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The incredible career of Dionne Warwick

CNN just aired a two-hour documentary New Years on the life and career of Dionne Warwick. It was a long overdue tribute to one of the greatest female vocalists of the pop-rock era. It also is a story of one of the greatest creative musical collaborations, involving Warwick, Burt Bacharach and a self-described bored New Jersey housewife, Florence Greenberg.

Dionne Warwick

Dionne was born in East Orange New Jersey. As a child she sang in the church choir. Her mother was involved in music as the manager of the gospel group, the Drinkard Singers. Dionne received a musical education at the Hartt College of Music in Connecticut and she started working professionally as a background singer in New York with a group called the Gospelaires, that included Dionne’s aunt, Cissy Houston, the mother of Whitney Houston. The group was asked to sing backgound on a recording for the Drifters that was written by Burt Bacharach who asked her if she would sing on some of the demo recordings of songs he was pitching to various artists at $12.50 a pop. One such demo, “It’s Love That Really Counts” – destined to be recorded by the Scepter label’s act the Shirelles – caught the attention of the President of Scepter Records, Florence Greenberg, who, told Bacharach, “Forget the song, get the girl!”

Burt Bacharach

Bacharach

At the time Bacharach met Dionne he had already had some success in the pop music field, working with lyricist Hal David but other collaborators as well. Born in Kansas City, his musical mother taught him piano. He then went on to obtain formal training in music at McGill in Montreal and other music schools. He worked as a pianist and arranger for singer Vic Damone, and later became a part time music director for Marlene Dietrich’s night club show. After that he met Hal David in New York and they collaborated on hits for Marty Robbins and Perry Como. By the time he met up with Warwick Bacharach had collaborated on hits for the Drifters, Gene McDaniels and Chuck Jackson, who happened to be signed to Florence Greenberg’s Scepter label.

Florence Greeenberg and Dionne celebrating a gold record

Florence Greenberg

Florence Greenberg was 43 years old when she got involved in the music business. As her children grew up, she became bored and started hanging around the Brill Building where most pop and rock tunes were being churned out. A friend of her husband Freddy Bienstock was a successful record promoter, who became prominent for his selection of songs to be recorded by Elvis Presley. So great was his influence that Elvis would not consider a tune unless Freddy had heard it first. It was Freddy that got Florence introduced to the business. In 1958, she started her own record company, Tiara Records and signed her first group, the Shirelles. She released one tune by the group and promptly sold it and the Shirelles’ contract for $4,000, which she used to start Scepter Records—a company that would be one of the most successful independent labels in the rock era.

The Collaboration

In November 1962, Greenberg’s Scepter Records released, Warwick’s recording of “Don’t Make Me Over,” by Bacharach and David, and the great collaboration was underway. The song rose to number 21 on the Billboard chart and was followed by “Anyone Who Had a Heart,” which hit the number 8 position and “Walk on By,” which reached number 6 in spite of the British invasion which ended the careers of many US pop stars. Over the next five years, Warwick would land in the top ten four times and the top 40 eleven times. The symbiotic relationship had propelled Warwick, Bacharach-David and Greenberg  top the top of their respective professions, but it was not to last—it was the music business, after all. For Scepter, Warwick had sold over 35 million singles and albums, but in 1971 Warner Records lured her away with a $5 Million contract. Bacharach, David and Warwick all sued Scepter for accurate accounting of royalties, and Bacharach and David were awarded $600,000. With the loss of Warwick and the lawsuits, it wasn’t long before Scepter was bankrupt. Then Bacharach and David split up as a team and that had a negative impact on Warwick’s chart success overall, although she did have one number one hit with “Then Came You” with the Spinners.

In 1979 Dionne Warwick signed with Arista and had success with the Barry Manilow-produced “Ill Never Love This Way Again”, followed by a string of hit albums and singles. Chart success tapered off in the  1990’s and beyond and in 2013 Warwick declared bankruptcy owing $10 million is federal and state taxes. Despite the setbacks, Warwick continues to show up on TV and is currently on tour in the US.

In a career spanning six decades, Dionne Warwick is the second-most charted female vocalist during the rock era (1955–1999). She is also one of the most-charted vocalists of all time, with 56 of her singles making the Hot 100 between 1962 and 1998 (12 of them Top Ten), and 80 singles in total – either solo or collaboratively – making the Hot 100, R&B and/or adult contemporary charts.

During her amazing career, she has sold more than 100 million records worldwide and she has won many awards, including six Grammy Awards. Warwick has been inducted into the Hollywood Walk of Fame, the Grammy Hall of Fame, the R&B Music Hall of Fame and the Apollo Theater Walk of Fame. In 2019 she won the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. Three of her songs (“Walk On By”, “Alfie” and “Don’t Make Me Over”) have been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.

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