Legendary singer Dionne Warwick joined CNN anchor Chris Wallace to talk about her life, career, new CNN documentary, and, of course, Snoop Dogg on Wallace’s show, Who’s Talking to Chris Wallace?
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Check out a sneak peek of the show, which airs on Sunday at 7 p.m. Eastern Time on CNN, below.
Warwick’s new doc, Don’t Make Me Over, like its subject, has had quite an interesting existence. The film, which follows her life and career, includes appearances by Quincy Jones, Burt Bacharach, Bill Clinton, Gladys Knight, Elton John, Berry Gordy, Snoop, Smokey Robinson, and more.
The doc also premiered at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival in September 2021. In February, CNN+ acquired the rights to the film, but the streaming service is now defunct. Now, the doc will premiere on CNN on New Year’s Day (January 1) 2023.
Check out excerpts from Warwick’s chat with Wallace below.
CHRIS WALLACE: She has sold more than 100 million records and won six Grammy Awards. In the process, she’s helped break down racial barriers and raised tens of millions of dollars in the fight against AIDS. And for the last 60 years, she’s contributed some of the highlights to the soundtrack of our lives. Welcome, this is an honor for me to get to sit down with you.
DIONNE WARWICK: My pleasure, Chris. Thank you for inviting me.
WALLACE: So, CNN is airing a documentary about your life and your career. It’s going to run on New Year’s Day. It’s called Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over. And I understand that you were not too keen on the idea of a documentary at the start. Why not?
WARWICK: Well you know what, people should know everything about me already. [But] as it turned out, I was talked into writing a book. And that actually—it actually happens to be the genesis of the documentary. So what they didn’t get out of the book, they get on the screen.
WALLACE: So let’s go back all the way back 60 years to 1962. You’re in college. You go to New York to audition to be a backup singer for legendary composer Burt Bacharach. Dionne, did you have a clue what a big moment that was signing with Burt Bacharach and Hal David back then?
WARWICK: Not one clue. I wasn’t really interested in recording. My mother was very adamant about “You will have your education.” So we had to work out how we’re going to work this around. And my daddy decided that he would take the reins, and make the arrangements with SEPTA records, which is my first label. Bacharach, David, and Warwick became known after the first recording of “Don’t Make Me Over” as a triangle marriage that worked. I was privy to sing some of the greatest songs ever written. But never had a clue that 60 years later, I’d be sitting here talking to you about that.
WALLACE: Well, a year after you sign, you record a song with David and Bacharach and it becomes your first top-10 hit. One of the joys of preparing for this interview was getting to go back through your songbook. Bacharach said that is when he got a sense of your range. That you could go from delicate to big and explosive
WARWICK: Yeah. I think that comes from being able to sing gospel music. Moments of delicacy and moments where we’re really giving the word and emphasizing that. So it just came naturally something God blessed me with being able to do.
WALLACE: You became a crossover star. A crossover from R&B to pop and a crossover from black audiences to white audiences. In the documentary you say at some points, you weren’t sure where you fit in.
WARWICK: I never quite understood what it was or what “crossover” or “bridge the gap” meant. It was explained to me—Quincy Jones, in fact, told me what it was. Being that there were two sets of music. Black music and there was white music and I didn’t fit into either. I was kind of the center part of that all. Both sides of the fence enjoyed listening to whatever I had to give them. I’m very proud of being able to satisfy everybody’s ears. And I always say music is music. That’s all there is to it.
WALLACE: I’m sure it was good for your career in the sense that you appeal to a bigger audience. But just personally was it hard that you weren’t firmly…
WARWICK: No, not at all. I was just being me. And I like me. I don’t want to be anybody else.
WALLACE: Well, when you went out on the road, America in the ’60s told you where you fit in. And in the documentary, you tell a great story about another wonderful singer Sam Cooke. You saw race issues firsthand when you were touring on the road.
WARWICK: I sure did. And I still do to this very day. It’s so asinine. It’s stupid. And that’s a word that feels like it’s probably the ugliest anyone can be called: stupid. Because that’s what it is.
