Sometimes second chances arrive in the most serendipitous way. In the late ’70s, disco ruled the airwaves and Dionne Warwick was ready to quit making records. “It became apparent the days of the music I was singing had practically become abandoned,” Warwick tells Variety via email.
“The Dinah Shore Show” had coincidentally booked Warwick and Arista founder Clive Davis as guests for the same day. As it happened, Davis was in the market for a female singer for his 4-year-old label to record a backlog of great songs he had initially collected for Arista superstar Barry Manilow. “I didn’t want to sign another male to do these pop songs,” he says. “I came across ‘I’ll Never Love This Way Again,’ and I said in my own head, ‘I’m looking for a female who has a career as much ahead of her as she has behind her.'” Enter Warwick.
Davis had “always loved” Warwick, he says, and was unconcerned by her lack of success at her most recent label home, Warner Bros., other than her 1974 duet with the Spinners, “Then Came You.” “I just felt lucky that someone of her all-time quality was free,” he says. “She is inimitable.”
Warwick felt lucky to work with someone she trusted as much as Davis. And to be handed a song that, she says, “Bozo the Clown could have sung and it would still be the hit it was.” The Manilow-produced “I’ll Never Love This Way Again” soared to No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100, snaring the Grammy for female pop vocal in 1980. She followed that smash with the Isaac Hayes co-written “Deja Vu,” and snagged the Grammy for female R&B vocal performance that same night.
Davis’ revitalization of Warwick’s career provided a template he later replicated with such artists as Carlos Santana, Aretha Franklin and Rod Stewart. “I get enormous gratification from that,” he says.
In 1982, a huge hit came courtesy of another Barry: the Bee Gees’ Barry Gibb. On the heels of Gibb’s success producing Barbra Streisand’s “Guilty,” Gibb reached out to Davis about working together. Ten days after that meeting, Gibb sent Davis “Heartbreaker,” which he and his brothers wrote expressly for Warwick.
“It was probably the most memorable demo that I ever got in on a song,” Davis says, playing the original demo over the phone as if he’d just received it. He recalls that Warwick immediately loved the song, but Warwick says she was slow to warm to the track. Admitting she was horrible at recognizing hits, she adds, “I learned to depend on those who had that success of knowing what they are doing and I do admit I was wrong.”
Other chart success followed, most notably “That’s What Friends Are For,” which spent four weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100 in 1986. Warwick and Arista parted ways in 1994, but Davis’s fondness for Warwick, whom he believes belongs in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, remains undiminished: “Our association was such a wonderful one,” says Davis. “It was a great run that I take great pride in.”
For her part, Warwick places Arista in rare company, specifically the label that made her records with Bacharach/David an institution. “Arista will always be special to me,” she says, “as special as Scepter Records is to this day.”
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