Momma D: Dionne Warwick, the Grande Dame of Divas

September 11, 2010

She learnt her stagecraft from Marlene Dietrich; 50 years on, she’s mentor to Whitney Houston and P. Diddy

Dionne Warwick opens up her arms in a stage bow: “I’m looking pretty good, don’t you think,” she says. The singer seems slightly surprised to be turning 70, and, with pearly white teeth and chiselled cheekbones, she is indeed looking good. Warwick is one of the great divas of her generation, with a multiple Grammy award-winning career spanning 50 years and a personal orbit that encompasses everyone from Burt Bacharach to Marlene Dietrich, Beyoncé and Barack Obama. But on a sunny morning in early September she is in work, rather than diva, mode; turning up, without entourage, at the Apollo Theatre in London, where her 70th birthday gala will be held in honour of World Hunger Day on January 9.

She is petite in jeans, trainers, and a green sweatshirt bearing the emblem of her old school in New Jersey, which was renamed in her honour.

While acknowledging that she’s “a bit of a celebrity”, she chats happily with everyone, from the head of the charity organising World Hunger Day to the workmen — and even agrees to record an introduction for an unknown cable TV station. When the camera operator cheekily asks her to do another three takes — with feeling — others look slightly horrified, but she smiles and complies. She demands respect, but more because she thinks all young people should respect their elders. She does not need to remind anyone that she is Dionne Warwick, superstar, because self-doubt has never troubled her. “Talent will prevail,” she once told People magazine. “Nobody, bar none, can do what Dionne Warwick does.” But talent is God-given, she believes, and she has never doubted that either.

Many of her close friends and contemporaries, including Nina Simone, Michael Jackson and Luther Vandross, have led turbulent, shorter lives. But Warwick is still standing and has loyally supported and defended them all. None more so than her cousin Whitney Houston, whom she has invited to appear at her London gala. Nervous PRs have warned me that Warwick will not discuss Houston, but she does say that she has called Houston about the concert and that “I love her and she is doing very well”. The two have been close since they sang together around the family piano, and Warwick has stood by Houston through her many troubles.

Friends say Warwick pleaded with her cousin not to return to the stage too soon, and Houston’s recent run of patchy performances and illnesses on tour may have proved her right. But now, Warwick says, Whitney is “absolutely ready” to move on to the next stage of her career.

Warwick has mentored other younger stars. Michael Jackson called her “Momma D”, and she was one of the first to comfort his mother after his death. But she despairs at the lack of support given to young performers. Talent shows such as American Idol and X Factor alarm her. “They are babies,” she says, and record companies “throw $60 million at them and then don’t tell them whether to turn left or right”.

She has worked with Mary J. Blige and Beyoncé, who is produced by Warwick’s son, Damon Elliott. Of Blige, Warwick says: “The first time I met Mary she was wearing combat boots and a baseball cap on the side of her head. I told her to go away and come back when she was dressed ready to perform, and she did.”

Warwick takes stagecraft seriously; she learnt it from Marlene Dietrich, with whom she performed in Paris in the early 1960s. Dietrich, “the only other woman I could call momma”, took one look at Warwick and sent her out to buy new outfits. Long after she became famous Warwick could be spotted sitting with a legal pad at other performers’ shows jotting down what they were wearing and how they arranged their set. Success comes from meticulous professionalism, she believes.
In this, and her friendly-but-proper Methodist manner, she seems like the kind of rather strict auntie to whom even the most hardened rapper would want to be polite. Warwick once led a congressional hearing into womenhating gangsta rap lyrics, although two of her other protégés include P. Diddy
(“I call him Sean”) and Jay-Z (“I call him Shawn too”).

Warwick grew up at the heart of the black American soul community, and she has never left it, whatever the crossover appeal of her hits. Warwick’s mother led the New Jersey gospel group the Drinkard Sisters, which spawned not only Warwick’s own career but also those of her sister Dee Dee and her aunt Cissy Houston. She was the first black woman of the 1960s to appear at a Royal Command performance, and the first to win a Grammy for Best Female Vocal Performance. She toured the American South during the civil rights struggle.
In a clip, now on YouTube, she is seen attending a Democrat fundraiser with the then Senator Barack Obama, who whoops “Dionne Warwick is in the house!” before breaking into Walk On By and telling the audience that he used to put on her records when he was a bachelor who wanted to “be smooth” with the ladies. “It was a-m-a-zing,” says Warwick. She is infuriated at the right-wing “crazies” who attack him and adds that he will be vindicated when he is re-elected and his policies come to fruition. Does she think that a white Democrat President would be attacked in the same way? “No!” she says, narrowing her eyes. “No. Absolutely not.”