WALLACE: But you tell a story where you got into a tussle down south with a waitress.
WARWICK: Yeah, we went to a place called the Toddle House. Sam was buying lunch for everyone. And we were on his tour bus… We were designated to go and get sandwiches and coffee and da da da. So we went into this Toddle House and I went to sit down and I was told “You can’t sit there.” So I got up and I said, “Well, can we order?” She said, “You go over there and stand there until I get to you.” So, we’re standing, standing, and standing. I finally say, “Can can we get our food.” She said, “You’re waiting till I get ready to give it to you.” I say, “You know what you can do, miss? You can take everything I ordered and shove it up.” And we walked out.
Well, we got back on the bus. Sam said, “Where’s the food.” I said, “It’s up that woman’s behind. I told her to shove it.” He said, “What happened?” And I explained to him what happened. In like less than two minutes after telling him the story, police officers walked onto the bus. “We want to know who the gal was that was insubordinate to the waitress inside?” And Sam said, “We don’t have gals on this bus. We have ladies and gentlemen on this bus. This bus happens to belong to me. And I’m going to ask you politely to get off.” And they got off.
WALLACE: So, Dionne, I have to ask you a question. I mean, it’s a great story but in that moment, and when you were dealing with racism, were you scared?
WARWICK: No, I never experienced anything like that before. And she had no right to be stupid.
WALLACE: And at that time there were a lot of people who were stupid.
WARWICK: I didn’t know that. I’m from East Orange.
WALLACE: In 1968, you recorded another song for Bacharach and David and in the process, you win your first Grammy. So I heard a story when you heard that song. You hated it, and you didn’t want to record it.
WARWICK: No, I did not want to record that song. In fact, I accused Hal David of not writing that song. And he looked at me like I had three heads. Said, “Of course, I wrote that song.” I said, “Hal, the songs you’ve given me to sing, the words you’ve given to me sing—how you gonna write a song with whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa? No, I don’t think so. Did you really write that song?” He said, “Yeah.” I said, “Well okay. For you, I will record it and I cried all the way to the bank.”
WALLACE: And took a Grammy with you. All right. There’s another song from that era. I want to play for one reason because it’s just so great. You say that song had special resonance because it came out right at the height of the Vietnam War.
WARWICK: Yes it did. I believe Hal wrote that song for that reason. Letting those babies, because that’s what they were. They were young, young, young, young men, women, who were over there. Defending, keeping us alive. So, letting them know how much we loved and miss them, cared about them, and wanted them to come on home. We’re going to pray for you. I mean the song says it all.
WALLACE: “Say a Little Prayer.” In 1985, you had a kind of good backup group. Elton John, Gladys Knight, Stevie Wonder. You record a song and you donated all the proceeds to AIDS research. You know, literally, this was billed as Dionne Warwick and friends.
WARWICK: I know. I don’t understand that. How can you? Well, they are my friends.
WALLACE: I understand that but usually they get billing. Anyway, why did you take that cause on?
WARWICK: You know, we were losing so many people within our industry, especially mine. The music industry was being decimated. We had producers, songwriters, dancers, cameramen, light people, hairdressers, and makeup people. I had to find out what was going on with all these undefined reasons for death within our industry. And I started doing a little investigating and I found out who to call. That was Dr. Fauci, at CDC.
WALLACE: Really, Dr. Fauci? All the way back then.
WARWICK: I called Tony, and I said, “Hi, I’m Dionne Warwick. And I need some information.” And he said, “Okay.” And we started talking about this situation. But there were things being done outside of the United States and they were getting results. So I got on a plane and went to Sweden. So, it got to the point I was coming into customs. Guys got to know me by first name and I got to know them too. “Hey, Dionne what’s up? What are you bringing in this time? Got some more perfume?” “No, I got some drugs.” He gasped. They didn’t even want to say the word, they didn’t want to hear it.
WALLACE: Any idea how much money the song “That’s What Friends Are For,” how much money that has raised over the years?
WARWICK: I couldn’t even begin. The very first check that they got, I believe was $3- or $ 4 million. The very first check.
