By Richie Unterberger

Even before her 1964 hits "Anyone Who Had a Heart" and "Walk On By" marked her as an emerging international superstar, Dionne Warwick was becoming a popular live attraction, and was one of the first soul singers to extensively tour Europe. She'd first performed at the Olympia Theater in Paris in late 1963, and by September 1964, as she told Melody Maker, she'd already been to Europe six times. So it was little surprise that when she did her first live album in 1966, it was recorded at the same Olympia Theater in Paris where she'd made her first European splash.

    The opportunity to play the Olympia in 1963 had arisen from the longtime association of Burt Bacharach with Marlene Dietrich. Bacharach, who with Hal David wrote and produced most of Warwick's records in the 1960s, also served as Dietrich's musical director in the late 1950s and early '60s. It was Burt who got Dionne a spot on Dietrich's show at the Olympia, at a time when Warwick had landed just one big American hit, "Don't Make Me Over."

    According to David Nathan's chapter on Warwick in The Soulful Divas, "By persuading Dietrich to introduce her to Parisian audiences, he had in essence launched her internationally, making her the first black female solo contemporary music artist to achieve stardom in Europe. Following in the footsteps of women like Josephine Baker who had captivated the French with her talent, Dionne was a resounding success with her Olympia gig. The French press dubbed her 'The Black Pearl,' and Dionne's soulful, gospel-honed voice won the hearts of the audiences at the Olympia." It was also at the Olympia where Beatles manager Brian Epstein saw Warwick perform Bacharach-David's "Anyone Had a Heart," inspiring him to have another of his clients, Cilla Black, record it in London for #1 British smash.

    The appeal of Warwick's live appearances is supported by several reviews of her concerts of the era. Wrote Jean Monteaux in Arts, "The play of this voice makes you think sometimes of an eel, of a storm, of a cradle, a knot of seaweed, a dagger. It is not a voice so much as an organ. You could write fugues for Warwick's voice." Reviewing a sold-out concert at the Philharmonic Hall in New York in October 1966, Newsweek enthused, "Bacharach songs, old standards, rhythm and blues—all came out Warwick, in her restrained gospel style, deliciously phrased, uncontrived and in a polished, flexible voice that was deep purple below and sky-blue above. Not only does she reach up to E natural comfortably, but she stays there in a dazzling acrobatic display of vocal weightlessness, changing colors and dynamics with chilling impact. Cushioning all her songs is an uncanny rhythmic sense. To the stop-and-go-rhythms of such Bacharach songs as 'Walk On By,' her body pulsates and twitches, and her voice seems somehow to swing to its own built-in rhythm section. Her songs become dramatic monologues, building tensions until the wild finish of 'Don't Make Me Over' or the haunting fade-out of 'Anyone Who Had a Heart.' They also leave Dionne limp. At the end of her concert even a standing ovation failed to bring an encore. She had nothing left to give."

    As for reviews of her actual stint at the Olympia that provided the recording used on Dionne Warwick in Paris, Scepter put Variety's glowing assessment of her January 18 show right on the back cover: "Dionne Warwick, encased in a tight fitting gold dress, gives out with a keenly musician-like songalog comprising torchy ballads, strong belting songs and an occasional rock. She has a fine voice, excellent stance and scores well. Miss Warwick is one Yank singer who can put over her wares completely in English and hit big."

    A little surprisingly, the album itself contains just one song that had been a big hit prior to the performance Variety reviewed. Too, of the ten tracks, three were sung in French; two were sung in both English and French, one of them being a duet with male French star Sacha Distel; and just four were Bacharach-David compositions. Perhaps Warwick wanted to take the opportunity to record some songs that hadn't found their way onto her Scepter studio releases, as well as singing some of them in a different language than the familiar versions. Whatever the cause, it made a welcome scoop of something different from Dionne, rather than being a re-creation of her most popular records, as many live albums are.

    The one big hit performed on the set was "Walk On By," though the studio version of another song, "Message to Michael," would become a Top Ten hit for Warwick in the spring of 1966. The Bacharach-David composition had actually been originally recorded for a 1964 single, under the title of "Kentucky Bluebird (Send a Message to Martha)," by Lou Johnson, a singer with whom Bacharach-David frequently worked for a while in both songwriting and production capacities. It did creep up to #104 in Billboard, and under the "A Message to Martha" title, Adam Faith had a #12 hit with the song in Britain in late 1964. But it took a reworking of the lyric by Dionne, recorded on top of a vocal track cut in Paris for Distel, to produce its most successful incarnation.

    "It was obvious that we had subconsciously written the song for her, even though we thought we were writing it for a man to sing," Hal David wrote in What the World Needs Now and Other Love Lyrics. It wasn't the first time that a song Johnson had recorded became a bigger hit in the hands of others—Warwick had earlier made a much more successful single out of "Reach Out for Me" than Johnson did—but it should be noted that Warwick was sympathetic to Johnson's plight. Asked by Melody Maker in February 1966 whether there were African-American artists who deserved more recognition, Dionne replied, "Well, I can think of a guy like Lou Johnson. He has so much talent—yet he just can't make it record-wise. His 'Always Something There to Remind Me' was fifty million times better than Sandie Shaw's [#1 UK] version—and I'd tell Sandie that. Then there was 'Message to Martha.' Burt wrote that specially for Lou. But the disc had only been out two days when Adam Faith covered it. His record was awful—and I'd tell him that, too."
    The other two Bacharach-David songs on Dionne Warwick in Paris were French-language versions of two of the better efforts from the songwriting team not destined to become huge smashes, though she'd taken both "You'll Never Get to Heaven" (#34) and "A House Is Not a Home" (#71) into the American charts in 1964. Perhaps mindful of her audience, much of the rest of the set was devoted to songs with a specifically French/Parisian appeal. Cole Porter's "I Love Paris" was a natural set-opener; "C'est Si Bon" had been a big hit for Eartha Kitt in 1953; and "La Vie En Rose" had been one of the most popular songs identified with the most revered Parisian singer of all, Edith Piaf. "O Yeah Yeah Yeah" and "The Good Life" were sung in both English and French, and co-written by Sacha Distel, who dueted with Dionne on the former number. At least the Parisians got a taste of her gospel/R&B roots in the closing track, "What'd I Say," a rock and soul standard ever since Ray Charles had a massive hit with it in 1959.

    Though Warwick is sometimes thought of as a pop singer who might not have appealed much to the African-American audience that was soul's constituency, if the Billboard R&B charts are any accurate reflection of how well Dionne Warwick in Paris sold in the black community, that notion is mistaken. The album reached #3 in the R&B listings, as well as rising to #76 in the pop chart. Later in the 1960s, Warwick would depart even more radically from the Bacharach-David formula to deliver entire albums of movie/show tunes (On Stage and in the Movies) and gospel material (The Magic of Believing), both of which have also been reissued on CD by Collectors' Choice Music. -- Richie Unterberger

contents copyright Richie Unterberger, 2000-2010
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