Dionne Warwick had a rocky start at Scepter Records. As a child in New Jersey, she sang with her family’s gospel band, which also included her aunt, Cissy Houston; as a teenager, she recorded back-up vocals for Brook Benton, Solomon Burke, and Ben E. King. During a session for the Drifters’ “Mexican Divorce,” she impressed the song’s co-writer Burt Bacharach enough that he hired her to sing demos to shop around to other artists. “Forget the song, get the singer,” marveled the head of Scepter, Florence Greenberg. But the newcomer had to fight to get good material, and when she heard someone on the radio singing a song that was promised to her, she exploded. She recounts the scene in her 2010 memoir, My Life, As I See It: “I reminded them of the promise they made to me. ‘We have a problem here. You want me to record with you? I am who I am. Don’t make me over, man!’ In other words, don’t lie to me or tell me one thing and do something else.”
That choice of words—don’t make me over, man!—inspired Bacharach and Hal David to pen what would become her first single, 1962’s “Don’t Make Me Over.” It’s an anthem of self-determination, with pleading lyrics from David and an arrangement from Bacharach that balances drama and sophistication. But it’s Warwick who makes the song: Just 21 at the time, she delivers a measured performance, drawing on her gospel background when she gets to the big finish: “Accept me for what I am!” A rousing introduction to an artist whose eloquent vocals would define the 1960s, the song was a hit, peaking at number 21 on the charts. But there was a problem: Her name was misspelled on the label of the 45. Ironically, the woman born Dionne Warrick was made over into Dionne Warwick.
Thus began her decade-long run on Scepter, during which she recorded mostly songs written, arranged, and produced by Bacharach and David. The Complete Scepter Singles, which gathers 74 A- and B-sides from this era, is an ideal starting point with Warwick and with ’60s pop in general. Her songwriters already had a reputation for sophisticated pop fare, and this young woman from New Jersey was, with apologies to Dusty Springfield and Elvis Costello and others, the best voice for those songs. Warwick gracefully navigates Bacharach’s tricky melodies and progressions and brings life to David’s lyrics of yearning and doubt. Her performances marry technical precision with artistic flair, always hinting at massive currents of emotion running just under the surface. While not an actor per se, she embodies a sense of character, with the understanding that the song is just one scene in a larger story: a snapshot of a moment of uncertainty or a swell of love within a larger life.
The Complete Scepter Singles plays like a guide on how to sing a song. Warwick obviously has the power to deliver the big moments, but it’s the smaller, quieter turns that stand out, when she is considering the implications of the lyrics and testing how much weight the song can bear. Listen to her wild 1965 deconstruction of “You Can Have Him,” which had already been a hit for Roy Hamilton. A small army of drummers and percussionists pound out intricately overlapped rhythms, but she measures her vocals carefully, steadying the song even as she injects a sly sarcasm to its famous kiss-off. She opens the 1966 B-side “In Between the Heartaches” in a delicate, almost brittle falsetto before shifting down to her lower register, and she tempers her phrasing to flirt with the meter and push back against the arrangement. She reveals the enormity of the emotions that wash over her while also suggesting that her heartbreak doesn’t end with the song’s final notes. Her pain comes in waves; she is always bracing herself.
Not every song on The Complete Scepter Singles is a Bacharach-David tune, but such is the nature of their collaboration—its intimacy, its longevity, its success—that every track sounds like it flows from the same wellspring. Bacharach arranges her voice like it’s another instrument in the orchestra, and David pens lyrics like prayers. That might be the unifying theme of her time at Scepter: pop songs as prayers for compassion, consolation, and commitment. There’s “Hopin’ and Prayin’” and “I Say a Little Prayer,” of course, but there’s also “What the World Needs Now” and even “Walk On By.” “In the chapel of my heart, I pray that we will not be parted,” she sings on the 1963 B-side “Please Make Him Love Me,” which isn’t among Bacharach and David’s most inspired compositions. It’s a songwriting gambit for them, a theme to be unspooled in a few verses and a bridge, but Warwick digs deeper into the idea and manages to convey the sense of being swallowed up by love and fear both.
How much of yourself should you give over when you’re in love? How much should you hold in reserve? Can you be made over and still keep some part of yourself? These are the crucial questions Warwick is posing on The Complete Scepter Singles, and each song justifies itself by offering a slightly different answer. But those were also questions facing women during that decade, when they were enjoying more freedom away from the home—in offices, in clubs, on the pop charts—and were constantly chastised for it. That dilemma makes her 1964 single “A House Is Not a Home” both an artifact of its time and a song that feels timeless. David writes some heartbreaking lyrics and Bacharach provides some grand orchestral swells, but you only sense their presence subliminally. Warwick dominates every measure, investing each plea with gravity and despair. “When I climb the stairs and turn the key,” she sings in one of those moments that forces you to stop everything else you might be doing, “Oh please be there, still in love with me.” She understands the tragedy behind these negotiations: To love and be loved is to invite uncertainty and trouble into your life, but not loving and especially not being loved is to not exist at all.
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