Dionne Warwick: The golden muse

Warwick's work with Bacharach/David spanned genres, generations

The 1960s were many things, still debated to this day, but one thing seems clear from a perspective of a half-century; it was a great time for popular music. All popular music. And Dionne Warwick had the good luck and great timing to have been the muse for one of the most prolific and all-embracing songwriting teams who shaped the music of the decade — composer Burt Bacharach and lyricist Hal David.

From 1962 to 1971, 33 Warwick/Bacharach/David records made the Billboard charts, of which seven became Top Ten singles. But cold statistics tell only a small part of the story, for Bacharach had come up with an unorthodox style all his own that could be embraced literally by everyone from teenagers to oldsters.

One reason is that Bacharach could pull into his sound world many influences that were in the air at the time. There was rock ‘n’ roll, still a relatively new presence on the scene; indeed, Warwick’s first hit “Don’t Make Me Over” is grounded in doo-wop triplets. Bossa nova, a permutation of Brazilian samba, had washed north by 1962, and you can hear the softly ticking rhythm imbedded within many Warwick/Bacharach/David hits. Warwick, who now lives part-time in Brazil, says, “I had been singing Brazilian music without even knowing it!” Old-style Tin Pan Alley was present, too, in many of David’s unrequited love lyrics, and Bacharach’s classical training — which included studies with Darius Milhaud — could be felt in the sleek sheen of his arrangements.

On top of this, Bacharach would gradually throw more and more personal curves into his songs, like devilishly alternating time signatures that made the rhythms a moving target (nowhere more so than in the notoriously tough “Promises, Promises”), or melodies with weird leaps and plunges. With her light, agile, in-tune, rhythmically-alert voice, Warwick could handle anything Bacharach and David threw at her, although she recalls that it always took at least 25 full takes per song to get it done. “He (Burt) always heard something he wanted to add or take away,” Warwick says. “Yet it always ended up being the second or third take of the tune (that was released).”

There was a quiet, restless energy in many of these records that subtly reflected the turbulent, innovative, edgy times in which they were made. Eventually, the angst of the era surfaced in David’s lyrics, although sometimes that wouldn’t become public knowledge until many years later. For example, “I Say a Little Prayer” was originally addressed to the soldiers in Vietnam —  as if Warwick were speaking for their working women back home — and “The Windows of the World” is specifically anti-war.

Bacharach’s music was a rare unifying force in a polarized era — and as a result, these records were just as comfortable a fit on Top 40 radio as they were on middle-of-the-road stations. Perhaps only Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass — whose records sometimes shared aspects of the Bacharach/David sound —  had a similarly strong cross-generational appeal then.

“I Say a Little Prayer” turned out to be the apex of the Warwick/Bacharach/David team’s chart action, for the hits started to peter out as the 1970s began, despite such underrated late gems as “Odds and Ends” and “Paper Mache” — the latter a jaundiced view of consumerism. Then in 1973, the collaboration blew apart with the bitter breakup of the Bacharach/David team after the film for which they wrote a score, “Lost Horizon,” bombed at the box office. Lawsuits flew between the partners and between Warwick and her colleagues.

Separately, their visibility seemed to fade when disco subsequently hit — and their songs fell into temporary eclipse, probably from overexposure.

But by 1985, Bacharach —  now with a new partner, Carole Bayer Sager —  had reconciled with Warwick, and had mastered the generic ballad idiom of that era. The result was Warwick’s biggest hit, “That’s What Friends Are For,” with Stevie Wonder, Elton John and Gladys Knight chiming in, and the proceeds going to AIDS research.

There would be additional Warwick/Bacharach collaborations: concert tours, including an appearance in a multi-star Bacharach/David tribute in 2000 at London’s Royal Albert Hall (available on DVD), or occasional songs like the one-shot Bacharach/David reunion track “Sunny Weather Lover” from Warwick’s 1993 album “Friends Can Be Lovers.”

Unquestionably, though, it is their output from the 1960s that is turning out to be the team’s most durable legacy. And no, we haven’t heard all of it, for Warwick says, “There were four or five songs that are very dear to me,” that never got released, adding, “But I don’t want to tell you what they are because I don’t want anybody to do them before I do!”

Dionne Warwick: 50 Years in Music:
The golden muse | ‘Heart’ reveals penchant for jazz | Warwick’s walk of fame | Clive factor revived Dionne’s career | Warwick feeds philanthropic hunger