The non-stop superstar was appearing at a hugely successful theatre-in-the-round for a week, and select interviews were allowed mid-day before opening night. It was one of the hottest days of that summer as I drove to the assigned venue in an upscale hotel.
Everyone knew and hummed her hits (“Do You Know The Way To San Jose”, “Walk On By”, “Theme From Valley of the Dolls” to the Stevie Wonder, Elton John, Gladys Knight fundraiser “That’s What Friends Are For” and countless other singles, albums, movie themes, penned by the unstoppable duo Hal David and Burt Bacharach.
When I arrived, I was assigned the last interview slot. I waited and listened as the middle-aged interviewer before me, from the largest station in the capitol, leaned over WARWICK and asked one mundane question after the other (“When did you know you were making it?” and “What’s it like to be a star doing sold out concerts?”) sort of thing. DIONNE looked not only like she could strangle the woman asking the same old questions, but also how fast she could get out of the room.
Then when it was my turn, I was already sitting down on the other side of her with my recorder going. Ms. WARWICK turned to me with that “Oh no, not one more; I think I’d kill anyone who puts me through this another minute longer” kind of look. I couldn’t blame her; it was embarrassing.
So biting my lip, I simply asked (like the neighbour over the back yard fence) “How’s the purple carpeting holding up?” For a second she froze, then started laughing: “How did you know I have purple carpeting in my house? And yes, it’s my favourite colour!” “Oh, I read about it some time ago… wanted to get you out of a certain frame of mind if I could.” She kept grinning.
This was a career epiphany for me, as I thought the only way I’m going to keep this going is to not stay too light, nor make it heavy….. just pivot (such as in basketball) to move things along and keep them interesting to the interviewee and the listener. Before I knew it, we were flying.
“So why are you drinking tea, and I noticed your putting honey into it, on the hottest day this year?” “My throat feels a little scratchy, so I take it so soothe me and help me be ready for my work tonight.”
“Ms WARWICK, you refused an invitation from Richard Nixon to do a concert at the White House. That’s equivalent to turning down a command performance in this country. Why did you do that? Most performers could only dream of such an invitation.”
(She answered me as both a black person and a woman) “Because he’s done nothing for my people. I can do a sold-out show for a night or an entire week in a huge concert hall, but cannot get a hamburger anywhere I want or stay in just any hotel nearby. We’ve not progressed at all under his presidency. So no. While he’s there, I will NOT appear at the White House!”
Pivoting from that, I then (in a self-deprecating tone) said “If you didn’t have to do these seemingly endless interviews today, in an area famed for its prized antiques that I know you’re fond of, if you had this afternoon off, would you be rolling down the road checking out all the shops filled with treasures?”
“Oh yes. But there’s much work to be done to be ready for curtain time tonight. But I’d love to just have a full day off with nothing to do but go look for antiques.”
“I understand that Bacharach and David, but Burt especially, is a task-master, a focussed perfectionist who is incredibly demanding, famous for being difficult to work with.” “Yes, (laughing) I’ve heard that too. But he taught me everything I know. As an example, we’re not just doing a sound check this afternoon. We’re going to rehearse. Like Burt, if I don’t get 101% out of my musicians, we’re not going to stop, even if we have to send out for food. We’ll work right up until curtain time. No breaks until we get it right or it’s no go."
"Others may focus on the hits, the successes. But I’m intrigued with your background. You really got your early musical training singing gospel in church. But you ended up going to the University of Hartford, headed to a teaching program. So when all of this is over, or if in fact it never happened this way, would you consider teaching?”
(This is where the pivoting paid off, and she gave me a wonderful gift I appreciate to this day. Mostly because I think I gave her the room to talk about the things that meant most to her.)
WARWICK: “You’re right about the gospel beginnings. I’d be nowhere without that. And you’re also right about the University of Hartford. Perhaps someday I’ll think I might like to do some teaching. But back in school, I boarded. To earn money for college, I was hired to sing demos and new music Burt and Hal had just written. I’d take the train to New York City when they called me. Sometimes we’d just take hours as Burt sat at the piano while they worked out melodies and lyrics, and I would sing them. Lots of starts and stops while they made countless changes, corrections. Other times in the studio, they’d pretty much have the polish done, and would have me sing a demo.
They’d often tell me that they loved my voice, and even the demo could be mixed into a single with me. It never happened. Yes, I got paid, but like the hired gun, I was then shuffled back to school. So one day after a very long session, when it was time for me to leave I gathered my things, headed to the door, opened it but turned to look back at them. I was tired and upset, and said to them both: “Don’t Make Me Over.” Not sure what it meant… it just came out. Then I stormed out and headed for the train and long ride back to school.
After I had cooled down, I really started to worry: did I blow it? Did my temper get the best of me? Am I going to lose my job I love doing and need so much? About a month later (sometimes there were long gaps between sessions) I got a call to come in. I had been worrying all along that it might be over. I’d get a pink slip. I was really nervous when I got on that train headed to New York. Still worried when I walked into the studio, ready to be told it was all over.
As I took off my coat, they were very quiet. Hal David said to me: “DIONNE, remember when you left last time? And what you had said before slamming the door?” (I sure did, and regretted it.) I was about to apologize when he continued: “Well, we sat there for a moment, and Burt said “I have an idea.” So we worked on it. Put your headphones on; we’re going to work. Let’s try out the song; it's on the music stand.” At the top was the title: “Don’t Make Me Over.”
We made minor changes and then they had me record it with Burt on piano. That was it. They thanked me, and I (more meek this time) left. Figured again they’d give it to Jerry Butler, Bobby Vinton, B. J. Thomas or the likes who already had done so many of their hits.
Months later I was sitting at my desk doing homework in my dorm room. The radio was on as it always was, very quietly in the background. Suddenly, as if I was hearing something in my own head, I heard my own voice singing “Don’t Make Me Over.” I got goosebumps as I turned up the radio, and just stopped. I knew that very second, that my life would never be the same!”
At the end of the interview (that maybe both of us had dreaded; me anxious and DIONNE resentful), she turned to me and put her hand on my arm, thanking me for what she thoroughly enjoyed. Then asked if I was going to be at the 8 pm opening. Said I wouldn’t miss it for the world. She smiled, then said “I hope you like my gown I’ll be wearing.” I did. She was stunningly beautiful, especially with that fluid, malleable voice taking us through amazing compositions. A day and night to remember!