Dionne Warwick

Don't Make Her Over: Dionne Warwick Is Still Crushing It at 80

The icon's hilariously candid tweets have made her an unlikely social media queen. Now — with a little help from the manager who calls her Mom — she’s setting a standard for how to be a living legend.

Dionne Warwick is nosy. As we chat over Zoom on a recent winter afternoon, I use the word “curious” out of respect, but the legendary singer gently corrects me: “I am so nosy,” she says with a laugh. “I am, I really am.” Warwick wants to know everything about everyone, and she’s more than willing to ask. “I’m up with the birds in the morning! Because I want to see who’s doing what to whom and why,” she says. “All during my growing years, my friends would say, ‘Don’t ask Dionne unless you really want to know!’ ”

Nosy, blunt people do well on Twitter, the site for explicitly — defiantly! — not minding your business. It makes sense, then, that Warwick is currently running that table. In the three months since she started controlling her own account, Warwick — who has the second-most Billboard Hot 100 hits among female artists in the 20th century — has learned what Megan Thee Stallion means by “hot girl,” demanded the 411 on Offset’s name, asked what the hell is going on in Florida and dropped too many shady eyeball emojis to count. “I’ve always said I was nosy, nosy, nosy,” continues Warwick. “And my grandfather said, ‘No, you’re inquisitive.’ I said, ‘OK. That’s what I’ll be: inquisitive.’ ” That inquisitiveness, along with a natural impulse to speak her mind, has given rise to the kind of late-career resurgence that’s letting a new audience get to know Warwick very much on her own terms.

In the grand history of pop divas, Warwick has always been a different kind of powerhouse. There are divas like Whitney and Aretha, mononymous forces of nature (how could you be talking about another Whitney or Aretha?), and like Patti LaBelle, whose fiefdom has extended far beyond her voice, to sweet potato pies and freezer goods. Warwick had a quieter kind of magnetism, a “star quality that you can’t pick up right away,” says Burt Bacharach, who, with Hal David, co-wrote the many hits like “Walk On By” and “Do You Know the Way to San Jose” that defined the first decade of her career. “She had a specialness in her voice, that she could sing very softly, intimately, and then could explode — but always with a certain bit of restraint so it never overwhelmed you.”

Sitting at her kitchen table in New Jersey today, dressed in a gray quarter-zip sweatshirt and a fuzzy white beanie, Warwick still exudes a kind of elegance — though maybe not so much restraint. For the first time in her career, due to the pandemic, she’s enjoying extended idle time at home, and she rattles off her typical night’s schedule: “Seven o’clock, I watch Jeopardy. Seven-thirty, I watch Wheel of Fortune. Then, at eight, Netflix.” Has she taken up any new hobbies, like cooking more or gardening? Warwick, it turns out, is vehemently opposed to the latter: “First of all, I am not a person to dig in dirt. Anything that flies, crawls or scurries, I don’t want to know about that, OK?” she says with a laugh. (Some fans doubt Warwick is firing off her own tweets, but she does deliver the same biting one-liners in person.) “Anybody that knows me knows I have total brown thumbs. I mean, I killed a cactus.”

She took to her one new hobby naturally though. “My mom literally just got Wi-Fi set up in her house maybe right before the pandemic,” says her son and manager, the music producer Damon Elliott, 47. “She had dial-up modems.” Then, in December, Elliott suddenly started getting calls from friends: “ ‘Are you seeing what your mom’s saying on Twitter?’ I’m like, ‘What? What is my mom doing?’ ”

“I’m not a daily Tweeter,” demurs Warwick. “I don’t wake up and think, ‘Oh, I’ve got to tweet!’ ” Still, the internet awaits her 280-character missives with collective bated breath. Her niece Brittani Warrick (“Warwick” was a typo on Dionne’s first single that stuck), a social media strategist, taught her how to use the site. “She really wants to talk,” says Warrick of her aunt. “She likes to talk. Once you get her talking, she doesn’t stop.”

