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(Don’t) Walk on By Dionne Warwick on her 50-year career, and why she almost passed on her biggest hit

Special to the Union Leader
July 12. 2017 1:16PM

Since the late ‘60s, Dionne Warwick has netted five Grammy Awards and a stream of iconic hits, including “Do You Know the Way to San Jose,” “Walk on By” and “What the World Needs Now.” 
If you go...
WHO: Dionne Warwick

WHEN: 8 p.m. Thursday

WHERE: Tupelo Music Hall, 10 A St., Derry

TICKETS: $75 to $90

INFO: tupelomusicall.com; 437-5100

When it comes to classic pop hits, Dionne Warwick’s versions are the crown jewels.

While songs “Alfie,” “What the World Needs Now Is Love” and “Do You Know the Way to San Jose” are cover standbys, it’s Warwick’s rich, smooth contralto that always stood out above the orchestral arrangements and touching lyrics.

Her delicate assertiveness stands out in one of her biggest hits, “Walk On By,” about a woman grieving from a bad breakup, yet shunning sympathy. “So if I seem, broken and blue, walk on by,” she sings dreamily.

Between 1962 and 1998, Warwick was a fixture in the music world with a stream of hits. Overall, her 50-year career has resulted in five Grammy Awards and billing in the Top 10 of appearances by women artists on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart since its inception in 1958.

Ahead of a show at Tupelo Music Hall in Derry tonight, Warwick, 76, talked with the NH Weekend about her reluctance to sing “Do You Know the Way to San Jose,” her time hosting “Solid Gold,” and the musical collaborations that made her famous.

Warwick, who sang gospel as a child, got her start at the Brill Building in New York City, a one-stop shop for record producers, studio execs, songwriters and set musicians hoping to break into popular music and radio.

“That was the original Tin Pan Alley — all of the publishing and the writers were housed in that building. It was just full of music,” Warwick said.

While there, Warwick sang background material for publishers and cut demo records.

Around this time, influential songwriter and composer Burt Bacharach, also at the Brill Building, had begun to team up with pop lyricist Hal David. She remembered dong a background session for the R&B group The Drifters on Bacharach’s song “Mexican Divorce” when she met the budding musician, composer and record producer. She didn’t know who he was at the time.

“No, I don’t think he really knew who he was,” she said, with a laugh. “We kind of all started out at the same time — Bacharach, David and Warwick.”

It was a signature sound on another demo that convinced the head at Scepter Records of her stage presence, she said.

“(The song ‘It’s Love That Really Counts’) was written for The Shirelles at that time. And Florence Greenberg, who was the owner of the recording company … They (Scepter Records) didn’t really care for the song, but she wanted the voice, and it was me,” Warwick said.

Warwick signed with the production company helmed by David and Bacharach, which signed with Scepter in 1962. The partnership began one of the most successful songwriting and singing teams in pop-music history.

David and Bacharach were prolific collaborators who wrote songs specifically for Warwick. Her vocals were the perfect template for their complicated time signatures and flowing orchestral arrangements.

Warwick soared to fame in the ’60s and early ’70s, recording dozens of easygoing pop gems like “Don’t Make Me Over,” “I Say A Little Prayer,” “Anyone Who Had A Heart” and “Promises Promises” “(Theme From) The Valley of the Dolls.”

The three formed a close bond.

“We ... became inseparable friends,” she said. “And they felt that I had the wherewithal to deliver the songs that they were writing vocally.”

Like any long-term friendship, sometimes there were kinks. Warwick recalled a couple of times when she initially turned down a Bacharach/David song written specifically for her.

“One was, ‘What the World Needs Now Is Love,’ which Jackie DeShannon recorded first, and the other was ‘Do You Know the Way To San Jose,’ which I really did not want to record,” Warwick said. “But eventually I did because it was so dear to Hal David.”

“San Jose” didn’t sound like a typical David song to Warwick.

“He had already written songs like ‘If Anyone Had a Heart’ and ‘Walk On By’ and ‘Don’t Make Me Over,’ and here he has a song (with) ‘whoa, whoa, whoa-whoa-whoa’?” No. That didn’t sound like something Hal David would write. So I was kind of reluctant.

“But I was wrong. What can I tell you?” she added, laughing.

Warwick says people often think she’s from San Jose. (“They did; they still do.”)She’s actually from New Jersey.

Warwick said singing about things she hasn’t experienced and making it believable is all part of working with songwriters.

“You immerse yourself in lyrics. That’s the only way you get the point across,” she said.

Bacharach and David parted ways after their musical score for the movie “Lost Horizon” in 1973 was a commercial disaster.

Warwick’s hits continued through the ’70s and ’80s, including the ballad “I’ll Never Love This Way Again” and the disco-tinged “Déjà Vu.” She did team up with Bacharach at various times, including for a cause she holds dear.

“That’s What Friends Are For,” in 1985, was a charity single that raised millions for the American Foundation for AIDS Research (amFAR). The pop song was a runaway hit for power vocal collaborators Warwick, Elton John, Stevie Wonder and Gladys Knight. “That’s What Friends Are For” was the top single that year, earning a Grammy.

Warwick is still proud of her efforts.

“What it did was it made (make) people aware of the problem — raised an awful lot of money, helped amFAR in many, many ways and other agencies that were in the same battle of trying to find medications, cures and education regarding AIDS,” Warwick said. “This song was part and parcel of making people aware.”

Warwick starred in many TV and concert specials over the years. After hosting the pilot episode in 1980, she became a regular host on “Solid Gold,” an “American Bandstand”-style TV show that previewed top hits of the time with musical performances and dancing.

“There were several times that I did personally call on friends and ask if they would do the show with me — Barry White, George Benson, Earth Wind & Fire, Frank Sinatra. Quite a few,” she said. “It was wonderful. It was a great show. I had a great time doing it, too.”

When it comes to the question of her favorite songs, Warwick declined to specify, saying only, “They’re all my babies. They’ve given me a great deal of joy, and hopefully my audiences have enjoyed them as well.”

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