In 1962, hustling Brill Building songwriters Burt Bacharach and Hal David were trying to coax a talented young singer named Dionne Warrick to step out as a solo artist.
The North Jersey native was then splitting time between studying at the Hartt School of Music in Connecticut and singing sessions for the Drifters and the Shirelles with a group that included her sister Dee Dee and cousin Cissy Houston.
She was game to go solo, on one condition: She wanted to make her debut with a particular Bacharach-David song that she had already sung on the demo version.
“One day, I was one my way into New York from Hartford to do some session work, and I had the radio on in my car,” recalls the singer, who will be honored as the 2017 recipient of the Marian Anderson Award, named after the Philadelphia opera singer and social activist, at a gala concert at the Kimmel Center’s Verizon Hall on Tuesday
“I heard a song called ‘Make it Easy on Yourself’ being sung by Jerry Butler. And I was not a happy camper,” she says. “So when I walked into the studio and saw Bacharach and David, I let them know that I was not very happy that Jerry Butler had recorded my song. And I told them the one thing that they could never do was promise me one thing, and then try to make me do something I’m not ready to do. Don’t try to make me over.”
An idea lit up the room. “Hal David put pen to paper and came up with a song called “Don’t Make Me Over,” says the 76-year-old singer, who was speaking from a North Jersey recording studio near her home in Essex County. “And the rest is history.”
Part of that history involves a misspelling: On the Scepter Records label, her name was mistakenly spelled Dionne Warwick, and when the song became a hit — the first of many by Bacharach and David to reach the Top 40 — she stuck with the new spelling.
“Don’t Make Me Over,” which is also the title of a documentary of Warwick’s life that aims to debut at the Sundance Film Festival in January, is recognized in retrospect as a proto-feminist anthem. “Accept me for what I am, accept me for the things that I do,” Warwick sang at the crescendo.
The song launched her career. With 56 singles in the Top 100, Warwick is the second-most frequently charting female artist of all time, “only behind Miss Aretha Franklin,” as she states with pride. Besides a stunning ’60s run with Bacharach and David, she went on to record in the 1970s with Philadelphia-connected producers Jerry Ragavoy and Thom Bell, who helmed “Then Came You,” her 1974 duet with the Spinners that hit No. 1.
She had a third successful act working with Arista Records head Clive Davis, whom Warwick calls “my surrogate father.” Late-career easy listening hits included “I’ll Never Love This Way Again” in 1979 and “That’s What Friends Are For,” written by Bacharach and Carole Bayer Sager in 1985.
“There was something about Dionne,” says Bacharach, speaking on the phone from Los Angeles. The 89-year-old songwriter recalled an encounter with his future collaborator when she was part of a group of four singers working on the Drifters’ “Mexican Divorce.”
“It wasn’t just her singing, because they were all great. There was something about her carriage, the way she looked. Some sort of star quality. Something about her cheekbones, her sneakers, whatever. After the recording date, she came in to sing for Hal David and myself. And she was special, there was no doubt about it.”
Warwick, Bacharach, and David had a string of 1960s hits: “Anyone Who Had a Heart,” “I Say a Little Prayer,” “This Girl’s in Love with You.” Many, like “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?” floated on feathery melodies that disguised downright depressing, disconsolate lyrics.
“Hal David was a poet,” Warwick said of the lyricist, who died in 2012. “I was lucky enough to be the interpreter of his thoughts. …That was the beauty of his lyrics: They told the story of everybody’s life.”
Bacharach melodies were a challenge to “decipher,” she says. “It was kind of like taking an exam every time I saw him in the studio. That kept me on my toes.”
Working with Warwick allowed Bacharach to stretch himself. “It enabled you to expand the risk factor,” the composer says. “To see what she could do, what range she had. And Dionne could sing so softly and understated. You listen to ‘Walk on By’ after all these years and say, ‘Wow’! And these were live vocals. She didn’t come in the next day and do overdubs. We made some great records with her.”
“We were known in the industry as a triangle marriage,” Warwick says. “We each had our own obligation to the song we were recording at the time.”
The trio’s decade-long run was launched in part because “Don’t Make Me Over,” was championed by a young Philadelphia deejay who had a show on Camden AM radio station WCAM.
“Dionne Warwick with Burt Bacharach and Hal David changed the way rock and roll was looked upon,” says Jerry “The Geator” Blavat.
Before Bacharach’s sophisticated melodies and shifting time signatures, “rock and roll was basically triplets, heavy beats. Movin’, rockin’, hoochie coochie coo. Hank Ballard, Joe Turner, Fats Domino. But Burt came up with musical compositions that changed the structure of what people thought was rock and roll. And Dionne was perfect for delivering it. She was like a Nubian queen. Tall, beautiful. You saw where the soul was.”
The Marian Anderson Award honors critically acclaimed artists who have impacted society in a positive way, either through their work or their support for an important cause. Last year, it was shared by Patti LaBelle, Kenny Gamble, and Leon Huff, and past winners include Wynton Marsalis, Richard Gere, and Oprah Winfrey.
“I could not be more thrilled, I am so excited about it,” says Warwick, who will be feted by Darlene Love and Russell Thompkins Jr. & the New Stylisitics, among others. “To receive an award that represents such an icon is absolutely amazing.”
Warwick’s illustrious musical family includes her cousins the late Whitney Houston and opera singer Leontyne Price. “All kinds of music was played in my home, including opera,” Warwick says. “And [Anderson] was one of the people we would listen to. She was held in high esteem by everyone.”
Blavat says Warwick, who in 2002 was named global ambassador for the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization, is an ideal Marian Anderson Award winner “because she followed in the footsteps of a pioneer not only in music, but as person who stands out in her community who’s always represented her people with dignity and class.”
In addition to the Don’t Make Me Over doc, Warwick says there’s a dramatic biopic in the works, with former Destiny’s Child member LeToya Luckett starring in the title role, and Danny Glover as her father and Olympia Dukakis as Marlene Dietrich (one of five women, along with Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Diahann Carroll, and Lena Horne who Warwick says “showed me who I am.”)
Warwick realizes younger audiences may know her through the ubiquitous late-night TV infomercials she appeared in in the 1990s. “I’m sure there are people who know me only from the Psychic Friends Network,” she says. “But the majority of people know that Dionne Warwick sang for a living. And these two movies can give people the insight that everybody should have.”
Dogged by debts to the Internal Revenue Service, Warwick declared bankruptcy in 2012. “It’s not a secret,” she says. “I’m still living, I’m still working. I’m still viable.”
Warwick grew up singing in church, but she was never conflicted about crossing over to pop songs the way many artists of her generation were.
“My aspirations were always to be who Dionne Warwick was,” she says. “My grandfather was a minister. He’s my biggest fan. His attitude was: I’m making an honest living using the gift that God gave me. And as long as I continue to use it the right way, the gift will always be mine.”