To one generation, Dionne Warwick is a vocalist of supreme sophistication and elegant soulfulness, an interpreter whose gospel influence, jazzy éclat and conversational phrasing have, since 1962, turned the finest of cosmopolitan pop song — from Bacharach/David and Michel Legrand to Thom Bell and Barry Gibb — into gold.
To another generation, Warwick is, at 80, the Queen of Twitter, a mature woman who pokes good-natured fun at younger R&B singers and rappers — famously the Weeknd and Chance the Rapper — for their names and disses Chet Hanks for his racial insensitivity.
Along with bursting, big-time, onto social media, Warwick has become a totem of 21st Century pop culture by appearing on “The Masked Singer,” popping up onto a Verzuz battle between pals Patti LaBelle and Gladys Knight, getting her own “Saturday Night Live” impersonation, preparing for a YouTube talk show (“Dionne Speaks” debuts in April) and performing her first pandemic livestreams, the next one coming on Mothers’ Day. Another more old-school first finds Warwick — after nearly 60 years in the music biz — getting nominated for the 2021 class of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
Variety caught up with Warwick at home, on Easter Monday, the afternoon that Chance the Rapper is preparing his contribution to his Twitter pal’s upcoming new album.
You debuted the first in a series of livestream concerts on Easter. How did you enjoy the process? Did you sense a lack of intimacy?
There was definitely a difference. I missed the usual, personal contact of having people sitting in front of me. But my son sent me all the comments being made in real time, so it was as if they were there with me. As long as the audience enjoyed it, and they were satisfied at what was given to them, I’m happy.
You’ve had quite the year worth of achievements, the first being your conquering of the Twitter-verse. What made you embrace Twitter?
I got interested in it, sitting and watching my nieces and nephews. They seemed to be having just a really good time while on Twitter. Laughing, giggling, carrying on. I wanted to know what they were so happy about. They explained that they were tweeting on Twitter, which made me ask, “What is Twitter?” My niece Brittani explained it all, and taught me right there. I wanted to have a laugh too. Since then, I have been having a wonderful time on it.
Do you enjoy its conversational opportunities?
It’s given me a way to connect with people that I’m sure they’d never thought I’d connect with. And the lovelier thing is the responses I’m getting from them.
You have to be speaking about opening Twitter dialogues with the Weeknd and Chance the Rapper. What made you curious about these two artists in particular?
It was out of the blue these two became of interest. Chance. That name. I was trying to figure out how I could poke a little fun at him. “We all know you’re a rapper. How come you have to put it in your name?” It was just a fun thing to say to him, to see if he’d respond. And he did. Which was lovely. Now, we’ve become very close, and we will be collaborating on a song. Actually, he’s in the studio now, putting his part on our song. As soon as he is satisfied, he’ll send it to me and I’ll put my voice on the track. The same thing with the Weeknd. I just wanted to know why the kid just couldn’t put the E before the N. Why not just spell it out? And he responded to me.
So you’re getting positive results, despite Twitter often being a place ripe with negativity.
Oh, yes. When I first started doing this, I noticed too that, on Twitter, that it wasn’t always a pleasant thing with these kids. What was wrong with them? They were saying some pretty ugly things to each other, and about themselves. I really thought they could use a little grown-up intervention here. That’s why I think they’re responding to me. They’re getting to know me, They get that I’m not going to have anything other than good stuff come across, to me, about me, and to them. It’s so much easier to put a smile on someone’s face than a frown. That’s getting across to them, if you notice the correspondence I get back.
Considering that you’re talking with Chance and the Weeknd, have your listening habits changed?
Nothing has changed about my listening habits. I have seven grandchildren. I have two young sons who have always listened to a variety of music. If I see someone on Twitter I want to know more about, I ask them. I’ll decide from there if I want to say anything about their recordings, or something that they have said. I have no problem asking questions, or answering them.
Do you, like so many of us, keep your phone glued to your hand, hot to respond to something on Twitter?
No. I hate my phone [Laughs]. I hate my phone. I hate my computer. I hate all of this electronic stuff. Nothing beats a face-to-face conversation. Whatever happened to writing a note? Corresponding with each other for real? We’ve lost touch with being in touch with each other. Unfortunately, the time we’re in means that electronics have taken over the world. I go on Twitter when I feel as if I have something to say to the community or a specific person. I do not wake up in the morning, saying “I have to get on Twitter.”
I asked about frequency because you had the quickest response to Chet Hanks and his tone-deaf “white boy summer” tweet. You tweeted “What kind of foolishness did I just see” and that you would “be having a Black woman summer.’” … You came up during the initial civil rights movement. What can you say about that Black Power moment versus the present day BLM?