Which might mean she’s asking her followers to explain Gen Z slang, or confessing that she’s a Nicki Minaj-loving Barb, or, as in her greatest interaction yet, putting artists with “the” in their stage names on blast. “Hi, @chancetherapper,” she wrote in December. “If you are very obviously a rapper why did you put it in your stage name? I cannot stop thinking about this.” She tagged The Weeknd next. “If you have ‘The’ in your name i’m coming for you,” she wrote. “I need answers today.” And answers she got: Both men replied gamely, star-struck at being called out by a legend. (“I will be whatever you wanna call me Ms. Warwick,” said Chance.) Warwick has famously declared “I am not writing a bio” in her Twitter profile — but for a minute, she rechristened herself Dionne the Singer.

Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for The Recording Academy
Dionne Warwick with her son and manager, producer Damon Elliott, at the Grammys in 2019, when she won her Lifetime Achievement Award.

Long before his mother emerged as the new queen of social media, Elliott was busy reifying Dionne the Singer’s legacy — “screaming, hooting, hollering,” as he puts it, for her to get her flowers while she’s still healthy and active. Those efforts most recently helped Warwick garner her first Rock & Roll Hall of Fame nomination; Elliott says he’ll be pushing for the Kennedy Center Honors next. And the “Twitter situation,” as Warwick calls it, seems to have coincided nicely with a desire to get back to work. A week after we chat, she’ll (virtually) join Chance in their first recording session for a charity single, and she’s planning one with The Weeknd too, a “feel good” track Elliott says is “based around the issue of homelessness.”

Both could end up on the “mega-mega project” Elliott is producing for his mom, an album that he says will include appearances from “some of the newer generation, as well as her peers,” and maybe even new Twitter friends too. Jennifer Garner is “going to do a song with us,” he says. “She sings also.” Maybe the actress could be part of a children’s series Warwick is developing: “She wants Jennifer to play one of the characters. And could it be an animated thing?”

The influx of asks and attention for his 80-year-old mother has Elliott swamped. “I’m losing my voice because I’m sitting here trying to keep up,” he says with a laugh. “But it’s like, ‘Got to keep up with Dionne!’

The legacies of veteran artists can be tricky to handle — and when family’s involved, trickier still. But for Warwick, hiring her son simply made the most sense. During a lean period in the 2000s, when she ultimately filed for bankruptcy, she had different management; Elliott, who had worked as a producer with P!nk, Mya and Christina Aguilera, took over two years ago when he saw his mother wasn’t working at the pace she wanted to. “It’s so weird how things have happened,” says Warwick. “Your family won’t hurt you — at least, mine won’t.” And she knew from family business: Her aunt is Cissy Houston, and her cousin, Whitney.

Still, Elliott had to pitch himself to his new, nearly full-time client. (Today, he spends 90% of his time on Mom-related things.) “I learned at a very young age from Quincy Jones that a real producer actually has his hands in everything,” he says. “When I was given a label from Jimmy Iovine” — Confidential Records, an Interscope imprint to which Elliott signed Keyshia Cole — “I learned a lot about micromanaging. Mom knew that. I said, ‘Mom, why don’t you let me help you boost your career again, get you back on top? Because you are a legend.’ ”

Richard Corkery/NY Daily News via Getty Images
Dionne Warwick with Clive Davis and her cousin Whitney Houston in 1990.

Warwick had never exactly gone away; over six decades, she has navigated the changing tides of both the music industry and the media landscape fairly nimbly. When Bacharach and David split up, she withstood a dry spell at Warner Bros. Records in the ’70s. In 1979, Clive Davis personally signed her to the nascent Arista; he had a bank of potential hits by Barry Manilow and needed a vocalist who could pull them off. “In thinking about great artists who were no longer recording, I phoned Dionne Warwick, who had, in her mind, decided to leave music,” recalls Davis today. In 1980, Warwick won pop and R&B Grammys in the same night. With Davis, she would help establish the blueprint for Black female crossover superstardom he used to great success with Aretha and Whitney.

Even as her recording career slowed, Warwick stayed in the pop cultural conversation. In the ’90s, her Psychic Friends Network commercials were inescapable, and though they may have been hokey, they made her money. In 2011, she joined the fourth cast of Celebrity Apprentice. Just last year, she competed on The Masked Singer, and in September made a guest appearance on the Verzuz of her closest industry friends, LaBelle and Gladys Knight. Twitter is just the latest platform Warwick has conquered — part of the business of being an octogenarian icon.

