to discuss it with me. They rushed me through. They didn't want to talk about AIDS, they didn't want to hear the word AIDS, they didn't want to have anything to do with AIDS. I was bringing medications that seemed to be working outside of our country and for a minute or two there, it started working on some of the people who unfortunately contracted the disease. I'm still on that train ride. We have not gotten that thing that I'm working toward, but we have made strides, I mean major strides, and it's very fulfilling for me to know that I was a little part of that.

It was a really touching moment too when you visited the amfAR offices and just to see what your vision has done and how it has come to life. You were always outspoken and honest. You were truthful and brave enough to speak up and to speak directly to people who most needed to hear what you had to say. Like all the gangster rappers you met with, especially Snoop who said he was out-gangstered by Dionne Warwick. Tell us that story and what it means to you to have made a difference with misogynistic lyrics.

Because I was accused of being a part of the problem, I said, “Well, the only way to solidify this is to find out why they feel I'm part of the problem, and if so, make me a part of the solution.” Those young men that sat in my living room that day, we conversed. And it's so wonderful to know that I got through to them, when I saw what Snoop had to say and how it affected him. He really thanked me. I said, “Well, I've done what I'm supposed to do.” I got it clear to them that you don't have to do it that way. I feel very good about that. I really do. That I had something to say and they heard what I had to say and took the advice up.

They came in there with respect for you already for your body of work. Your music has touched the lives of just about everyone. Everybody knows who Dionne Warwick was and the younger generation certainly know now, as you have become the Queen of Twitter. I think it's just fabulous. So many people tried to attack the gangster rappers with a frontal attack. You came from the “Auntie” attack. “So y'all sit down, let me tell you...” Even the fact that you made them come, at what, seven o'clock in the morning and they were on time, because Auntie Dionne was summoning them. “You love me, now listen to what I have to say.” That's kind of what happened there.

Well, not only listen to what I have to say, but I want to hear what you have to say and let's converse about that. Let's talk about it and see what kind of conclusion we can come to. Because like I said, you're accusing me of being a problem. Make me a part of the solution. Tell me what it is I have to do to convince you that I am not your problem. Over the about three hours we sat in my living room, we came to the conclusion that I’m not that bad after all, am I?

Those of us who lived through the Civil Rights Movement will talk about how education has helped to move our people forward. I know you've got to be proud of your school, The Dionne Warwick Institute. How did that happen?

Probably the most important thing that's happened to me is to have my grammar school, which I attended as a child, it was Lincoln School at the time, renamed Dionne Warwick Institute. My babies there, I am so proud of them and my instructors who work with my babies. They let them know that. It's something that I think every kid in the world needs to feel needed, loved, and wanting the very best for them. That's exactly what's going on in my school. I cannot tell you how proud I am to have Dionne Warwick across the banner of that school.

You don't just have your name on it. You show up. They get the hugs and they get the lectures also.


Dionne Warwick: Don't Make Me Over - Official Trailer

What does it mean to you to be able to tell your own story, unfiltered and authentic?

Pat, as you know, people generally have their own opinion. “I saw this…” Or “I heard that…” You're entitled to your own opinions that I will never be able to take from you. However, you are now getting the story from the person that you thought or felt or heard. You're getting the truth now.

I think one of my favorite moments in the film is at the end, as you're sitting there alone in the Apollo Theater where it all began for you, you’re looking at your story unfold on the screen right after having been placed on the Apollo Walk of Fame as well. What a great full circle moment. Very emotional.

It really was. Sitting in that theater alone all by myself, It was like, “Wow, look at President Clinton. What'd he say?” To hear and see how people feel about me, sometimes it's overwhelming.

But in a very good way.

It was wonderful to know that I'd affected people in the way that I wanted to.

As you look back on your life, what are you most proud of?

I don't think I've done it yet. I really don't. I don't think I've found the one thing that I could be most proud of. I think I've still have a lot to do.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

WBGO’s Doug Doyle interviewed Dave Wooley about making the documentary. You can see Doyle’s entire interview with Wooley here.

Pat Prescott is a native of Hampton Virginia and a graduate of Northwestern University. After 5 years teaching middle school, she started her radio career in New Orleans, Louisiana at WYLD-FM. After a brief stint at New Orleans legendary rock station WNOE, she moved to New York to host the midday show at former heritage jazz station WRVR. During her 23 years on New York radio, Pat worked at WBLS, WLIB, The National Black News Network and contemporary jazz station CD 101.9.