It is probably only in hindsight that I've come to realize how artists like Dionne Warwick were pivotal in fostering my lifelong appreciation of virtuoso singers.
An ubiquitous presence over the airwaves throughout the 60s, I'm not sure I completely appreciated her gifts then. She was just always there, with one hit after the other - 20 during that decade alone - served up via what she has described as the "three-sided marriage that worked" - her lengthy collaboration with composer Burt Bacharach and lyricist Hal David.
Before she was discovered by Bacharach, Warwick had her own gospel group, the Gospelaires, with sister Dee Dee and aunt Cissy Houston, and sang backup on records for the Drifters, Bobby Darin, Dinah Washington, Brook Benton, the Shirelles, Ruth Brown and Chuck Jackson. It was at a Drifters recording session for the song Mexican Divorce that the two met.
Originally hired to cut demos, it was soon clear that Warwick was destined to be a star in her own right, and had her first hit with Don't Make Me Over. Her songs were a thing apart from rock and roll or R&B, and being hard to classify were sometimes relegated to that category of popular music that was seen somehow as less cool. Yet when I listen to these songs today, I find many of them quite breathtaking, and they unfailingly evoke my teenage years.
Dionne was easily the most serene and elegant female performer of that era, with a wide vocal register that defied description and made for deceptively easy listening. Check it out ... Although an earlier version of I Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself was a hit for Dusty Springfield, I find that arrangement much more overwrought than seems strictly necessary. Dionne's version captured what it feels like to confront the emptiness of lost love to perfection.
In a 2003 story on Warwick in the Independent, Elvis Costello described the Tao of Dionne thusly: "The things that make Burt and Hal's songs extraordinary also create all kinds of difficulties for a performer. In Dionne Warwick, Bacharach and David found this incredibly talented singer who was able to negotiate things that were metrically and harmonically terribly complex, and make them sound conversational and effortless. She has great control and range: she has that dry, close voice but she can also get really big and dramatic without ever sounding strained. Bacharach used to say: `Don't count it - feel it.' And Dionne feels it. That's her great gift."