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Review: Dionne Warwick, “The Complete Warner Bros. Singles”

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Dionne - Warner SinglesDionne Warwick’s 1972-1977 tenure at Warner Bros. Records has long been a subject of much confusion.  Why couldn’t the Burbank giant yield any hit records with the superstar artist after signing her to a record-breaking deal? Sure, the “triangle marriage” of Warwick, Burt Bacharach and Hal David was breaking up, but Warner paired her with some of the most famed names in soul music: Holland-Dozier-Holland, Jerry Ragovoy, and Thom Bell among them.  Bell scored a hit for Warwick with “Then Came You,” and the Spinners duet earned her – unbelievably – her first Billboard No. 1 Pop record during the Warner years – on the Spinners’ label, Atlantic!  Dionne couldn’t strike gold on Warner despite her best efforts.  Had disco irrevocably altered the soul marketplace?  Did the records suffer from a lack of promotion?  Two new releases from Real Gone Music – The Complete Warner Bros. Singles (RGM -0169) and We Need to Go Back: The Unissued Warner Bros. Masters (RGM-0170) – finally give reason to completely re-evaluate Dionne Warwick’s Warner Bros. years.  Sure, maybe the label did make some missteps, particularly in the material left sitting on the shelf.  But maybe the public got a few things wrong, too.

The Complete Warner Bros. Singles is not just a singles collection, but also an effective primer on Warwick’s tumultuous 5+ years on WB.  It features tracks drawn from all five of her releases there – Dionne (1972), Just Being Myself (1973), Then Came You (1974), Track of the Cat (1975), and Love at First Sight (1977) – plus two sides of one non-LP single.  The constant among these 21 diverse recordings is the high level of Warwick’s artistry, combining silky tones with an actress’ skill for interpretation.  She could be vulnerable or gritty as she ran the emotional gamut, but exuded vocal control and frequently understated power.

Warner  missed the boat with the selection of Warwick’s first two singles off the Dionne album.  Jacques Brel, Eric Blau and Mort Shuman’s “If We Only Have Love” was paired with Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “(They Long to Be) Close to You,” both covers.  The latter was clearly inspired by the Carpenters’ recent hit version, already making the song “old news.”  In addition, Warwick had already released a fine version of the song in 1965.  Burt Bacharach didn’t even arrange or conduct “Close to You,” ceding duties to Bob James.  Though the production of Dionne was credited to Bacharach and David, the busy, distracted Bacharach only arranged and conducted four of its tracks.  Surely a Bacharach/David original would have made a better A-side.  The bouncy, retro-feeling “If You Never Say Goodbye” should have been earmarked for single release, perhaps backed by James’ arrangement of the duo’s cheerful “Hasbrook Heights.”  (“I Just Have to Breathe,” “The Balance of Nature” and “Be Aware,” the other three pure Bacharach tracks, were all too subtle to have much single potential.)  Though their vocals were – and are – lovely, “If We Only Have Love” (arranged by the talented Don Sebesky, like James a mainstay of the CTI jazz label) and the retread of “Close to You” simply didn’t excite listeners.  The single reached just No. 84 Pop/No. 37 AC.   With Bacharach and David going their separate ways, an era was over.

Dionne should have met with more luck for Just Being Myself, written and produced by the Motown-reared team of Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Eddie Holland.  H-D-H did take Warwick in a different direction, emphasizing the soul quotient of her pop-soul formula.  The dramatic “I Think You Need Love” was chosen as the A-side, and while it’s a powerful performance, its B-side was the more commercial song.  “Don’t Let My Teardrops Bother You” had a familiar feel to its lyrics, with Warwick persevering in the face of heartbreak, and an even more familiar sound in its arrangement thanks to the Bacharach-esque horn accents.  This single was followed up by the title song “(I’m) Just Being Myself” with its striking Latin percussion b/w “You’re Gonna Need Me,” toughened up by a prominent electric guitar.  This single charted a minor R&B hit (No. 62).  Was Dionne having an identity crisis?  Though her vocals were as committed and satisfying as ever, Warwick admitted discomfort with the tracks on Just Being Myself, all of which were laid down prior to her participation.  Many sounded, naturally, more Motown than New York.  Nonetheless, Warwick’s next album project would also be a departure.

