giovedì 22 ottobre 2009


On October 18, 2008, Dee Dee Warwick passed away. She was one of the best Soul singers ever, although she didn't reach a great commercial success. I don't want her to be forgotten, so here I post the translation of the article I wrote last year for the magazine Audiophile Sound. This translation has been done by me under request of Ms. Dionne Warwick who, through my friend David Nathan (thank you, David, thank you!), got to know about it. When I met her, this year, she personally said thank you to me for this. She also said that there are some mistakes in the part concerning the Gospelaires, and that when she has time she will make the corrections.
Anyway, if you don't have any Dee Dee Warwick music, go and get it. She deserves recognition for her sheer talent.
Dee Dee, we won't forget you.

To Dee Dee’s own name, it is impossible to avoid the comparison with a family name that recalls a superstar sister, and obviously her career affected by this fact. In spite of this, Dee Dee gave us a precious musical testimont, not comparable to Dionne’s, because of the substantial difference between their musical directions. While Dionne is a pop-based singer, appealing mainly a middle and high class American and European audience, often white, Dee Dee was a ‘working class soul heroine’, loved basically by her Black brothers and sisters. As it often happens in Black music, she started as a Gospel singer, in a family group, the renowned Drinkard Singers, so much loved (and launched) by the Queen of African-American sacred music Mahalia Jackson. The line-up included Lee, mother to Dionne and Delia Mae (Dee Dee’s real name), Ann, Marie, Larry, Nicholas and Emily ‘Cissy’ Drinkard, plus Judy Guyons and, later, her sister Sylvia.
Larry, once the group had reached celebity status (they had even recorded an album for Norman Granz’s Verve Records, titled ‘A Joyful Noise’, in 1958) created a new group with the younger generation of the family: Dionne, her cousin Myrna Smith, and at different times Doris Higginsen, Cissy (later Cissy Houston, Whitney’s mother), Judy, Sylvia, and Estelle Brown, supplied their robust harmonies to the soloist, Dee Dee, who still used her own family name. The junior group (officially called ‘the Gospelaires’, or commonly Dee Dee and the girls), was very much in demand, and appeared on countless records: Nina Simone, Aretha Franklin, Esther Phillips, Big Maybelle, Nappy Brown, Garnett Mimms, Wilson Pickett, Maxine Brown, Gene Pitney, Chuck Jackson, The Drifters... So, as David Nathan recalls, Dee Dee’s is still one of the most heard voices in Rock and Soul history, and her sound is very recognizable. Judy was the first Gospelaire to go solo, known as Judy Clay (she would find success at the end of the sixties with Billy Vera, in the first interracial soul music duo, and later with William Bell). Doris (Doris Troy) and Dionne - the rising superstar, who became Dionne Warwick for a printing mistake - followed. Dee Dee, who for this reason started being called Warwick too, usually cut demos for other singers, like Martha Reeves (leader of Martha and the Vandellas, of ‘Dancing in the street’ fame) did at Motown; she also cut songs for TV spots. But in the meanwhile, a few singles of her own came out: You’re no good, for Jubilee Records, gained the general attention, not for its sales, but because Betty Everett (of "Let it be me" fame, with Jerry Butler) covered it soon after its release, for the Vee-Jay label, with much success (as did Linda Ronstadt in the 70's, with a good chart position as well). After a cover of a Ben E. King hit (I who have nothing) fot the unknown Hurd label, and a further 45, Don't think my baby's coming back/Standing by, for Tiger records (where she supplied harmonies to the songs of her peer Bessie Banks, including the marvellous "Go now!", soon made by the British group Moody Blues becoming their first smash), Dee Dee signed for Blue Rock, a subsidiary of Mercury Records, that had included people like Dinah Washington and Clifford Brown in its roster. Three singles were released, of which the first, We're doing fine, had warm success, enough to secure her a contract with the main label Mercury.
Between 1966 and 1969, Dee Dee released two albums and a dozen singles, many of which had an interesting story. The first 45, I want to be with you (b/w Lover's chant, written by Lorraine Ellison, Known for the classic "Stay with me baby"), was a song from the musical "Golden Boy", but when its authors, Charles Strouse and Lee Adams, heard Dee Dee singing a little bit of it, they insisted that Mercury would record Dee Dee's version. It became her biggest hit (#9 r'n'b, #41 pop) and also the ultimate reading of the song, as the following covers (Aretha, Cissy Houston...) were always referred to her version, and never to Davis'. The focus on Warwick began to increase: Nina Simone covered Dee Dee's Don't you pay them no mind.
After I want to be with you, it was I'm gonna make you love me's turn to make it to the charts, reaching the top 20 (#13 r'n'b). The track, written by Jerry "Swamp Dogg" Williams, who would later contribute to Dee Dee's success, was covered by Diana Ross and the Supremes with the Temptation, who brought it to the attention of a wider, white audience, turning it into an evergreen; its B-side, Yours until tomorrow, is a pearl of American song, and listening to it today is just as touching as it was forty years ago. One more outing (the beautiful, melancholy When love slips away, #43 r'n'b, #92 pop) secured a warm stay in charts, just before Locked in your love's turn. The B-side of the latter, Alfie (yes, exactly the Bacharach and David standard) was recorded a couple of years earlier in England, before Dionne did it, and it was also a demo used by the authors, which means that Dionne learned the song from that.
