Dionne Warwick Opens Up About The Painful Battle She's Had To Fight For Six Decades

Dionne Warwick is a true musical icon. She first entered the charts way back in 1962 with “Don’t Make Me Over,” and she’s still making music six decades later. How has she stayed on top all these years? She certainly has her professional — and deeply personal — relationship with the late songwriter Burt Bacharach to thank for her rise to stardom. But, as the singer revealed, she’s fought hard every step of the way to keep her success — even taking on the likes of Snoop Dogg and Tupac Shakur!

“My Dear Friend and my Musical Partner”

Warwick’s incredible journey in the music industry will forever be linked to legendary composer Burt Bacharach, who penned so many of her big songs. Following his death on February 8, 2023, she said, “Burt’s transition is like losing a family member. These words I’ve been asked to write are being written with sadness over the loss of my Dear Friend and my Musical Partner. On the lighter side, we laughed a lot and had our run-ins, but always found a way to let each other know our family, like roots, were the most important part of our relationship. My heartfelt condolences go out to his family, letting them know he is now peacefully resting and I too will miss him.”

An unexpected big break

Warwick first started working with Bacharach when she was a backing singer on the 1962 track “Mexican Divorce,” which Bacharach had co-written with Bob Hilliard for The Drifters. During recording, the legendary songwriter announced that he wanted to speak to the young Warwick personally, and she assumed it was bad news. “I thought I must have been singing too loud,” she recalled to The Wall Street Journal in 2018. But she couldn’t have been more wrong: Bacharach had actually been so impressed that he wanted to hire her for demos.

The story behind “Don’t Make Me Over”

It was that very same year that Bacharach, along with lyricist Hal David, helped launch Warwick onto the world stage with “Don’t Make Me Over.” The song was just one of Warwick’s hits, yet it totally sums her up. And the story behind the song is truly revealing. “In 1962 when I agreed to record a demo of Hal and Burt’s ‘Make It Easy on Yourself,’ they promised me the song,” she said. “Instead, they gave it to Jerry Butler to record.” Naturally, the young vocalist was disappointed. “I felt duped and wasn’t pleased,” she said.

She inspired her own debut hit

Warwick greatly respected Bacharach, but the disappointment of losing out on "Make It Easy on Yourself" stung her enough to speak up. “I was on my way down to do a session with them and when I walked into the studio,” she explained to The New York Times in 2023, “I had to let them both know that I was not very happy about them giving my song away, first of all. That was something that they could never, ever do. Don’t even try to change me or make me over. So David put pen to paper.” And Warwick’s very own words went on to inspire her first big hit. But there was much more to come.

Memorable tracks

Warwick has won no fewer than five Grammys, including one for 1970’s “I’ll Never Fall In Love Again.” She’s also sold over 100 million records, with over 18 consecutive singles reaching the Top 100 within a decade. The 1964 classic “Walk on By” is another she released with Bacharach and David, not to mention “Anyone Who Had a Heart” and “Say a Little Prayer,” both released the same year.

Awards soon followed

In 1968 “This Girl’s in Love With You” and “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?” hit the airwaves, further adding to Warwick’s status as the woman whose voice provided the soundtrack to people’s lives. The latter song led to her winning her first Grammy. And as the 1970s kicked in, she worked with household names including Isaac Hayes, with whom she went on tour. 

From Barry to the Bee Gees

Barry Manilow, no stranger to the hit parade himself, worked as her producer for a time. The 1980s saw her record the album Heartbreaker. Barry Gibb and the Bee Gees became her latest high-profile collaborators, with the record’s title track reaching the Top Ten worldwide. She also contributed to the star-studded 1985 charity single “That’s What Friends Are For”.

Warwick on screen

Warwick made a major contribution to movies and TV. In addition to recording the title songs for 1964’s A House is not a Home and 1967’s Valley of the Dolls among others, she’s also worked as a TV show host, author and actress. Her on-screen appearances in this last guise include Rent-A-Cop with Burt Reynolds and Liza Minnelli in 1987.

Still singing

Warwick has also acted in iconic 1970s action drama The Rockford Files, plus 2000’s Walker, Texas Ranger, opposite James Garner and Chuck Norris, respectively. As herself, she’s taken part in entertainment formats from the 2006 iteration of American Idol to 2022’s The Masked Singer. Warwick has even embraced social media in recent years. It’s safe to say she’s never gone out of style.

A proud career

“Known as the artist who ‘bridged the gap,’ Warwick's soulful blend of pop, gospel, and R&B music transcended race, culture, and musical boundaries,” the singer’s website explains. While she’s always appealed to a broad base, that doesn’t mean she had an easy time getting into the business. She worked hard to get to the top, and has always preserved a down-to-Earth mentality.

