The many eras of Miss Dionne Warwick – could the latest be the greatest?

(April 8, 2021).  Move over Cher.  Keith Richards eat your heart out.

There’s another 1960s-era diva who has defied the unwritten laws of pop culture longevity and is as popular with a younger generation of folks today as she was nearly 60 years ago when she graced audiences with “Don’t Make Me Over,” her début single and first chart hit.

Dionne Warwick

That diva is Dionne Warwick, the legendary singer who will be vying for her rightful place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame later this month and who has also launched a set of virtual home concerts – “Dionne Warwick: At Home With You” – the first of which was planned for Easter Sunday, April 4, the latter scheduled for Mother’s Day.  Multiple shows on both dates are airing via the live-streaming platform Mandolin.

Of course, it’s lame to include Keith Richards in a list of divas, and it’s probably equally as inappropriate to imply that Dionne Warwick is the “Keith Richards of” anything, but Ms. Warwick has certainly reinvented herself and her career more times than, say, Dolly Parton, John Travolta and Wayne Newton…combined!

Certainly no other R&B singers have had as many “eras” as Auntie Dionne, not even the late great Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin, with whom Dionne famously shared a common hit, “I Say A Little Prayer For You,” in the late 1960s.  

Miss Warwick, the singing legend, has been in the music business since the late 1950s and doesn’t appear to have an ending anywhere in her sights.

Just two years ago she released an album appropriately titled She’s Back, which featured a remake of her 1979 classic “Deja Vu,” a song written by the late Isaac Hayes. The newer, awe-inspiring version featured none other than rapper Krayzie Bone from the ‘90s speed-rap group Bone Thugs-n-Harmony. 

Let me say that again: two years ago – in 2019 – then-78-year-old Dionne Warwick recorded a song with Krayzie Bone of Bone Thugs-n-Harmony.  And SHE’S the more relevant one at this point.

Now 80 years young and a fresh member of the octogenarian club, Auntie Dionne is as pertinent as ever, having carved a new niche as the “Queen of Black Twitter,” playing a social media troll to today’s younger generation of celebrities and regularly trending with her namesake hashtag.  In recent months, her tweets (or “twotes” as she calls them) have been the stuff of legends, taking light-hearted jabs at everyone from Snoop Dogg to Megan Thee Stallion and from The Weeknd to Chance the Rapper.  

So relevant is she that Warwick, or “Dionne the Singer” as she jokingly referred to herself in a retort to Chance the Rapper’s moniker, was recently the subject of skits in two different episodes of SNL (where she was hilariously played by cast member Ego Nwodim).  In the segments, Warwick was portrayed as a talk show host cluelessly interviewing the same celebrities that have been on the receiving end of her twotes, along with a few others.

Dionne the Singer and twote target Chance the Rapper

It’s all worked to keep Ms. Warwick’s profile as high as ever, and now the RRHOF Class of 2021 nominee – one of a record seven nominated female acts, four of them African American – is waiting to see if she’ll be among those selected this month for induction…long overdue in her case, I might add.

With all of the recent successes for Auntie Dionne, I thought it would be fun to take a quick look back at the many other incarnations of this legendary singer and entertainer’s career.  What follows are short vignettes capsulizing each of her “nine eras” – the equivalent of a cat with “nine lives” – beginning in the 1940s and continuing right up to the present.

Understandably, some of these eras overlap, but they’re each nonetheless distinctive and deserve their own mentions in recaps like this.

One.  1940s-50s:  Dionne’s humble beginnings.  Dionne Warwick was born on December 12, 1940 in East Orange, NJ.  She’s introduced to music early in life, singing in church and playing piano for her family in the group The Drinkard Sisters (consisting of her maternal aunt, Cissy Houston).  Warwick would also sing in place of absent adult members before breaking from the Drinkards to form her own group with sister Dee Dee called the Gospelaires.   The Gospelaires didn’t have major success, but it was through some New York recording sessions with them that Dionne met composer and producer Burt Bacharach, who invited her to perform demos with him and lyricist Hal David, and the rest – as they say – is history.

Dionne Warwick (circa early 1960s)

Two.  1960s: Dionne sings Burt Bacharach/Hal David pop classics.  After connecting with Bacharach and David, Dionne Warwick exploded onto the pop music scene of the 1960s, recording dozens of hits for the Scepter record label, including classics like “Walk on By,” “Alfie,” “I Say A Little Prayer For You,” “Do You Know The Way To San Jose,” and countless others.  Largely because of this era, Warwick had the second-most charted singles by a female on the Billboard Hot 100 during the 20th century behind Aretha Franklin.  Her “(Theme From) Valley of the Dolls” was her biggest hit of the 1960s, peaking at No. 2 in 1968.  Her first two Grammys – both for best female contemporary pop vocal – came in 1968 (“San Jose”) and 1970 (“I’ll Never Fall In Love Again”).  This period came to an end in 1972 after Bacharach, David and Warwick quarreled and then parted ways.  

Three. 1974: “Then Came You” w/the Spinners is the pinnacle of Dionne’s Warner/Atlantic days.  Warwick spent the next few years with Warner Brothers records and, although she kept recording, didn’t have a top-40 hit after 1970’s “Make It Easy On Yourself” until 1974.  That’s when she teamed up with famed Philly soul writer/producer Thom Bell, who gave her “Then Came You.”  She recorded the song as a duet with legendary soul group The Spinners, who were on a major hot streak at that point.  Warwick, whose name had alternated between two different spellings at that point (including Warwicke with the “e” added) was given top-billing, although the song was recorded on the Spinners’ home label, Atlantic Records, likely to give a sense of continuity with their earlier hits during the era.  The marketing worked, and “Then Came You” not only returned Dionne to the top 40, but it became her first No. 1 single in a career that was now 13 years old.

