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Dionne Warwick on music and losing Whitney

By Weekend  |  Posted: April 29, 2013

Dionne Warwick is opening this year's Cheltenham Jazz Festival

Dionne Warwick is opening this year's Cheltenham Jazz Festival

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Legend is a tag often assigned to people with wild abandon in the increasingly celebrity-obsessed world that we live in.

But it's without any reluctance that singer Dionne Warwick can be placed in that bracket.

The Grammy award-winning artist has racked up an incredible 56 top-selling singles and is regarded as one of the first black über songstresses.

Ahead of her only confirmed UK appearance at Cheltenham Jazz Festival this week, WEEKEND settles down for an exclusive chat about her childhood, family life and coming to terms with the death of her cousin, Whitney Houston.

"The UK has always been good to me and I respect what the festival supports in championing new and emerging young artists," 72-year-old Dionne says.

" My performance in Cheltenham will be a great show of familiar songs with quality music from my 50-year career.

"It's not difficult putting together a set list as there are so many familiar songs that audiences always enjoy hearing."

It's true. Her smooth soulful voice has brought the world songs such as Walk On By, Do You Know The Way to San Jose? and I Say A Little Prayer. You only need to hear the first couple of notes and you can't help but sing along.

For a generation, the American singer provided the emotional soundtrack to their lives.

Born in New Jersey, Dionne was destined to make it in the music industry from an early age.

Her mother, aunts and uncles were members of a renowned family gospel group and as a teenager she performed alongside them.

"My childhood was full of music as I came from a family of talented singers and musicians," she says.

"And as they say 'the apple does not fall far from the tree'."

It wasn't long until Dionne was performing with her sister Dee Dee in a group called The Gospelaires. And it was at that time that Burt Bacharach spotted Dionne's potential.

Alongside Hal David, they provided a formidable songwriting team and propelled Dionne to the big time. She enjoyed an incredible 20 top 40 hits as a result.

"You never know that songs are going to  become big hits until they do but  it was fairly safe to say the songs of Burt Bacharach and Hal David were a pretty sure thing," she says.

Despite the success, Dionne admits that it took a shower of awards until she believed she had really made it in the industry.

"Receiving my five Grammy Awards and being recognised as such by my peers was the moment," she says.

But all that pales into relative significance. For Dionne,  it's family that comes first.

"The biggest accomplishment and joy in my life are my two sons, David and Damon Elliott," she says.

"And the best piece of advice I have ever been given was from my grandfather.  He once told me, 'If you think it, you can do it'."

She even bridges the gap between her career and family life, adding: "My songs are like my children. You can't have a favourite child, they are all my favourites."

Despite her stardom and success, Dionne has had to deal with her fair share of personal and private issues.

In February last year, her cousin Whitney Houston  drowned in the bath of her hotel room in Los Angeles.

Dionne is cautious about going into much detail but admits: "Losing a family member is always difficult, and yes, we were very close, we are family."

Other questions she avoids altogether. When I ask her about the reasons behind her application for bankruptcy, she declines to answer. For the record, she  is understood to owe a seven-figure sum to the US taxman and the state of California for property and personal taxes.

"Every human being faces challenges no matter what career they take," she says.

"I don't have any regrets. Everything in life happens for a reason."

Musically, she listens to her peers and Brazilian artists and music and when she has time to relax she tells me she loves nothing more than "having nothing to do and nowhere to go."

Dionne, for all her superstar status, strikes me as a woman who enjoys the simple things in life. She reveals snippets but is cautious to give too much away. In her own words she is "resilient with a sense of humour". For others, she's simply a legend.

Dionne opens Cheltenham Jazz Festival at the Big Top in Montpellier Gardens from 8.30pm on Wednesday.

Tickets cost from £42. Call 0844 8808094.

Jonathan Whiley

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