Dee Dee was one of the first people to work with the ever-famous Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, and those sessions built the foundations of Philly Sound, that from the 70's on began to spread with much success. Just think about Billy Paul's "Me and Mrs. Jones", Harold Melvin and the BlueNotes' "If you don't know me by now"... they wouldn't exist without Dee Dee! Unfortunately, if songs like It's not fair (B-side of the single Girls need love) are still gorgeous and appealing under a musical point of view, they are and were meant for a niche taste and not for masses', and were commercially unsuccessful. Girls need love is a good exemple of her skills in reading a tune: although it may seem to be written rather for a Barbra Streisand than a soul singer, it is faced with the almost sacred, mysterious intensity of Dee Dee who, with her beautiful dark tone, clean and fully-shaped, and her power and high-octane range, gave a huge emotional intensity to every piece she sang; we wouldn't be mistaken if we would call her "the Jessye Norman" of Soul.
in 1969 Dee Dee was paired again with Ed Townsend, who produced some of her earlier hits, and with him cut some singles that had a more traditional and soulful sound. The first was Foolish fool/Thank God, and it reached a good position n the charts (#14 r'n'b, #57 pop) and was nominated for a Grammy; the robust southern funk of the A-side was in a different vein from the more sensitive, emotional sounds (sweetened by harmonies courtesy of the Teaneck Choir) of the B-side's protest song against war; in the same mould, the beautiful That's not love, deep and intense even in its lyrics. And even Next time (you fall in love) didn't betray this feeling, while its B-side Ring of bright water (#113 pop), soundtrack of a same-titled movie, had a jazzier dressing, thanks to Bobby Scott arrangement, and it fit perfectly to Dee Dee's elegant vocal power, revealing affinities between her style and Mahalia Jackson's.
At this point, Mercury offered to renew the contract, but Atlantic Records, through its Chairman Jerry Wexler (known mostly for the incredible job he was doing with Aretha Franklin in those years), made a more appealing proposal, and Dee Dee accepted it, signing for the subsidiary Atco.
Out of the first recording session, held at the beginning of 1970, nothing was released (we had to wait until 1996 to discover some of its material, when David Nathan published two tracks, the amazing Only the one you love and The way we used to do, the latter co-written by Dee Dee). The producer was, again, Ed Townsend.
In the month of April of the same year, a session produced by Dave Crawford at the famous Criteria Studios in Miami, laid the foundations of what was to be her sole Atco album, Turning Around (now a rarity for collectors). All the songs were picked by Dee Dee and Jerry Wexler, and he rhythm session was supplied by the famous band The Dixie Flyers. According to many people's opinion, including mine, that day some of the greatest tracks in the whole soul music history were recorded. The sound stuck much more to its gospel, blues and jazz roots than it used to in the Mercury years, with very little orchestral sweetenings, and strong background vocals (by Judy Clay, Jackie Verdell, Dee Dee's aunt Ann Moss Drinkard, and even the Sweet Inspirations, who were simply the Gospelaires after Dee Dee's departure). From the session, two singles came out. The first one, She didn't know (She kept on talking), was the answer song to Doris Duke's hit To the other woman (I'm the other woman): the tunes, musically similar, embraced the subject of adultery, one (Duke's) under the point of view of the other woman who accepts her role of a n°2 lover, the other (Warwicks), of the wife who learns, from that woman's mouth, that her husband cheated her, without that woman knowing the man was married to her. Both the tracks were written by Swamp Dogg. Duke had also recorded the song before, without releasing it. Atco reached the goal: Warwick's debut for the label peaked at #9 r'n'b, and it also entered the pop charts (#70), becoming her second-biggest hit and securing her a second Grammy nomination. Its B-side, Make love to me, written for Dee Dee by Van McCoy (known for his work with, among others, Gladys Knight and the Pips, later a hitmaker on his own right with The Hustle and producer of Aretha Franklin's swansong for Atlantic Records), was later covered by Maxine Brown.
Excited by this success, Wexler & Co. published a second 45, If this was the last song/I'm only human. In the annals of southern soul, even today it still stands up as a cult record, for the beauty of this tunes: the first of them was written by Jim Webb, I think specifically for Thelma Houston (who had cut it earlier for an album produced by Webb himself), but it takes two bars of Dee Dee's version to forget the original. I'm only human was brought by George Soulè, a famous composer, from Tennesse I think, who wrote many southern soul masterpieces sung by singers like Margie Joseph and Jean Knight (of Mr Bigstuff fame). No need to say how beautiful it is, and how much I love it (I cried many nights listening to it), you sure guessed it by yourself. Unfortunately, it often happens that the best things wait a long time to be understood, and although today this two tracks are very much sought-after in the international soul scene, at that time they were ignored, and were commercially unsatisfying. The same late understanding fate came for other tunes from Turning Around: the jazzy More today than yesterday, cut shortly earlier by Carmen McRae for the same label; the solid, tough blues Who will the next fool be?, that makes us guess what she would have done if she was sent to Stax Records and was teamed, like her adopted sister Judy Clay, to David Porter and Isaac Hayes, who also sadly passed away this year. The request for re-printings of these songs (David Nathan had the good idea to do it in the mid-90's) show how much the following generations of listeners still love this music.