Born to sing

“Mom said I came out singing when I was born,” Warwick told The Wall Street Journal. And it’s not hard to see why. The future singer, who was born Marie Dionne Warwick in 1940, was surrounded by music right from the beginning of her life. One of her father Lee’s jobs was as a record promoter, while her mother, Mancel, managed the family’s Drinkard Sisters gospel group.

Standing up for her family

There’s one thing that Warwick has always been ever since she was a child: a fighter. Growing up in the Essex County city of East Orange, New Jersey, she often found herself going on the offensive. “At school, I was tough and did a lot of fighting to protect my brother and sister from bullies,” Warwick remembered. “No one was going to intimidate them or me.”

Tragedies and setbacks

However, Warwick experienced a huge loss in 1968 when her brother Mancel Jr was accidentally killed at the young age of 21 years old. As time went on, she would face other dark days, such as her bankruptcy in 2013, but since then she seems to have managed to get back on her feet. Dionne Warwick has also undertaken a lot of charity work over the decades. 

Her way in

The Gospelaires was the teenage Warwick’s first full-fledged musical effort. Formed with sister Dee Dee, it helped promote the voice which would go on to fill venues and homes for years to come. Whilst studying at the Hartt School of Music in Connecticut, she provided backing vocals for session recordings in New York. This brought her to Bacharach’s attention, and the rest is history.

Identity crisis

That said, she faced some struggles in establishing her identity. In a 2022 episode of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, the subject of a performance in Paris was mentioned. Incredibly, Warwick’s 1963 single “This Empty Place” was promoted there with the image of a white woman. And when she walked out on stage, she heard gasps from the crowd. 

Advice from a living legend

It took guts to face down that reaction. But Warwick suffered nerves, just like any other performer. When she was aged 19, she received advice from the best in the business: Nina Simone. Backstage at iconic Harlem venue The Apollo, Simone saw the young performer was anxious about being in the spotlight, and she gave her some memorable advice.

Hot to trot

“I want you to go out there,” Warwick recalls Simone saying. “And make that stage so hot that whoever has to come after you has to tiptoe.” Warwick took the advice and appears to have never looked back. From live shows to TV specials, plus that back catalog of famous hits, her name is generally seen as a byword for acoustic excellence.

A young woman in the industry

Warwick found her confidence, sure, but she does have some regrets about her career. “We never really had an introduction to the business side of the industry,” she told YouTube channel The Real Daytime in 2022. “We were kids who were thrilled to be recording and touring and seeing the world.” She wishes she’d been more in the loop.

Show show not show business

So, she was “making a little bit of money,” but she was “happy with that.” Warwick added, “I wish I had learned more about the business side of it at that point in time, but there was really no interest in it.” In a different age, it was more difficult for artists to take control of their destiny — especially women of color.

Impressive range of achievements

Warwick has achieved numerous milestones as a woman of color in the music business. She was the first female African-American artist to release 12 consecutive hits in the Top 100. Shortly after achieving that milestone, she went to England and became the first black American female artist to perform at a Royal Command Performance Queen Elizabeth II.

Taking on the rappers

And in the ’90s, Warwick proved herself a boundary-breaker once again. After hearing some young rap artists’ lyrics about women — and not feeling good about them — she decided to speak her mind. The way she did it was surprising, hilarious, and definitively Warwick. Can you imagine being Snoop Dogg and receiving word out of the blue that a legend like Dionne Warwick wanted to see you and your friends for a meeting at her house? 

An unexpected invite

It didn’t exactly sound like a friendly meeting, either. Warwick insisted that the group of foul-mouthed trailblazers show up at her place before 7:00 a.m. Surely this was an additional blow. If there’s anything worse than a potential ticking-off from one of your elders, it’s when it comes with an early-morning start! But those were her conditions for meeting the “kids,” as she called them.

They arrived first thing

Giving precise instructions, Warwick told them that she didn’t want them at her door at 6:59 or 7:01; it had to be 7:00 a.m. on the dot. While some may have worried about the outcome, her plan worked. As mentioned in the new CNN documentary Don’t Make Me Over, these young guys were hanging around outside at just after 6:50 a.m!  

A confrontation with an icon

Warwick wasn’t happy with the gangsta rappers for their sexist and cuss-laden approach to making music. Daring them to call her the notorious “b” word, she took them to task for their disrespectful attitude. They may have gotten a dressing-down from teachers and other authority figures before: this, though, was on a whole other level. They all probably wondered what had hit them.