But although she grew up in the gospel tradition, it hasn’t always been easy to define Warwick’s style. She has never belted with the soulfulness of Aretha Franklin, or exploded like pop from the bottle like Diana Ross. Instead, she often barely moved on stage. She sang; but how she sang — in what Burt Bacharach called a “perfect” delicate and mysterious voice, with peerless lyrical interpretation. Her Bacharach and Hal David hits of the 1960s, which included Don’t Make Me Over, Walk On By, Do You Know the Way to San José? and Alfie, dried up during the next decade before Warwick emerged again in partnership first with Barry Manilow and then with the Bee Gees to produce even bigger hits — I’ll Never Love This Way Again, Heartbreaker and That’s What Friends are For.

In between she dabbled with numerology — adding an “e” to the end of Warwick for several years, and appeared on American TV on behalf of the Psychic Friends Network before a crushing encounter with a little girl in an airport — “It’s the lady from the psychic network!” — reminded her that music was indeed her true calling. But “most people on the street are interested in those kinds of things”, she says now — brushing off any inconsistency between believing in numerology and Christianity at the same time because, “one is about faith, and one is about science”.

Above all she has grafted, touring the world almost non-stop and taking on humanitarian causes long before it was a popular celebrity pastime.

Warwick was one of the first to raise awareness about Aids in the 1980s, tackling head on the discomfort about the disease, and gay men, within the black community. She took part in Live Aid, adopted a favela in Brazil where she sometimes lives, and is a long-serving UN Ambassador for Food and Agriculture.

If she has campaigned on poverty and hunger it is still a little surprising that she has chosen a small, little known charity, the Hunger Project, to benefit from her 70th birthday gala. Not so, she says. Since the 1970s the Hunger Project has been educating local people at grassroots level to end their own poverty and improve their lives.

It’s all about empowerment, says Warwick — just as the little girl in East Orange, New Jersey, turned into a superstar through her own efforts. She had a hand-up, not a hand-out. “I never doubted that I would be somebody, even when I didn’t know what kind of somebody I would become,” she says, “I always knew that I would be an accomplished person.”

Comments (0)

Add your comment:


Recent Posts


Welcome to my website. I hope these pages give you a flavour of some of my work in books, print, onl…

Recent News

Istanbul Arrival

Last week I was in Istanbul attending a Youth Forum for teenagers from around the world. But not eve…

Nelson Mandela Dies - Grazia

When Nelson Mandela retired after serving one five-year term as President of South Africa in 1999 he…

China Debates....

I’ve just returned from China, after a gap of about 16 years, and I met these undergraduates – comin…

Top Ten Articles

Polio's Last Stand

Eradicating the Last 1% of Polio Is Deadly But Essential

When 40-year-old Liberian civil servan…

Life and Love with 'The Greatest': Muhammad Ali

When Yolanda “Lonnie” Williams was six years old she looked out of her front door in Louisville,…

Momma D: Dionne Warwick, the Grande Dame of Divas

She learnt her stagecraft from Marlene Dietrich; 50 years on, she’s mentor to Whitney Houston and …

India's Barefoot Revolution

What would it be like if women ran the world? In some parts of India, it’s already happening


How one man gave Congo’s women hope

*Life is hell for women caught up in the conflict in the Congo. But one remarkable doctor helps surv…

‘If they gave me a house, I’d take it tomorrow’

All I want is to die under this mountain.” Noor Ebrahim, a slightly-built former messenger for Rea…

It’s murder on your mobile, says The Killing’s Sarah Lund

Hit crime drama The Killing is back for a second series, and Karen Bartlett talks mobile phone foren…

Skateistan: How skateboarding took off with Afghan kids

It’s no surprise that in a world full of rules most kids want to do something with no organisation…

Growing Up X

Fifty years after he was killed, the daughter of Malcolm X wants to make sure her father isn’t writt…

Bringing Anne Frank Home – to Germany

Like many people in their seventies and eighties, Buddy Elias and his wife Gertie are downsizing –…

©2011 Karen Bartlett | Goodcleanfunk