In search of new hits, Wexler sent Dee Dee to Muscle Shoals, at the renowned Fame Studios, birthplace of many of the greatest and most important hits in the history of soul music: I never loved a man (the way I love you), the stunning Aretha Franklin's Atlantic Records debut that established her as the Queen of Soul for the rest of her life; the Staple Singers' I'll take you there and Respect yourself; Etta James' Tell Mama; Wilson Pickett's Mustang Sally; Millie Jackson's Hurts so good; the list can go on forever. Producer Crawford was paired to Brad Shapiro, who was beginning a lucky collaboration with Millie Jackson that very year, and who would have recorded Bettye Lavette in those studios a couple of years later. From that collaboration, two singles came: Cold night in Georgia, answer song to Brook Benton's hit "Rainy Night in Georgia", backed by the wonderful Searchin', that had deep introspective, psychological lyrics; the funky Suspicious minds (Elvis Presley's chestnut, it had its definitive reading by Dee Dee, in fact Candi Staton's 1982 cover refers to Warwick's version, not to the original), backed with I'm glad I'm a woman, that showed the more delicate, lilting side of her vocals. Both 45's charted, and the second one had more success (r'n'b #24). The session produced some unreleased tunes that recently resurfaced: Love I found (in you) (listen to it, please, and then tell me if just this tune doesn't deserve all these pages that I'm writing), and I can't wait until I see my baby's face, originally a Baby Washington's classic, were released on the Ichiban anthology, and a bluesy Rescue me (yes, Fontella Bass' hit!) in a 2006 compilation of rare and unreleased tracks, title Atlantic Unearthed: Soul Sisters.
A new collaboration with the team Crawford-Shapiro was held in 1971 in Detroit, at Pac-Three Studios, and produced one more single: Everybody's got tot believe in somebody, an Isaac Hayes/David Porter tune originally written for Sam & Dave; the B-side was Signed Dede, her version of Gladys Knight and the Pips' "Signed Gladys", sang with an overflowing gospel feel. This 45 was "signed Dede" Warwick for astrological reasons: but clearly the stars didn't help it, because in spite of its beauty, it was a commercial flop.
At this point Dee Dee, feeling ignored and underrated by Atlantic Records, left the label to go back to Mercury for a short stay, and cut the theme of the movie "Touch of class", featuring Maggie Smith. As a single, All the love that went to waste didn't even scrape the charts, but the flip-side I haven't got anything better to do was covered by Esther Phillips in 1976 and by Natalie Cole in 2006.
From this point on, the number of Dee Dee's recordings started decreasing.A couple of years later, she released two singles for Private Stock, Get out of my life and This time may be the last time, both backed by Funny how we change places; the first one gained a modest chart position (#73 r'n'b). Private Stock went out of business and, I think, was bought by RCA. In fact, RCA issued Funny how we change places as a 45 in 1976, with This time may be the last time as a flip-side, and the singer went under the name of Dee Dee Schwartz (that brought the same kind of astrological... luck that she had with Everybody's got tot believe in somebody!). Dee Dee's carrier was focused on live performances, and she did also some stint as a backing vocalist for Dionne.
In the eighties, two albums saw the light of day, Dee Dee (1983, for the Heritage label), and Call me (Sutra,1984), now hard to find. Dionne, in that moment, was having a new, successful start in her carrier, and cousin Whitney Houston was about to have her debut as a superstar. From the Call me's sessions, a single was released, Move with the world/The way we used to do (the latter, a new version of the song that Atlantic Records didn't release), ant this seemed to be the end of the tale. Instead, in the nineties she played the role of Dinah Washington in a musical, and in 1999 the Rhythm'n'blues Foundation gave her the Pioneer Award.
In 2006, she took part of the soundtrack of Tyler Perry's movie "Daddy's little girls", along with Whitney, Dionne and Cissy, and in 2008 she appeared on Dionne's "Why we sing", sharing lead vocals with her sister on the title-track. And Chaka Khan, in 2007, had Foolish Fool with great success. It seemed that Dee Dee was having a brand new start, there were all the signs for a flaming comeback, and instead, in this November her weak heart didn't make it: the Soul Music community is drenched in sadness, and many artists, starting from her family and Chaka Khan, have expressed the pain of so big a human and musical loss, and the disappointment for her talent being underrated by the musical industry.

I hope these few lines will make you be curious and will stimulate you to (re)discover this vocalist, able like very few others to imbue every note she sang with her soul, a main performer of the truest side of the African American musical tradition.
Pierluigi Avorio, November 2008. Sources: David Nathan.

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