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Backstage with Ron Onesti: Dionne Warwick – 50 years of pure soul

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2013 5:38 p.m. CDT • Updated: Thursday, Jan. 24, 2013 7:12 a.m. CDT

“I Say A Little Prayer” was one of my defining songs of the ’60s. As the teenagers were getting into the acid rock of Jimi Hendrix and what I call the “Viet Nam” rock of The Animals and The Doors, I was still young enough where my musical exposure was limited to the popular variety TV shows of the day.

Who I saw on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” “Sonny & Cher,” “The Carol Burnett Show,” “The Smothers Brothers Show,” and – yes – even “The Lawrence Welk Show” was my MTV at the time.

Dionne Warwick always stood out as one of our favorites on those shows as her smooth, melodic way of singing was just as entertaining as her hits themselves.

I first worked with Dionne a few years ago when we were producing the shows at the Country Club Hills amphitheatre. It was a fabulous outdoor venue we helped to design and run for its first three years. She arrived at the venue in a very un-assuming way, in a pink sweat suit and sneakers. Very friendly to all, she was rarely without a lit cigarette in hand, something I thought was quite odd in light of the most valuable instrument she used that made her so popular. 

There were several wide-eyed children at the show, guests of a few proud grandparents who wanted to share with them the music of their era. Dionne took particular notice of them and asked me to bring some of them backstage. The show began a few minutes late because of the interest she took in talking to the kids.

After the show, she took the time to talk with many of our behind-the-scenes people. She told me she wanted something that would be very special to her.

Of course, “anything” was my rapid response.

“I would love a cap from your police department,” she said.

After whispering in the chief’s ear, within minutes we presented her with an official Country Club Hills police baseball cap. She said, “I love my boys and girls in blue, real heroes, ya know!”

A few years later I was able to bring her to our Arcada Theatre in St. Charles. When she arrived, it was as if royalty had entered the building. Numerous adoring fans surrounded the theater starting the night before, in an effort to get a glimpse of this pop music legend.

We had some time to chat, and I really wanted to hear about her beginnings. After a few years on the gospel circuit, she began doing background vocals for The Drifters. That is where super-songwriter Burt Bacharach discovered her. He and his partner Hal David went on to write for her some of the best loved songs in American pop.

“I love Chicago, by the way,” she said. “Even though my father cooked for a living, he worked with the Chess Records in Chicago to promote gospel records. We had a lot of friends in Chicago.”

The show was nothing short of magical. She said hello to everybody on stage before she had put on her makeup. Her son, David, opened the concert. A combination of Luther Vandross and Stevie Wonder, he killed!

Then, the queen entered the stage, dressed in a gown, welcomed by a five-minute standing ovation before she sang one note.

“Walk On By,” “Alfie,” “Do You Know The Way To San Jose,” “I’ll Never Fall In Love Again” – BAM! Hit after hit after hit.

After all, with 56 singles hitting the Billboard Hot 100, she ranks third with Madonna, just under Aretha as one of the most charted female vocalists of all time. When she did “That’s What Friends Are For,” the audience swayed in choreographed unison, turning perfect strangers into friends that night.

When the news about the untimely death of her cousin, pop star Whitney Houston hit the airwaves, I joined the world in shock. Of course, I was saddened by the loss of what this incredible talent had yet to give to the world. But then Dionne came to mind. As I watched her at the services, I saw the grief on her face. The sweet smile I had come to know was replaced with a look of sheer pain.

Recently, I called her son David to offer my condolences. As luck would have it, he happened to be at his mom’s house at the time, and handed the phone to her. “Mr. Chicago!” she answered. I spoke of how her friends here were thinking about her during that difficult time.

“It has been a horrible year,” she said. “We lost Hal (Bacharach’s songwriting partner), but he was 91. I just lost my nephew, he was 25. You know I lost my brother in a car accident when he was 21. Then Whitney. It is such a shame that they passed at such a young age. I find myself crying a lot lately. Singing is the only thing that breaks me out of it.”

Like she has done for us for so many years, perhaps we should all say a little prayer for her.
• Ron Onesti is president and CEO of Onesti Entertainment Corp. and the Arcada Theatre in St. Charles. He provides these personal recollections of events and people that he has encountered over the years. Send comments or celebrity questions to spark@kcchronicle.com.

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