A brief conversation with the legendary Dionne Warwick

Dionne Warwick.
Dionne Warwick. Courtesy of artist

At 78 years old, music icon, activist, and hitmaker Dionne Warwick is still preaching the gospel of her 1966 collaboration with songwriters Burt Bacharach and Hal David, "What the World Needs Now Is Love." 

"I wish we could saturate the world with it," Warwick says of love during a brief phone call, during which she places me on several holds as she packs for a pair of concerts — assuring me that her suitcase is not nearly as big as some people might expect, considering her diva status.

"The song means exactly the same when it was written," she says. "It's written around the time of the Vietnam War. I mean, I don't understand what's going on with the world right now. I really don't."

Well, what is going on in the world, at least in Warwick's, is a forthcoming Christmas album and a new-ish record, 2019's She's Back, which finds the recent Lifetime Achievement Award-recipient teaming up with Kenny Lattimore, Brian McKnight, Musiq Soulchild, and Bone Thugs-n-Harmony's Krayzie Bone (all of whom might fall into Warwick's categorization of non-classic artists, which she dotingly labels "babies").

"Nope. That music is not for my ears," she says when asked if she's inspired by any contemporary artists, or "babies." Earlier this year, during an interview with Essence, Warwick disturbed the Bey-hive when she suggested that superstar Beyoncé, and others like her, have yet to achieve icon status.

"Well, let's take one of the major icons of our history: Ella Fitzgerald," Warwick says. "She recorded in the early '40s and we're still hearing her. Fifty years later, you're still listening to her. I think [Beyoncé's] an icon in the eyes of those who feel she is. I personally feel like she's growing into that. I could not be more proud of her and her success. But when you compare her to an Ella Fitzgerald, I think it takes a little foresight."

Warwick speaks very matter of factly, ending sentences so abruptly you can almost hear the punctuation. She doesn't have any thoughts about the recent announcement that a hologram tour starring Warwick's late cousin, Whitney Houston, is slated to hit the road next year. (Warwick has very publicly warred with the makers of the 2018 documentary, Whitney, which leveled accusations that Warwick's sister, Dee Dee, molested Houston during childhood. We don't discuss this, either.)

The singer also has little to say about Detroit or her friend — and, according to some headlines, rival — Aretha Franklin. "I've known Aretha since we were teenagers," she says. "We practically grew up together. We were dear friends. I miss her terribly and the industry misses her terribly."

She does, however, have a fun story about how the 1985 hit song "That's What Friends Are For" — which earned Warwick her fifth Grammy Award — came to be.

"I was in the throes of listening to songs of Burt Bacharach and Carole Bayer Sager at the time," she says. "The evening after my first meeting with them, I came home and turned the TV on and it was a movie called Night Shift. And they do this theme at the end of that movie, and it was 'That's What Friends Are For' being sung by Rod Stewart, and I watched the crawl to see who had written it. As it turns out it was written by Burt Bacharach and Carole Bayer Sager. I was going back up the next morning to hear more songs and I'd mentioned this song to them, and Carol who is quite a hoot anyway, she says, 'Well, now four people know that song: you, me, Burt and Rod.' Well, I think the world should hear this song, how about that?"

Warwick says that because of the nature of the song, she thought it was best to invite some friends in high places to join her in the studio. Warwick picked up her phone and locked in Gladys Knight. Shortly after she got Stevie Wonder, who just so happened to be in New Jersey — Warwick's hometown and place of residence. By some weird, cosmic coincidence, she bumped into Elton John at the supermarket. They recorded the track the next day, and the rest, as Warwick says, is "history or her-story." 

Looking toward the future, Warwick plans a much overdue collaboration with her favorite band Earth, Wind, and Fire, and her sights are forever set on gold... lots of gold. For Warwick, success is simply put, though not easily earned: "An Oscar, an Emmy, and a Tony," she says. "Not necessarily in that order."

Dionne Warwick performs on Sunday, Oct. 6 at Sound Board at MotorCity Casino Hotel; 2901 Grand River Ave., Detroit; 313-309-4614; soundboarddetroit.com. Doors open at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $38+

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