After the jump: a look at the singles produced by Jerry Ragovoy, Thom Bell and more!

Warner Bros. teamed Warwick with writer-producer Jerry Ragovoy, another deep-soul architect with hits under his belt like Lorraine Ellison’s “Stay with Me” and Janis Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart.”  Two singles were released from their collaborative LP, Then Came You.  (It was so named for Dionne’s chart-topping Spinners duet produced by Thom Bell, which was tacked onto the otherwise-unrelated album produced by Ragovoy.)  “Sure Thing” sounds today like a sure bet, a big ballad with plenty of dynamics and a chance for Warwick’s velvety voice to soar.  It was nicely joined on the original 45 with “Who Knows,” an attractive and pensive ballad, but only reached No. 66 R&B.  The next single from Then Came You was the Philly soul-esque “Take It From Me,” with its danceable beat, swirling strings and punchy horns, backed by the sweetly romantic “It’s Magic.”  This single fared slightly better, hitting No. 30 R&B.

But for her next Warner album, Warwick turned to “Then Came You” auteur Thom Bell for the full Philadelphia experience.  They proved a perfect match.  (Unfortunately, “Then Came You” and its B-side “Just as Long as We Have Love,” falls out of the purview of this compilation, as it was released on The Spinners’ label and sister to Warner Bros., Atlantic.)  Tracks were laid down in the City of Brotherly Love at Sigma Sound Studios by MFSB, and then Bell recruited the singer to his Seattle studio to record her vocals.  The result was the most artistically satisfying album she would have at Warner Bros., Track of the Cat.

Four sides were lifted from Track of the Cat for its two 45s.  Like Warwick, Bell brought a touch of class to everything he did.  And this was a purple patch for Bell.  He was routinely creating hits for The Spinners while crafting Track with lyrical partner Linda Creed, but even his lesser-known productions of the time (for artists like Ronnie Dyson, New York City, and Little Anthony and the Imperials) were exquisite.  Track of the Cat is filled with sleek and sexy sounds, epitomized by the leadoff single “Once You Hit the Road” written by Charles Simmons and Joe Jefferson, and arranged, conducted and produced by Bell.  Despite the emotional lyric – doubly resonant for Warwick, experiencing a divorce herself – the melody was pure upbeat Philly soul.  Its potent strings anticipated Bell’s later successes with Elton John, and its danceable beat even translated to a 12-inch mix.  How it only reached No. 79 Pop is a mystery, though its No. 5 R&B placement was more reasonable.  “Road” was backed by “World of My Dreams,” a sweet confection by Bell and Creed not unlike their earlier “I’m Stone in Love with You.”  Whereas that Stylistics song envisioned “the first house on the moon [where] there would be no neighbors, and no population boom,” this equally fanciful song dreamed of “a ride on a chocolate bar” and “a mountain made of cake” among its far-out, delicious images.

Another wrenching break-up song, the ballad “His House and Me,” topped the second single off Track of the Cat (No. 75 R&B).  Warwick dug deep in recounting Creed’s devastating and personal lyrics: “This once was the house where he used to live with me/He left this house…and me.”  A soft bed of strings and subdued horns were among Bell’s tools of the trade for this quietly emotional recording.  The B-side, the perky and insanely catchy “Ronnie Lee,” found Bell and Creed in sassier mode as Warwick sought the real man underneath the bravado: “Ronnie Lee, can’t you see that there’s really no need to play your part for me?”  Like Bacharach before him, Bell created tender, mini-pop-soul symphonies for Warwick, yet only “Then Came You” reached the public in sufficient numbers.

Nothing could have prepared record purchasers, however, for producer Joe Porter’s non-LP single “I Didn’t Mean to Love You” b/w “He’s Not for You.”  (Porter, best known for his work earlier in the decade with Gladys Knight and the Pips, recorded seven tracks with Warwick; the remaining five can be heard on We Need to Go Back.)  For the A-side penned by veteran arranger Artie Butler and Karen Philipp, Warwick tapped into a reserve of anguish presumably long buried.  Following a rare ad lib of “Lord have mercy,” the usually-proper Ms. Warwick moans, wails and takes her voice into the stratosphere at around the 4 minute, 15-second mark, allowing for cracks and imperfect notes that are perfect in their raw reality. The unrestrained emotion of the 6+-minute track is unlike anything Warwick has recorded before or since.  (At some point, the original 45 version of this song was apparently withdrawn and reissued with an alternate vocal.  This is the version used on Complete Singles.)  The B-side, Willie Nelson’s “He’s Not For You,” is a strong reinvention of a country tune into a lightly funky R&B style, complete with impassioned, gospel-esque backing vocals.  Yet this single followed the pattern of its predecessors, earning just a No. 91 berth on the R&B survey.