Dionne Warwick had an incredible hit-making stint with Arista Records

Four.  1979-83: Arista era begins with “I’ll Never Love This Way Again.”  Dionne’s Arista era begins with Clive Davis’ record label and the diva (Dionne, not Clive) gets her first top ten hit in five years with the rousing ballad produced by pop tunesmith Barry Manilow.  It is quickly followed by the mellow “Deja Vu,” a No. 15 hit written by Isaac Hayes.  She follows that with several more hits, including the Bee Gees’ produced top-10 smash “Heartbreaker,” a song that proved that this comeback was no fluke.  The eras that follow immediately below were clearly the result of this period in Ms. Warwick’s incredible story.  

Five. 1980-81, 84-85, 85-86:  On-and-off-and-on again “Solid Gold” hosting period.  Firmly entrenched in the 1980s, Dionne ventured into hosting a new pop hits countdown show called “Solid Gold” in 1980.  The cheesy show had professional dancers who performed oddly choreographed numbers to the week’s popular tunes (how many of you remember dancer Darcel Wynne?), an in-house countdown announcer (the late Robert W. Morgan), the late comedian Wayland Flowers and Madame, the popular over-sexualized puppet he created, and Ms. Warwick hosting and singing current hits – both hers and that of other artists – along with the show’s theme song.  Despite the show’s many hosts over the years, including fellow singers Marilyn McCoo and Andy Gibb, “Solid Gold” remains a signature of its first host, Dionne Warwick, whose final stint ended with the 1985/86 season.  

Six.  1986:  “That’s What Friends Are For” – her biggest hit ever.  When Dionne recorded the song “That’s What Friends Are For” with Gladys Knight, Stevie Wonder and Elton John for HIV/AIDS relief in 1985, she hadn’t had a top-10 pop hit in nearly three years.  Aside from becoming Dionne’s first No. 1 on the pop chart in eleven years and her first No. 1 Billboard soul chart hit ever (she topped Cashbox’s soul chart with two songs in 1964 when Billboard didn’t run a soul list), “That’s What Friends Are For” wound up being the biggest pop single of 1986.  At the time, Dionne was the oldest woman to ever have a No. 1 Hot 100 hit (her singing partner Gladys Knight was 41; Tina Turner was 44 when she topped the chart in 1984).  Not bad for a then-45-year-old woman whose charting days went back 24 years.  “Friends” still ranks as her biggest hit and stands out as a career pinnacle deserving an era all its own.  

Seven. 1990s: Psychic Friends Network.  After “Friends” and a few more late-1980s hits, Ms. Warwick’s chart success once again waned in the 1990s.  Not to worry, our diva found yet another way to keep the paychecks rolling in.  Okay, this may be one we all would like to forget (it’s been reported that Dionne certainly would).  But “then came” the millions of dollars she banked from the popular infomercial that pushed past the boundaries of reality and made Ms. Warwick a household name all over again.  How many of you remember her friend and psychic Linda Georgian?  Georgian passed away in 2012, but the Psychic Friends Network she hosted with Warwick remains the most successful TV infomercial ever produced.

Dionne Warwick and Linda Georgian (circa early 1990s)

Eight.  2011 – 2020: Dionne enters the reality TV/ celebrity competition era.  Dionne entered the celebrity reality competition show era with a bang, by making waves on two of its most prominent programs.  She took turns on Donald Trump’s Celebrity Apprentice 4 in 2011 and again on The Masked Singer in 2020.  Warwick showed that such shows just aren’t complete without including septuagenarian pop singers well past their hit-making primes.  Either that or Ms. Warwick was out to show that life just doesn’t end at 70.   Either way, she made impressive runs on each show.  Dionne wasn’t “fired” from Trump’s Apprentice until the fourth task, and – as the Mouse – she made it to the fifth round of The Masked Singer.  Through it all, Warwick also continued to tour and release albums, setting the stage for what came next: the latest chapter in this iconic singer’s life and career…

Nine. 2021: Social media relevance, virtual concerts and nomination to the Rock Hall of Fame.  After going from recording career to TV show host to infomercials to reality TV, it’s only natural that the next world for Dionne Warwick to tackle would be the Internet, and social media in particular.  As the current “Queen of Black Twitter,” Auntie Dionne has trolled some of the biggest names in contemporary music – and young people in general – and has even traded fandom with the likes of rappers Cardi B and Nicki Minaj.  She now has over half-million Twitter followers and tens of thousands on Instagram.  Okay, those numbers may be modest by younger standards, but we’re talking about an 80-year-old icon here, one whose life even predates the 45 rpm vinyl single.

Dionne Warwick on “The Masked Singer” in 2020

So now Dionne, Twitter Queen and the current subject of SNL parodies, has solidified her career in the Internet age, scheduling virtual concerts and landing smack dab in the heart of the 21st century.  

And, for good measure, in case you needed yet another reminder of her omnipresence, here’s a little bit of Internet fun being poked at Dionne and a few other legendary divas in this hilarious “Got 2B Real” parody from the early 2010s:

Needless to say, Dionne Warwick has been and continues to be one of the most accomplished singers and entertainers of all time.  Congratulations to Ms. Warwick on her long overdue 2021 nomination to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  Here’s hoping she gets in!

And check back later for a review of her virtual concerts.  Djrobblog will definitely be covering one of them.  

DJRob 

DJRob is a freelance music blogger from somewhere on the East Coast who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff!  You can follow him on Twitter at @djrobblog.

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