All rapped up

Warwick has broken boundaries and undoubtedly earned her place in music industry hall of fame. Plus, she was seen as powerful enough to take a few gangsta rappers to school. One ageing songstress versus a group of up-and-coming rappers who were singing tracks about violence and misogyny: who was going to come out on top?

Knew best

Well, Warwick of course! Using a combination of experience and good old-fashioned truth-telling, she gave it to the boys straight. “You’re going to have little girls,” she told them, as relayed in new CNN documentary Don’t Make Me Over, “and one day that little girl is going to look at you and say, ‘Daddy, did you really say that?’” 

Killer question

Wanting to know how they might respond to that question, Warwick was on the warpath. It was, it seemed, a situation the rising stars weren’t well equipped to handle. We’re guessing none of them were foolish enough to use bad language in her presence! One individual who definitely took note of the tongue-lashing was Snoop Dogg.  

Got owned

He may have seemed like the baddest guy on the block, but Snoop was wise enough to know when he’d been beaten. Speaking on the documentary, he said, “We were the most gangsta as you could be, but that day at Dionne Warwick's house, I believe we got out-gangstered that day.” From there, Snoop Dogg resolved to take a more positive outlook.

From Dogg to puppy

The almost sweet and cuddly Snoop we know today was almost reborn at Warwick’s residence. It was a turning point for the recording artist, and it might not have happened without the music icon’s intervention. And while the reasoning behind her sudden invitation came across as confrontational, she’d acted with the best of motives — as she explained in her interview with The Real Daytime.

From a good place

Warwick stressed that her hard-hitting advice hadn’t been intended as hostile. In fact, the reason she’d invited the rappers round for some home truths was quite the opposite. “If I didn’t care about you, I wouldn’t invite you to my home,” she said. That’s not to say there wasn’t a major schoolmarm element in the room. One comment was especially revealing. 

“I was giving them a spanking”

Warwick added, “I was giving them a spanking, and they wanted to know why I was spanking them.” Snoop, Tupac, Suge Knight, and company might have left with metaphorically bruised behinds, but they clearly respected Warwick enough to come when she called them. Gangsta rap might have reached its peak in the early 1990s, but it was arguably tempered by a lady from decades earlier.  

Warwick on Twitter 

In the 21st century, Dionne Warwick is more likely to have an exchange with a rapper on Twitter than face-to-face. Far from slowing down, the 80–something has taken to social media like a pro. Her message to Chance the Rapper showed she was a dab hand at getting straight to the point in fewer than 140 characters.

Queen of the platform

“If you are very obviously a rapper, why did you put it in your stage name?” she asked. “I cannot stop thinking about this.” He wasn’t the only big fish in her sights. In fact, she won the title of “Queen of Twitter” from some quarters, interacting with everyone from the Academy for Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to Chucky the killer doll.

“A grown up is in the room”

Warwick’s amazing Twitter odyssey began when she noticed her young relatives checking out stuff they found amusing on there. She didn’t find it so funny. Letting them know she wanted in on the deal, she was soon up and tweeting. “My first tweet basically was letting people know a grown up is in the room,” she said on The Real Daytime

Firm but friendly

Elaborating further, Warwick warned the Twitter users of the world that they needed to be “a little more careful now about what we’re saying and how we’re saying it”. This doesn’t sound a million miles away from the tone she used with Snoop Dogg and friends back in the day. She’s also adamant that she and other users “always end our conversations with a smile.” 

Views on Leo and Pete

Those who may have cracked a smile hearing about her views are date-happy actors Leonardo DiCaprio and Pete Davidson. On learning that DiCaprio had a rumored female cut-off age of 25, Warwick remarked, “His loss. You don’t know what you’re missing.” She also added herself to Davidson’s list of potential girlfriends. And they aren’t the only popular guys she’s addressed.

Taylor’s scarf

Regarding speculation that Jake Gyllenhaal might still have possession of old flame Taylor Swift’s scarf — as supposedly detailed in the singer’s All Too Well, Warwick was in like a shot. “If that young man has Taylor’s scarf he should return it,” she tweeted. By wading into modern-day concerns with humor, the music legend has shown she’s more relevant than ever.  

Power in the name

As well as being proud of her contribution to the music business, Warwick is proud of her son Damon Elliott, a.k.a. “NomaD”, whom she raised with her late husband, the actor William Elliott. In early 2022 her son worked with her on the track Power In The Name, which was produced for charity. The pensioner performed alongside rapper Krayzie Bone.

Goodbye but not farewell 

Rumors of Warwick potentially giving up on showbiz are premature. She’s taking things easier, certainly. “It’s not a farewell to music,” she said on The Real Daytime, “it’s slowing down on touring and getting to know me again.” After so many years in the spotlight, it looks like it’s time for her to start enjoying her legacy the way everyone else has.