Dionne Warwick and Thom Bell: Hitting The Road Together
By David Nathan
December 1975, in person interviews with Dionne in Washington DC and with Thom in New York City during a Warner Brothers Records’ promotional tour…
Without any question, one of the most significant musical marriages of our decade was the one that brought the team of Dionne Warwick, Burt Bacharach and Hal David together to supply not only a string of hits for the lady but to establish a definitive, original and unique sound which has been frequently copied but never emulated. "We carved our own musical niche," is how Ms. Warwick herself describes the impact that the outfit created. But that's history: times change, people change and today is a brand new day. And today finds the soulfully-talented Dionne in the more than capable hands of the musical magician, Mr. Thom Bell, the mastermind behind those early Delfonics hits, the man who put The Stylistics on the map and who has followed through with The Spinners to make them one of the top vocal groups around today. And now it's the turn of the maestro to use his magic formula on the formidable and exciting talent of Ms. Warwick, undoubtedly a stylist supreme.
We got the opportunity to catch up with the lovely Ms. Warwick and the charming Mr. Bell during a whistle-stop, lightning promotional tour arranged by Warner Bros. in connection with the first fruits of the team's work together (outside of Dionne's golden duet with The Spinners on "Then Came You") — a masterpiece entitled "The Track Of The Cat" which has already spawned one big hit in "Once You Hit The Road." The venue set for the occasion was New York and we met up with the personable Mr. Bell at the airport, where he'd arrived from his home in Tacoma, Washington. Thom was quick to explain why Tacoma was now home. "You know, at one point, everything was going crazy I was handling six acts altogether, out of Philadelphia and I felt that moving out to the West Coast would be good for a number of reasons. The climate, the peace, the pace. I now have a ranch there with my wife and children and I've cut right back now — I'm only working on The Spinners and Dionne." Thom's previous roster had included Johnny Mathis, Ronnie Dyson, Little Anthony and, of course, The Stylistics. "On top of all that, I had my own record company — Tommy Records, then later Thunder Records — and I was the guy writing the material, doing the charts, producing the acts! So I felt I had to cut down to be able to concentrate my efforts on particular projects." He says that working with Dionne has been a totally enjoyable experience and took time to explain how they'd worked on the first album. "Well, like all the people I produce, I sat down with Dionne and talked for about two or three hours. Just talked about whatever — not about music or material. Just conversation. That's what I've always done with all the acts I worked with — Russell Thompkins of The Stylistics, all the guys in The Spinners. Then from our conversation, I draw up a character reference — get some idea of what kind of person you are. A personal impression is formed from what I hear and I work on that. With Dionne, I had this constant feeling that there was a connection between her and a cat. Just take a look at her: she has a feline grace, she's slinky. Even her facial features — those eyes, the cheekbones. So for about three weeks, I studied all the books I could find on cats and their behaviour and saw how it related to Dionne." We should add at this stage that Mr. Bell is a particularly remarkable human being. He reads some five books a week, has a library that boasts nearly 2,500 books on subjects as varied as aerodynamics to the sex life of a mosquito — and we're not jiving! He lives basically on but a couple of hours sleep and one square meal a day, stating that his relaxation comes from work. A pretty phenomenal young man! "After drawing our conclusions about that cat connection, I sat with Linda Creed and out came 'The Track Of The Cat'. Then, it was a question of choosing material which fitted along with the impressions I had formed of Dionne and her character. She's an unpredictable lady — you never know what she's going to say next!"
Carefully handpicking material from his own stable of writers as well as penning six of the ten tracks (all but one with Linda Creed), Thom set about working on the rhythm tracks for the sessions and then rehearsed with Dionne just a couple of times to familiarize her with the songs."If they become too familiar with them, they become bored — which is understandable. So I like to keep them as fresh as possible. I always know how I want the finished product to sound right from the beginning and I don't discuss with the artists how they should sound. Basically, after our initial conversation, I listened to Dionne sing with just a piano — no mike. Because a microphone distorts your voice and I wanted to get an accurate idea of what Dionne could do, even though I'd heard, of course, the records she'd out over the years. I give the artists direction as to what I want and then tell them to sing the material the way they want, their own interpretation. Then, we compromise and use some of what they do with some of what I want them to do."
Following their rehearsals, Thom gave Dionne a tape of what they'd done and let her go away to study it. "We didn't see each other for about three or four weeks and then it was time to record. The whole album took basically eighteen hours to lay down as far as Dionne's vocals were concerned. She's a very intelligent lady and so she memorizes things very well. It was really no problem at all." Commenting on the album, Thom says: "I'm happy with it but it was like we were just feeling our way for this first one. Whatever we do in the future will improve upon this project. I approached the album in a different way — you'll notice that there are not a lot of heavy keyboard parts on the songs. Plus it was necessary for me to make sure and stay away from anything which might draw a comparison with the things Dionne did with Bacharach & David. A lot of people have compared what I do with Bacharach's music and I take it as a compliment. But with Dionne, it was important to establish a musical identity which took her away from that or any other comparison."
