Dionne Warwick: Sure Thing: The Warner Bros. Recordings (1972-1977) (SoulMusic Records)

Careers have peaks and valleys. Just because your career reaches unbelievable heights doesn’t mean that you’ll maintain that level of success. No matter who you are, the tides will always ebb and flow. Singer Dionne Warwick is a good example of this; after spending the Sixties being the voice for the songwriting team of Burt Bacharach and Hal David for Scepter Records, she moved to a new label, Warner Brothers, for the duration of the new decade. SoulMusic’s new box set, Sure Thing, gathers up her recordings for the label.

Dionne, her first album for Warner Brothers, came out in 1972 and proved to be a bittersweet affair. It would be the last time she worked with the team of Bacharach-David, as the duo would soon part. It’s not surprising, either; their productions are good, but the songs themselves are lesser compositions. “The Balance Of Nature” is a fine effort from the duo. More puzzling was the choice of covering a handful of Bacharach hits for other artists, “One Last Bell To Answer” and “Close To You,” with arrangements by Bob James that pale in comparison to the original productions. Dionne wasn’t commercially successful, and was a ignominious end to a once golden pairing. 

For her second effort, 1973’s Just Being Myself, Warwick teamed up with another classic Sixties production team, Holland/Dozier/Holland. But once again, she lucked out as they were also in the process of dissolving, and the material they provided her doesn’t compare to their best work. It also didn’t help that Warwick was left out of the creative process, coming in to record over orchestrated backing tracks.  One wonders what the results would have sounded like had she taken a more active collaborative role in the production of numbers such as “I Think You Need Love” and “I Always Get Caught In The Rain,” which seem to be missing something in the mix. The title track, however, is a funky Latin number that is the album’s best moment. 

1975 found Warwick’s fortunes improving, as she had a certifiable hit with “Then Came You,” a collaboration with The Spinners that sported a Thom Bell production.  And while the album of the same name didn’t quite reach the single’s high, it wasn’t a washout, either. Horn-laden and propelled by Warwick’s vocal range that can go from a whisper to a roar, songs like “Take It From Me” and “Sure Thing’ are definite highlights from the Warner Brother era. 

The year also found her releasing a second album, Track Of The Cat. With the promising production skills of Thom Bell—who had scored with “Then Came You”—the album should’ve offered something exciting to follow up the hit. Unfortunately, the album doesn’t quite come together. It’s not the production; Bell, with his studio masters MFSB behind him, made a lush and lovely album musically. The problem here is the songs themselves are lackluster; “His House And Me” is a very thinly veiled rewrite of Bacharach/David’s “A House Is Not A Home” and suffers for it. Better is “Jealousy,” with its breezy arrangement and Warwick’s dreamy vocal. Then there’s the title track, which is nearly seven minutes long and is a sultry, seductive melody that intrigues. It’s a stylistic risk, and it’s one that paid off. 

1977’s Love At First Sight would be her last album for the label, and though it would be the end of the business arrangement, musically speaking it’s a much more satisfying affair than one would expect. Her producers seem to understand what material works best for her, and in so doing, they deliver a contemporary sounding album that didn’t bury Warwick’s singing or try too hard to relive past glories. The deep groove of “Don’t Ever Take My Love Away” is cool and mellow, while “A Long Way To Go” is a catchy Soul number with tasteful horns and a good message of empowerment. But the best number on here, “Early Morning Strangers,” is an interesting connection of Warwick’ past and future—the song is written by Hal David and future collaborator Barry Manilow, who would produce Warwick’s big comeback. The song is catchy pop and probably could have been a hit in the hands of a more capable label. 

It isn’t that the material on Sure Thing is bad. Warwick’s voice is good, and the arrangements are mostly good. It’s just that Warwick seemed hard pressed to be at the top of her game, perhaps due to bad luck, changing times, and trying to rigorously maintain the reputation she built with the Bacharach/David years.  Maybe Warner Brothers didn’t promote her correctly. It’s impossible to know what made this era so commercially disappointing. (Apparently, the sting still hurts; the 2023 CNN documentary of Warwick made no mention of this era of her career, skipping directly to the Arista years.)

According to some, she was ready to give up music, but an angel in the guise of Clive Davis signed her to his label Arista after her Warner Brothers deal ended. It was a true reversal of fortune, for her debut album for the label, Dionne, would be a massive success. And why not? Warwick—even at her lowest ebb—never lost her powerful voice and her knack for a pop song.  Even in this dark valley of her career, she never lost the essence of being Dionne Warwick. 

Purchase Dionne Warwick Sure Thing: Cherry Red

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