Growing up, all I knew of Dionne Warwick was that she brought a touch of class to Solid Gold, the hopelessly cheesy '80s music variety show my sisters and I watched every Saturday. As the elegant, stylishly coiffed host, she sang the hits of the day. I remember radio stations in 1985 that seemed to play "That's What Friends Are For," her smash charity single with Gladys Knight, Elton John and Stevie Wonder, to no end.
But nobody around my way -- including my music-loving parents, aunts and uncles -- owned any Dionne Warwick records. In her music, she didn't "bring the funk," which is the reason my folks didn't get into her.
However, as a bookish college freshman curious about '60s pop, I discovered on my own Warwick's vintage '60s work with Burt Bacharach and Hal David. I fell in love. "Anyone Who Had a Heart," "Walk on By," "Alfie," "Reach Out For Me" -- I was blown away by the majestic arrangements and the young singer's distinct, heart-piercing vocals.
Then I started digging deeper into her catalog, relishing early album cuts, B-sides and her woefully overlooked '70s recordings on Warner Bros. Among the singer's many gems is a superlative, but long forgotten, 1968 gospel LP, The Magic of Believing, which was finally reissued last year on CD.
But Warwick waited 40 years to return to her gospel roots, the traces of which were sanded away early on in her career. On Why We Sing, which hit stores this week, the pop legend imbues traditional hymns and new gospel tunes with her incomparable, laid-back style.
"Timing is everything. I had to be in the right frame of mind," Warwick says. "I'm actually glad it took as long as it did. I think I have more to give to the songs now."
The singer is 67, and she smoked for years, so her voice isn't the silken, expansive instrument it was back in the day. (I'm almost certain she can't sing "Promises, Promises" anymore. But I didn't dare ask.) Over the years, Warwick's sound has darkened and become frayed around the edges, but still she is no less affecting with a song.
"I wanted to do a completely traditional gospel album," says the vocalist, who was in her native New Jersey last week. "But my son [the album's producer Damon Elliott] thought I should do some contemporary songs. We definitely wanted to appeal to the youngsters."
There's nothing on Why We Sing that sounds particularly "youthful." But that isn't necessarily a bad thing. Warwick doesn't make any concessions to modern urban gospel -- nothing bombastic and certainly nothing hip-hopped. The arrangements, though thin and too antiseptic in spots, don't get in the way of Warwick's relaxed style.
"My heart has always been in gospel," she says. "That's where I started, right there in my grandfather's church. The first song I sang in his church was 'Jesus Loves Me.' I was 6 years old."
Sixty-one years later, Warwick revisits the song, one the album's more reflective moments. On the title track, a remake of the 1993 Kirk Franklin hit, the singer shares the mike with sister Dee Dee Warwick, an underrated '60s vocalist. Her once-powerful pipes have also diminished a bit over the years. The family affair continues on "Seven," a slightly forced inspirational tune the five-time Grammy winner sings with her son David Elliott, whose approach is technically sound but undistinguished.
Warwick, who still tours the world regularly, is already working on her next project.
"I'm getting ready to do a CD of standards," says the grandmother of six. "George Duke is going to [produce] it. I'm really looking forward to that."
After recording for nearly 50 years and influencing a slew of artists with her unique style, does Warwick still feel challenged in the studio?
"My goodness, there are still a lot of songs for me to sing," she says. "As long as I'm still here, and if it's God's will, I will sing."