The Complete Warner Bros. Singles wraps up with five songs from 1977’s Love at First Sight, produced by the team of Steve Barri (onetime songwriting partner of P.F. Sloan) and Michael Omartian.  Why the odd number?   “Do I Have to Cry” was utilized on two of the three 45s.  Love at First Sight, Dionne’s Warner swansong, was a collection of shiny pop nuggets that, while entertaining, lacked the highly individualistic stamp of her previous WB albums.  “Do You Believe in Love at First Sight,” originally sung by Polly Brown of Pickettywitch, is bubbly and infectious, as is the Dennis Lambert-composed “Keeping My Head Above Water.”  Interestingly, the B-side “Do I Have to Cry” was co-written by Hal David’s son Jim; oddly, the terrific Hal David/Barry Manilow song “Early Morning Strangers” from Love at First Sight wasn’t selected for single issue.  The final track here, “Don’t Ever Take Your Love Away,” was co-written by Isaac Hayes and has much of the same irresistibly slinky feel as Warwick’s future Hayes-written hit “Déjà vu,” although it lacks that song’s tremendous hook.

The Complete Warner Bros. Singles has been produced with care by Jim Pierson and remastered by Mike Milchner.  In his essay, Paul Howes details the chart placements of each song along with brief background as to their histories.  Surprisingly, the booklet lacks any discographical annotation as to the catalogue numbers of each single.  (We’ll fill you in below.) This single-disc set does include the complete standard stereo Warner Bros. singles for Warwick, but doesn’t make room for mono mixes, alternate promotional mono and stereo mixes, 12-inch mixes, or other variations.  A handful of these mono singles and other special single mixes can be found on WEA Japan’s recent series of Warwick reissues.

Pierson and executive producer Gordon Anderson have impressively shed light on this often-overlooked part of the Dionne Warwick story.  It’s important to note that most of the recordings here have never appeared on CD in these single mixes, which often varied from the album versions.  And The Complete Warner Bros. Singles is only half the story.  Click here for Part 2, in which we look at its companion volume of never-before-heard recordings, We Need to Go Back: The Unissued Warner Bros. Masters!

Dionne Warwick, The Complete Warner Bros. Singles (Real Gone Music  RGM-0169/OPCD-8781, 2013) (Amazon U.K.)

  1. If We Only Have Love
  2. Close to You
  3. I Think You Need Love
  4. Don’t Let My Teardrops Bother You
  5. (I’m) Just Being Myself
  6. You’re Gonna Need Me
  7. Sure Thing
  8. Who Knows
  9. Take It From Me
  10. It’s Magic (When You Are Near Me)
  11. Once You Hit the Road
  12. World of My Dreams
  13. His House and Me
  14. Ronnie Lee
  15. I Didn’t Mean to Love You
  16. He’s Not for You
  17. Do You Believe in Love at First Sight
  18. Do I Have to Cry
  19. Keepin’ My Head Above Water
  20. Livin’ It Up is Startin’ to Get Me Down
  21. Don’t Ever Take Your Love Away

Tracks 1-2 from WB single 7560, 1972
Tracks 3-4 from WB single 7669, 1972
Tracks 5-6 from WB single 7693, 1973
Tracks 7-8 from WB single 8026, 1974
Tracks 9-10 from WB single 8088, 1975
Tracks 11-12 from WB single 8154, 1976
Tracks 13-14 from WB single 8183, 1976
Tracks 15-16 from WB single 8280, 1976
Tracks 17-18 from WB single 8419, 1977
Tracks 19-20 from WB single 8501, 1977
Track 21 from WB single 8530, 1978

Written by Joe Marchese

August 19, 2013 at 10:57

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