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NUNN ON ONE Dionne Warwick talks Black Ensemble, AIDS and retirement
by Jerry Nunn, Windy City Times
2016-03-02

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The legendary Dionne Warwick has lasted 55 years in a busy career that continues to thrive keeping her on the road.

Warwick began her life in the music business at the Apollo Theater and worked with songwriter Burt Bacharach who brought her to fame. Hits like "Walk On By" and "Do You Know the Way to San Jose?" brought her into the public eye. She is one of the most charted female vocalists of all time and may always be remembered for the catchy"Say a Little Prayer" and the million seller "I Will Never Love This Way Again."

Over the years, she has racked up five Grammys and sampled different genres of music. She's just released a Brazilian record called Tropical Love.

Windy City Times took a stroll down memory lane with the music maker just before the Black Ensemble Theater's 40th-anniversary party.

Windy City Times: Hi, Dionne. How did you become involved with the Black Ensemble in the first place?

Dionne Warwick: I met Jackie Taylor after many weeks of her trying to hand me a script based on my song "Don't Make Me Over" and my life. Finally, she caught up with me in Las Vegas and handed me nine different scripts. We met for coffee after my last show and she told me she had built the show around my persona. She wanted my approval. I must say she had all the right names and places. She was just shadowing me on the project and living vicariously through me.

When I saw the show, I was floored in every way!

WCT: Years ago, you told me that you wanted Keke Palmer to play you if they make a movie about your life.

DW: She's wonderful. I'm so proud of her.

WCT: I heard you designed this theater, from the lighting fixtures to the carpet. Have you always wanted to design spaces?

DW: I've been doing it for the past 30 years. It has been a well-kept secret and now everybody knows!

WCT: How is your house decorated?

DW: It is very comfortable and eclectic. I have things from every place that I have traveled to.

WCT: Such as Brazil, where you are touring this year. Is Brazil your home away from home?

DW: Well, it is my home. I am a resident of Rio. I have been there for the past 20 years.

WCT: Do you speak Portuguese?

DW: Very badly. I sing in Portuguese very well. I speak it poorly because everyone now speaks English. If people don't speak to me in Portuguese then I can't practice.

WCT: What do you love about Brazil?

DW: I started going there in the '60s and just felt a natural kindred for that country. It gave me the biggest embrace that I have ever known. I knew I was home. I just knew it.

We have not only a mutual-admiration society going on but a love for each other. They have let me know that and I reciprocate my love right back.

WCT: How did the AIDS awareness song "That's What Friends Are For?" begin?

DW: When you have three friends like those represented on the recording it is not that hard to do. Fortunately they were all in the same place at the same time so that made it easier.

I ran into Elton at the grocery store actually. He was planning a birthday party for his manager at the time. I asked him to record with me the following night but he had the party. He agreed to record first then have the party, so he was in.

I called Gladys up and said, "Hey, girlfriend—guess what you are doing tomorrow night?" I told her and she said, "Okay."

Stevie was on his way back to Los Angeles from New Jersey visiting his children. I called him and he showed up.

That was the genesis of that.

WCT: I didn't realize you brought everyone together. Hats off to you!

DW: It was very easy. I think with us all knowing how many people we were losing, especially in our industry, it was something we wanted to do with our talent to make something happen.

WCT: Who knows how many people you help and saved...

DW: And made them educated. Some people didn't know what it was back then. You have to know what you are fighting before you can combat it really. People thought I was being blasphemous about mentioning education. Hello? They thought you couldn't even touch a person with AIDS back then. That is why I wanted to educate people.

I think Tony Fauci at the [National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases] wanted to kill me, but I was on him every single day to teach me and tell me more so that when I am at a speaking engagement, I would know what I am talking about. I flew all over the world, and if there was a breakthrough, I wanted to know what it was. I was coming through customs with drugs that were helping people with AIDS or HIV.

It wasn't an obligation, it was something I wanted to do. If I can be of service, like my grandpa taught me at a very early age, then I will do it. We are all to be of service to each other, so why not?

WCT: After working with him on Celebrity Apprentice, did you think Donald Trump would be where he is today?

DW: No. He is hysterical. He has his own reality show going on right now running for president!

WCT: What would you tell artists today, with [your] lengthy career?

DW: I don't think artists today would like to have a 55-year career. I don't think it is in their DNA. I think someone has to grow up around that. I was fortunate enough to see artists like Sammy Davis Jr., Lena Horne, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan. These are the shoulders I am standing on. I don't think these kids even know what that means.

When they have that available to them, they don't use it. Personally, I don't know any of them but they are welcome to call me.

WCT: You could do a duet with them.

DW: Not only a duet, but I can give them advice on my experience. If they need an answer, I have it for them.

WCT: Did you see the Nina Simone documentary What Happened, Miss Simone?

DW: Yes, I did. It was brilliant. That woman was the one that got me on a stage doing what I am doing. I was at the Apollo opening a show. I had been there before and saw what the audience does when they don't like someone. I wasn't sure I wanted to go out there even with my little hit "Don't Make Me Over." She was standing at the wings and noticed I looked nervous. She told me to go out on the stage and dared anyone to perform after me. "You are not opening the show, you are closing it!" I have never forgotten that. That was my first encounter with Nina Simone.

WCT: You have a new Christmas single?

DW: "This Christmas," and it will be available at Christmastime this year. I got it so late that it was almost fruitless to put it out but it is a gorgeous song. Burt Bacharach wrote it. Anyone that will be around at Christmas time should get it on my website.

WCT: You also have Heartbreakers 2, with unreleased songs. You are so busy!

DW: That is my life's story. That is what I am supposed to do, I guess!

WCT: Did you ever think you would celebrate 55 years in the music business?

DW: No. I gave myself three, maybe four years. That went by; then after it went 20, then 30, then 40. Every time I think 55 years, I have to stop and shake myself. I can't believe it really has been that long. It has been a wonderful ride.

WCT: Do you ever want to retire?

DW: I will. Running around the world has been sensational. It has been a broad scope of education. I have had the luxury of bringing my children and exposing them to certain things in the world that they would not have thought about doing if I hadn't taken them with me. It is not as easy these days as it was when I was 12 years old. [Laughs] We all get to that point. I am never going to stop singing—that is for sure. I will do special events like this one sometimes, but nothing like what I am doing right now.

For more on Black Ensemble Theater, visit blackensembletheater.org .


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