A bona fide diva and five-time Grammy winner Dionne Warwick takes the stage at Norman’s Riverwind Casino on Friday. In the 1960s, her sophisticated but heartfelt vocal stylings made her a favorite of the powerhouse songwriting team of Burt Bacharach and Hal David. Warwick’s first hit with the pair came in 1962 with “Don’t Make Me Over ,” which launched a string of blockbusters including “Walk on By,” “Anyone Who Had a Heart,” “Message to Michael,” “Do You Know the Way to San Jose,” “Promises, Promises,” “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again,” “Alfie” and “This Girl’s in Love with You.” According to Billboard, Warwick is second only to Aretha Franklin in the number of most-charted songs for a female vocalist.
When Bacharach and David parted ways in 1972, Warwick forged on with Top 40 hits in collaboration with the Spinners (“Then Came You” in 1974) and the Bee Gees (“Heartbreaker” in 1983). She reunited with Bacharach and his then-songwriting partner, Carole Bayer Sager, to cut “That ‘s What Friends Are For” in 1985. Recorded with Gladys Knight, Elton John and Stevie Wonder, the single helped raise millions of dollars for AIDS research.
Her most recent album, 2008’s “Why I Sing,” grounds Warwick in her gospel roots. Among the stage star’s first groups was the Gospelaires, which Warwick formed with members of her New Jersey church choir.
Oklahoma Gazette recently caught up with the 68-year-old superstar and posed some questions via e-mail.
OKG: You obviously have deep roots in gospel music dating back to your earliest days in music. How did “Why We Sing,” and your first gospel record in 40 years, come about?
Warwick: The time presented itself to go into the studio, and it seemed like the right time for me to do this.
OKG: What are the differences, if any, in how you approach a pop song as opposed to a gospel song?
Warwick: There is no difference; it has to do with understanding what I am saying and the emotions that go with the words.
OKG: The story of how you met Burt Bacharach during the recording of the Drifters’ “Mexican Divorce” in the early 1960s is somewhat legendary. Can you tell me a bit about how your professional involvement with Bacharach and Hal David happened?
Warwick: It was while doing background (singing) on this song. After the session, Burt approached me and asked if I’d be interested in doing some demonstration records of songs he would be writing with a new writing partner, Hal David. The rest, as is said, is history.
OKG: What do you think accounts for the enduring popularity and timelessness of Bacharach-David songs? Where do you put them in the pantheon of American songwriters?
Warwick: Wonderful melodies, lyrics that everyone can and has related to “¦ they are two of the most prolific composers of our time.
OKG: There is a story that you actually provided the title for “Don’t Make Me Over” after learning that Bacharach and David were going to have someone else, Jerry Butler, record their song, “Make It Easy on Yourself.” True story?
Warwick: Yes. Those words were said to both Burt and Hal: “Don’t try to make me over.”
OKG: Their compositions have been covered by so many artists, but your interpretations have far and away eclipsed the vast majority of them. Do you feel a sense of protectiveness over the canon?
Warwick: Absolutely. I treat my songs like my children; they are all favorites. Every song I have recorded was written for me.
OKG: You were barely 23 years old in 1964 when “Walk on By” became a million-seller and catapulted you to superstardom. How did a 23 year old handle that sort of success?
Warwick: I’ve always had my family and friends to keep me grounded, so there was no chance of letting any of my success go to my head.
OKG: In 1967 you had a successful single with “I Say a Little Prayer.” Did you have any inkling that the record’s flipside ” the theme song of the movie “The Valley of the Dolls” ” would also become a huge hit?
Warwick: It was a surprise for all of us that I had a double-sided hit. I personally always felt “Dolls” was a hit.
OKG: Speaking of “I Say a Little Prayer,” what did you think when you saw the song commemorated in the film “My Best Friend’s Wedding?”
Warwick: I loved it.
OKG: Have there been any particular songs of yours for which you did not have great affection initially, but which grew on you?
Warwick: I did not want to record “Do You Know the Way to San Jose,” but did it because of the close relationship Hal David had with San Jose.
OKG: “That’s What Friends Are For” was a trailblazer in the role it played in raising money for AIDS research. How did you get involved in that project?
Warwick: I was preparing a new CD and was meeting with Burt and Carole Bayer Sager at the time. I heard the song and decided I wanted to record it. It became the perfect vehicle to raise much-needed funds for the AIDS problem. And it has been used for many special events since that time.
OKG: Who is still out there whom you have always wanted to work with but haven’t yet? Is there anyone?
Warwick: Earth, Wind & Fire.
OKG: What music or performers do you especially like or connect with these days?
OKG: I understand you maintain residence in Brazil. What attracted you to the country?
Warwick: I have lived in Brazil now well over 15 years and I love it. I call it my “stress-free country.”
Dionne Warwick performs at 8 p.m. Friday at Riverwind Casino, 1544 W. State Highway 9 in Norman. “Phil Bacharach