By Richie Unterberger

Though most of her 1960s albums for Scepter Records were pop-soul efforts that drew heavily from both the songwriting and production expertise of Burt Bacharach and Hal David, Dionne Warwick was not averse to trying some different approaches. Her 1966 live album Dionne Warwick in Paris had mixed Bacharach-David compositions with French songs and pop standards, and her 1967 LP On Stage and in the Movies was wholly devoted to tunes from Broadway and screen musicals. Her 1968 album The Magic of Believing was another bold detour, wholly given over to the gospel material on which she'd been raised. Issued at a time when she was a regular visitor to the upper reaches of the pop charts with singles like "(Theme From) Valley of the Dolls" and "Do You Know the Way to San Jose," it must have been done with the knowledge that it was a special-interest project that would be somewhat alien in flavor to many of the fans buying her records.

    For Warwick, however, gospel singing was not so much a detour as a return to her roots. Her mother, Lee Warrick, was a founding member of the Drinkard Singers, a gospel group also including Cissy Houston, more famous as the mother of Whitney Houston, though Cissy would herself make a mark on soul music as a member of the Sweet Inspirations and a solo artist. Dionne was in a group in her teens, the Gospelaires, also including her sister Dee Dee, who would also graduate from gospel to a career as a soul-pop solo recording artist. It was while visiting the Drinkard Singers at a live show at the Apollo in New York in 1959, in fact, that Dionne and Dee Dee got their first break in the recording business, meeting a producer looking for singers for a background session for saxophonist Sam "The Man" Taylor. Steady work as a backup vocalist for New York sessions followed, a 1961 recording date with the Drifters leading to Warwick's long-running association with Bacharach and David.

    Still, even in 1968, Warwick's gospel roots and religious beliefs were hardly a secret. "My mother, aunts and uncles still sing with the group [the Drinkards]," she told Melody Maker in May 1964, shortly after she'd scored her first hit pop records. "I do think that church music has had a big influence on my style." To Newsweek in 1966 she proclaimed, "Gospel is the Bible in the form of song. It's open prayer. Religion gives me comfort and complete freedom." A Time feature in July 1967 made a point of mentioning her regular attendance at the New Hope Baptist Church in Newark, New Jersey where the Drinkards had regularly sung while she was growing up. Indeed, as the magazine reported, "Last week, between appearances in Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles, she jetted back to Newark to attend services at the New Hope church. 'I need that spiritual rejuvenation,' she says."

    It might also be pointed out that many, perhaps most, soul singers claimed gospel as their key formative influence, singing in church while they were growing up before moving into secular music. (Warwick herself described the early Isley Brothers rock'n'soul hit "Shout" to Melody Maker as "pure, Negro gospel music" in 1966.) Some soul greats, of course, had actually started out as gospel recording artists before crossing over to soul, Sam Cooke being the most famous example, and Aretha Franklin (whose first recordings as a teenager were in the gospel vein) another. Nor was it unknown for superstars to record gospel albums as side projects of sorts, Elvis Presley undertaking several such efforts, and Franklin recording a very popular gospel double LP, Amazing Grace, in the early 1970s that actually made the pop Top Ten.

    The Magic of Believing would be a project in which the songwriting of Burt Bacharach and Hal David would not be a factor. One could argue that there was a gospel, or at least spiritual, touch to some of the Bacharach-David compositions and productions crafted for Warwick, such as "Message to Michael," "I Say a Little Prayer," and "Reach Out for Me." Just one track on Warwick's previous LPs, however—"This Little Light," from 1965's Here I Am—had been pure gospel. Even that number, as Dionne told David Nathan for the liner notes of the Hidden Gems compilation, was chosen because "it's a song that most people in the secular and gospel fields know, which is why I recorded it." The Magic of Believing was not even gospel-pop, but entirely gospel. Aiding Warwick on backup vocals were her old friends the Drinkard Singers, who since the 1950s had recorded for several labels, as well as passing a future soul singer (Judy Clay) through their ranks.

    As for some of the more notable sources of the songs on The Magic of Believing, "Battle Hymn of the Republic" actually originated as a patriotic song during the Civil War. "Somebody Bigger Than You and I," written by Sonny Burke, Hy Heath, and John Lange, was recorded by both gospel stars like Mahalia Jackson and Marion Williams and pop stars such as Gene Autry, Jo Stafford, the Sons of Pioneers, and Elvis Presley. (Heath and Lange, however, might be better known as two of the songwriters who contributed to Frankie Laine's huge late-1940s smash "Mule Train.") "Jesus Will" and "Grace" were credited to gospel great Reverend James Cleveland; "Old Landmark," a traditional song for which Warwick was credited with the arrangement, had been recorded in the early '60s by the Staple Singers, and would find a place on Aretha Franklin's aforementioned Amazing Grace album.

    Cissy Houston is credited with the arrangement of "Blessed Be the Name of the Lord," indicating that she may well have sung on the album as well, though the specific backup vocalists used for the recording are not individually credited on the sleeve. A further clue as to who might have sung on the record is found in the arranging credit for "Who Do You Think It Was," given to Ann Moss of the Drinkard Singers; the "R. Martin" credited with the arrangement of "Grace" is likely Roberta Martin, of the gospel group the Roberta Martin Singers. "Steal Away" was another traditional song whose arrangement was credited to Warwick, and the oft-recorded "In the Garden" has been done by everyone from Pat Boone, Johnny Cash, Perry Como, the Jordanaires, and Loretta Lynn to Doris Day, Willie Nelson, Elvis Presley, and Sister Rosetta Tharpe.

    As might have been expected, The Magic of Believing was not a big seller, reaching #49 of the R&B charts and failing to make the pop listings at all. Like some other albums that departed from her usual style, however, it was proof of Dionne Warwick's versatility—though in this case, it did not so much mean exploring a different field as returning to her bedrock. -- Richie Unterberger

contents copyright Richie Unterberger, 2000-2010
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