WALLACE: So tens, if not hundreds of millions of dollars since then. In the ’90s you became the host of the psychic friends network. You acknowledge that turned off a lot of people including, you say, members of your own church. Why did you do it?
WARWICK: Recordings were not doing anything at all. I had two children that I had to feed, clothe, and house. It was a way to earn a living. And it was fun. It was a bunch of fun. Well, this show took off like gangbusters. We were the very first to do it. Everybody was going, “What are you doing? Why are you doing this?” And I’m like, “I’m earning a living.” My grandfather. God bless him because he saved me. He said, “Dionne, you are earning an honest living. You know, you’re not a psychic. You know you believe in God. Let them talk their trash. You take care of your business.” And that’s what I did. You can say whatever you want about me because that’s your opinion until you find out the truth.
WALLACE: Then there is your campaign against, which I must say I didn’t know, I guess I missed this. Against gangsta rap. And here you are testifying before Congress. At one point, you invited the folks from Death Row Records including Snoop Dogg over to your home to hash this out.
WARWICK: 7 a.m. in the morning, not a minute before, not a minute after.
WALLACE: So did it work out?
WARWICK: They all showed up. And yeah, it did work. I think what it was—they needed to hear me because they said, “Oh, you’re dissing.” I said, “I’m doing what?” “Dissing us.” “What does that mean?” “Disrespecting.” I said, “Well say that.”
WALLACE: I could just see the folks at Death Row Records—but you’re Dionne Warwick so they probably listened.
WARWICK: They said, “Oh we’re from the hood.” I said, “You don’t know what the hood is. You ever been to New York or New Jersey? That’s a hood and that’s where I’m from.” They said, “Oh, gee, you must be a gangsta too, you never know.” But I tell them, I say, “You know, you guys are all gonna grow up. You’re gonna have families, you’re going to have children. You’re gonna have girls. And one day that little girl’s gonna look at you and say, ‘Daddy did you really say that? Is that really you?’ What are you going to say?” I think it got through to them.
WALLACE: I can just see what that face of yours and those big eyes, that they kind of go, “Oh, that’s…”
WARWICK: That’s what we need right this minute. We need conversation. We do. Nobody’s talking to each other. It seems like nobody really wants to know how to solve these problems. Can’t solve them without talking.
WALLACE: You also say in the documentary that in 2013 you filed for bankruptcy, and you owe something like $6 million in taxes. So here’s the question. You’re Dionne Warwick. You’ve had all these hits. How on earth do you end up in that situation?
WARWICK: I had a crooked bookkeeper. You know my accountant put me in a trick bag. It was a case of I never really kept track of the checks that go to the office. I got a salary. And the rest of it was supposed to be in the bank. Well, I figured out, new cars every year, a house for her. One thing after another after another and I was not filing my taxes.
WALLACE: So, 50 years into your career, you find this out. What did you think? I mean, you’ve made all this money. You’ve done it, played it right and you’re broke.
WARWICK: I didn’t like it of course. But you know I’m out there doing what I do. I laid everything in the hands of people that I trusted. I think that was the biggest mistake I’ve ever made, trusting. Without keeping a finger on the pulse of things. But you don’t learn that. You don’t learn that until way, way, way later. And then I found out too. As time progressed, race has a lot to do with a lot of things. It appears that folks that look like me were never taught to invest that, save that, know what this means, getting an attorney that really, really can guide you and teach you. Never taught that, ever.
WALLACE: So how are you today? Personally, professionally, financially? How are you?
WARWICK: I am wonderful. I really am yeah. The IRS finally decided well maybe it wasn’t my fault. You know? I have a payment program that I’m practically finished with. I’m living very comfortably.
WALLACE: Are you still recording?
WARWICK: Absolutely. you know, you learn by mistakes. And I have learned, trust me. You know it’s a case of you can’t trust everybody. You have to do a little bit of due diligence on everybody.
WALLACE: So at the end of this conversation and I know the answer, but I want to know if you know the answer. Do you think that your life just maybe is worth the documentary?
WARWICK: No doubt.
This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Photo by Noam Galai/Getty Images for Stan Ponte