Even though some folk have claimed that Thom has tried to use tracks that would be as suitable for The Spinners, there can be no doubt that he has come up with a quality set on the lady which displays her vocal abilities to the maximum. It should most certainly provide Dionne with her biggest success since her partnership with Burt & Hal dissolved, outside of "Then Came You". And on that subject, Thom explained: "Yes, we did have an album planned for Dionne and The Spinners but it was really the legal and business people that prevented. I had even gotten to the point of selecting material, everything. But, you know, I'm not a business person. I'm a creative guy and that's what I have to concentrate on. I used to have to go to business meetings and I'd sit there so bored, my mind would constantly be in the studio. So now I have a business manager who takes care of all that aspect of things — makes sure I get paid the right amount and so on!" Certainly Mr. Bell can be justifiably proud of "The Track Of The Cat" and, if it is the first of a long association between Thom and Dionne it certainly augers well.
Ms. Warwick herself is equally happy with the results. "I'm more than happy to be with Thom," the charming lady explained. "He's a wonderful person to work with. I've known him for a number of years now and when the opportunity came to do the album with him, I was very pleased." Dionne continues to one of the busiest ladies around with an itinerary which is enough to scare anyone. "It's that way because that's the way I want it to be. That's my life, my work and I do get to take time off when I want. I've gotten to that point now where I can choose when I want to work, but I didn't get there overnight! It's taken thirteen years!" In fact, Dionne spent a considerable amount of time off earlier this year and at the beginning of last year, took time out to study for her Masters Degree in Music, which she obtained without any problem. "I've always felt it necessary to have a solid foundation and I never went out on the road back in '62 until I'd studied music so that, if anything happened, I'd always be able to teach music. After all, nothing is promised and I could wake up tomorrow and find that I couldn't sing! I decided to go back to studying because I was, in a sense, bored with what I'd been doing at that point. Yes, I am continuing to study for my Doctorship," Dionne informed us.
Having achieved so much in a golden career, we wondered exactly what there was left for Dionne to do! "There is so much, you know. Yes, I have reached a certain plateau in my career but there are so many things I've hardly begun to do. I want to have successful records which is why I'm so glad to be working with Thom. And then, we're just going to do a television special which may hopefully lead to a television series. Then there's movies and eventually the theatre. I want to do that too. So there are certainly many, many goals yet to be achieved." Dionne says she still finds each and every performance a thrill and an experience. "I guess I've been lucky in that my audiences have grown up with me and they relate to what I'm doing, what I'm saying. It's so important to touch people — you can't please everyone but it's a wonderful feeling to know that you're reaching people. That's why I love every time I go out there."
With such a heavy schedule, Dionne still manages to maintain her elegance, charm, poise and beauty. In a word, how? "Well, it's because the most important person to me is me! When I say that, what I mean is that we all have to treat ourselves with special care. Our bodies, our minds. It's like taking care of my voice. I have to do that and I make sure I get the right amount of rest and sleep. Maintaining yourself and keep yourself together are what helps to make it in this world."
Reminiscing but briefly on her early years, Dionne had this to say. "In a sense, I did expect all the things that have happened to happen because I knew that the things Burt, Hal & I were doing were different. It's like no one else is doing what I'm doing, no one else does what I do the way I do it. I never really looked at anyone else as competition because we were always coming from our own thing — people never knew what to expect next from us. They figured they should leave us to get on and do our own thing. So, in as much as I don't sound like anyone else, I'm just me — I knew that no one else would do the things I'm doing. And like I said before, it didn't all happen at once — it's taken thirteen years to get to this point." Dionne obviously feels that she has grown both as an entertainer & performer and as a human being and often that process can be painful. "We all make mistakes and I've made mine too. But I'm confident with how the future looks."
In spite of the fact that she has now fully parted ways with Messrs. Bacharach & David in a less than totally amicable way (Dionne is currently involved in a law suit with the team for three million dollars, claiming that her career has suffered damage as the result of the duo's failure to remain together), Dionne tends to be philosophical about it all. With the kind of vocal artistry and sophistication which are the hallmarks of her career, Dionne Warwick can rest assured that there will always be a place in the hall of musical legend for her. And as she continues to grow, she continues to improve and expand. Aside from being a distinctive and soulful vocalist, Dionne Warwick happens to be one of the warmest and finest human beings you could ever wish to meet. Long may she continue to thrill and communicate with audiences all over the world!
A RARE CLIP OF DIONNE SINGING 'ONCE YOU HIT THE ROAD' ON THE BEACH....