But it’s also a place where she’s getting the kind of recognition that her son has made it his mission to see her receive. One of Elliott’s first goals when he started managing her was to right a wrong: How had a five-time Grammy winner, and 14-time nominee, never been offered a Lifetime Achievement Award? “It was way overdue,” he says today. So he got to work.

“I called [former Recording Academy chairman/CEO] Neil Portnow and drove him crazy. I called him almost every day,” recalls Elliott. “I said, ‘No, no, you guys are going to give her her award while she’s here and in good health.’ ” She got it in 2019. “Those things are very important to me, as her son and as her manager,” he continues, “to make sure that she knows how much she’s appreciated.” It was only last year, after all, that his cousin Whitney was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. “She wasn’t there to receive that, and it’s a shame,” he says. “They should’ve done that a long time ago.” When Warwick heard of her own Rock Hall nomination, she called Elliott at 8 a.m., screaming with joy.

Primarily a recording artist, Warwick did not write any of her Bacharach-David hits, nor those of her Arista era. In 2018, she was a vocal supporter of the CLASSICS Act, which allowed artists to collect performance royalties on pre-1972 recordings when they were played on satellite radio or used on services like Pandora. (The bill was eventually consolidated into the Music Modernization Act.) Now, Elliott says, the majority of her income is from those royalties and touring. In 2019, he booked an intimate Las Vegas residency for her at Cleopatra’s Barge at Caesars Palace, but Warwick typically plays theaters, with an average nightly take that, Billboard Boxscore estimates, falls somewhere between that of Chaka Khan and her friend Knight.

Daily Mirror/Mirrorpix/Mirrorpix via Getty Images
Dionne Warwick with Burt Bacharach at a recording session in London in 1964.

Many performers of Warwick’s generation have died without wills, and Elliott is vague about the status of her estate. Then again, planning anything is difficult when her empire has opportunities for expansion nearly every day. With all these offers coming in, how do she and Elliott decide what to say yes to — and what happens when they disagree? “I still have the last say,” says Warwick. “It just works out that way. Not only with me, but with anyone who has a manager. I can fire my manager, but he’s still my son.”

One thing they definitely agree on is the next legacy linchpin to focus on. A Warwick biopic has been in varying stages of development for years, with former Destiny’s Child member LeToya Luckett set to star. More recently, Elliott sent his mom a picture of someone else, with another idea. “He called me, he said, ‘Mommy, I’m sending you a photograph of this gal named Teyana, and I’m going to put your photograph next to hers,’ ” says Warwick. The resemblance to young Dionne was uncanny. “It scared me. It really did. Literally, I defy you to say that she was not me and I wasn’t her.” Now, Elliott and Teyana Taylor are at work on a TV series. “I have basically stayed out of their way,” says Warwick. “They’re presenting to me as they go along. I’m very, very pleased with their approach. She will be playing me in episodes of my life.”

There’s also that “mega-mega” album that Elliott teases. He’s in talks with labels (“the big boys”), reaching out to producers (Pharrell Williams, Mike-WiLL Made It) and planning a tour to support it. Whenever the details are finalized, Warwick will probably announce them on Twitter.

“She is very clever. She’s a warrior,” says Davis of his old friend’s online presence. “Look, no one’s going to stereotype Dionne Warwick. And no one should ever sell her short.” On-demand streams of Warwick’s music have risen in seven of the nine weeks since her viral Chance tweet (through Feb. 4, according to MRC Data), and she’s relishing the attention from a new generation of fans eager to hear more from her each day. “It’s wonderful because I’m meeting them for the first time too,” says Warwick. “So we get to know a lot about each other. That’s what the gist of it all is, isn’t it? To get to know each other, form friendships, share information that I may have and that they may need and vice versa.”

I wonder aloud if some part of her interest in Twitter is that she’s finally being heard, filter-free, in a way that wasn’t available earlier in her career or for an artist who didn’t write her own music. Warwick seems unmoved, like it’s too simplistic a conclusion. “I’ve always been Dionne. I think that’s what people expect me to be — which makes me very happy because that’s the only person I’m going to be, regardless of whether they want me to or not,” she says. “I’m being true to me, true to who I am and true to my audiences: those who have been supportive over 60 years, and now all the new kids have joined the flock. It’s a nice thing to be able to say: ‘Well, she hasn’t changed. She’s still there!’ ”

This article originally appeared in the Feb. 20, 2021, issue of Billboard.