David Gest, who has done little to alter the perception that he is one odd cookie, has proffered a reminder of greatness. Staging a tribute to a unique songstress with the intention of forging a TV special, three-hour event was highlighted by Dionne Warwick demonstrating the strength of her voice and repertoire, serving to clarify her station in the pop music roles. Her music, always elegant and sophisticated, is a curve in the roadways of each musical style she treads — gospel, soul, adult-oriented pop — and there isn’t a tune in her songbook that hasn’t aged gracefully.
Warwick watched from the audience as collections of stars blazed through her hits, starting with a choir of gospel greats raising the roof with “What the World Needs Now.” Deborah Cox, Angie Stone and Chante Moore spread out the charms of Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “Windows on the World,” which stepped into overkill when Da Brat rapped over the vocalists; Leslie Uggams staged a clinic on vocal control and precise intonation with a breathtaking “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again.” Ashford & Simpson wrung all the heartbreak out of “Make It Easy on Yourself,” and Gladys Knight’s vocal gymnastics brought down the house.
It was Warwick, though, who displayed the greatest command and, oddly enough, was most open to reinterpreting her classics. “Theme from ‘Valley of the Dolls’ ” was note perfect and effectively haunting; “Do You Know the Way to San Jose” was salsafied and fun, topped in the fun department only by a duet with Olivia Newton-John on “Wishin’ and Hopin’.”
Bacharach, who found his muse in Warwick, backed her on two tunes in the evening’s most intimate perfs. A Stevie Wonder/Knight/Warwick rendition of “That’s What Friends Are For,” with Wonder flubbing his faux harmonica playing thereby forcing producers to record him live, turned into a lengthy lovefest between Wonder and Warwick. He paid tribute to her role as an inspiration and an employer — she secured his job writing songs for “Woman in Red,” which yielded, ahem, “I Just Called to Say I Love You.” Wonder did play some snippets of songs that were rejected that actually had some kick to them.
After a rousing rendition of “Then Came You” with the Spinners, with producer Thom Bell on piano, Warwick closed the night with a version of “I’ll Never Love This Way Again,” sung with the resignation of a woman whose heart has yet to mend all these years later. Ultimately, Warwick has delivered a powerful tribute to herself that definitely deserves a television airing.
But it’s curious why Gest chose to call this Warwick’s 45th year in music. She’s 65 years old; her parents worked in the music business; she performed 50 years ago with her sister Dee Dee and cousin Cissy Houston as the Gospelaires; she started doing session work in New York 47 years ago; her debut album is coming up on its 43rd anniversary. Fifty, equally applicable, just has a nicer ring to it.