Over an illustrious four-decade career, Dionne Warwick has established herself as an international musical legend. As a performer, she has charmed audiences on every continent. As an activist, she has been a true pioneer in the struggle, and one of the first artists to lead the music industry in the fight against HIV/AIDS.
“The loss of so many [to AIDS], especially within the entertainment industry, is quite a lot to deal with, not only for me, but for so many others,” reflects Warwick when asked about the personal toll the pandemic has taken. She’s also quick to point out the fact that the biggest challenge over the years has been “getting people to understand the gravity of this disease and getting total support.”
Total support is what the singer has given through her art. In 1986 her Grammy-winning, chart-topping single “That’s What Friends Are For” made history by raising, literally, millions of dollars for AIDS research. Sung with friends Gladys Knight, Stevie Wonder and Elton John, the international hit raised awareness and compassion while becoming a message of inspiration to those dealing with the pandemic. “The song is special in its own right,” says Warwick, “but even more so, knowing how it has and will continue to help raise awareness and funds for this continuing battle against AIDS. I think it’s evident that friendships are very important to me, and to know how much help has and will be given to those in need is awesome.”
Throughout the world, Warwick has devoted countless hours to a wide range of humanitarian causes, serving as the U.S. Ambassador for Health throughout the Eighties. In 2002 she was named a global Ambassador for the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. Warwick also spearheaded the long-overdue development and production of a history book that will detail African and African American history for use in schools, libraries and bookstores throughout the world. She continues her work as a socially conscious and concerned global citizen.
Warwick began singing during her childhood years in East Orange, New Jersey, initially in church. Occasionally she sang as a soloist and fill-in voice for the renowned Drinkard Singers, a group comprised of her mother Lee along with her aunts and uncles. It was while visiting the Drinkard Singers at the famed Apollo Theater in Harlem that Warwick was asked to sing backup during a session for saxophonist Sam “The Man” Taylor. While attending The Hartt College Of Music in Hartford, Connecticut, Warwick began making trips to do regular session work in New York. She sang behind many of the biggest stars of the 1960s. Once composer Burt Bacharach heard her singing during a session for the Drifters, he asked her to sing on demos of songs he was writing with new partner Hal David.
Warwick received her first Grammy Award in 1968 for the classic “Do You Know The Way to San Jose?” and became the first African American solo female artist since Ella Fitzgerald to win the prestigious award for Best Contemporary Female Vocal Performance. In all, Warwick, Bacharach and David racked up 30 hit singles and close to 20 best-selling albums during their first decade together. Songs like “Message To Michael,” “This Girl’s In Love With You,” “I’ll Never Fall In Love Again,” and “Reach Out For Me” established Warwick as a consummate artist and performer.
To record “That’s What Friends Are For,” Warwick reunited with producer Burt Bacharach. In the U.S., profits from the sale of the song were donated to the American Foundation for AIDS Research (AmfAR). In 1990, she joined forces with a number of Arista label-mates to raise over $2.5 million for various AIDS organizations during the star-studded “That’s What Friends Are For” benefit at New York’s Radio City Music Hall.
Throughout the Eighties, Warwick collaborated with many of her musical peers, including Johnny Mathis, Smokey Robinson, Luther Vandross and others. She worked with Stevie Wonder as music coordinator for the film and Academy Award winning soundtrack album The Woman In Red, and was also a key participant in the all-star charity single “We Are The World.”
Warwick’s status as a musical icon and humanitarian is legendary. In 2002, she was honored by the American Red Ribbon AIDS Foundation. In 2003, she received a lifetime achievement award from the R&B Foundation, and was selected as one of the Top Faces of Black History.
On the 20th anniversary of “That’s What Friends Are For,” Warwick remarks, “My feelings regarding this song are exactly the same as when I first heard it: how wonderful it is to be able to express a feeling regarding friendship and being there for one another.”
When asked about the most rewarding part of her work in the struggle, Warwick states, “being able to get those who did not want to be associated in any way involved by the purchase of [the song].”
As she looks forward to the future, Warwick says that she still has some important personal goals. “I still want the Tony, Oscar, and Emmy!” Not-so-impossible dreams for a woman who has inspired and empowered millions through her music and her activism. Of being named a Hero in the Struggle, Warwick says, “It’s always nice to be recognized, and this honor is extra special since it is coming to me from those who look like me!”