I truly believe and hope that Black lives matter. For so very long, it appeared that they didn’t, or were overlooked, or negated. I believe because that it is not only Black people who are part of Black Lives Matter that it has now become something that has gotten the attention of every race, color and creed. I think that is a beautiful thing. Finally we are facing each other and trying to understand each other. You have to know about people in order to accomplish anything. To fight a thing. That’s how I do it — I get to know about it. Just like when I first got involved with the AIDS problem, I advocated education.
You came up as a mega-successful singer playing to mixed race audiences in the still-segregationist ’60s. Did you feel the stings of racism?
Oh yeah. I toured the South during the period of time when that region still wasn’t very receptive to Black folks. That was the first time I had ever experienced anything of that nature. It was completely dumb. Segregation and discrimination were completely out of my scope of thinking. I saw it. I felt it. I dealt with it. And I did not change my persona. Even though, on several occasions down South, I heard the comment, “Oh, well, you must be from the North.” (Laughs.] Yeah, I’m from the North.
Now that you’re laughing again, what was your first thought seeing Ego Nwodim do her impersonation of you on “SNL”?
I loved it. I had not laughed that hard in a long time. She is perfect. Wonderful. She’s keeping Dionne Warwick alive and bringing my persona to a different, newer audience. I thank them.
Is it true that it was the “SNL” take on a Dionne Warwick talk show that inspired you to do your upcoming “Dionne Speaks” showcase starting in April on YouTube?
My son came up with that prior to “SNL” He said, “Mommy, because of Twitter and the responses you’re getting, you should do something where you invite people to talk to you – interview them and have them answer you.” That sounded like fun. So we’re doing it.
What sort of relationship do you have with the first “Dionne Speaks” guest, RuPaul? And can you comment on your second guest being your current nemesis, Wendy Williams?
I did Ru’s television show when he started in New York City. I was one of his first guests, and since then, we’ve kept in touch. I love him dearly. In regards to Wendy Williams… you’re going to have to wait and see.
How do you feel about Teyana Taylor capturing you and your life in an upcoming television series? It sounds as if it started on Twitter, after you said the only person who could ever portray you is Taylor.
The series will take you through who I am through my music. Teyana is a brilliant actress with a wonderful voice. She has directorial prowess which I’m thrilled about. And she writes very well. She’s a triple threat. I love this gal. She’s put together her thoughts and done extensive research. She even told me stuff about me I had forgotten. She’s done her homework.
Going back to September 13, 2020, you did a pop-up during Patti LaBelle and Gladys Knight’s Verzuz, and blew up the internet. How did you become part of that experience?
I received a call that morning that it was going down, and would I be a live surprise to my two friends? I just said yes. I was thrilled they asked me, and I loved the idea of visiting friends who I hadn’t seen in a while. They sent a car for me, drove me to Philly, hid me in a dressing room, and I watched the show like everyone else. It was so wonderful the conversations they were having. I hoped that all of our babies were watching this as these two were offering such pearls of wisdom. You could learn a lot from these ladies. When I came out, Gladys saw me turn the corner and freaked. That was the joy. I love the Verzuz platform. I’m sorry I missed the Verzuz from yesterday, with Earth Wind & Fire and the Isleys. They’re all old friends. I had my own livestream to do. I’m asking Swizz Beatz to send me a copy, though, so I can see what I missed.
How do you feel about getting a 2021 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nomination for the first time? It’s crazy long overdue.
It’s like everything else, a thing I truly live by: whenever anything happens to me or for me, it happens when it was supposed to, and not a minute before. You may say it’s about time but I say it’s the time when it’s supposed to happen. You call them awards. I call them rewards — something you earn. If it happens, wonderful. If it doesn’t, wonderful. It took this long.
We started off talking about the next livestream concert on Mothers’ Day. Your catalog of hits goes back to 1962. Are you sticking with the setlist from Easter or are there additional songs?
It will be a different show altogether. And no, I can’t tell you what I’ll play — you’ll have to wait and see for yourself.
Is the same thing true for the new album you have planned for fall? You’re keeping that a secret?
I am. We’re collecting together all the songs that we have, at present, and preparing them. I can say though, that each song is different from the other and that collectively it will be different than anything I have done in the past.
At the end of 2020, you tweeted out, “Please do not bring that foolishness into 2021.” That became a billboard in Bryant Park in New York City. How do you feel as if 2021 is shaping up for you and any level of purported foolishness?
I was trying to tell kids that there is another way of doing things. Make life a little lighter. A little happier. And get some smiles on peoples’ faces. I think that those people who are doing crazy things — attacking people for no reason, acting in truly ugly ways — I was hopeful that we could start making some sense. That people would pay attention. I am still hopeful that 2021 will reign supreme in that manner, and that the craziness will stop.