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Dionne Warwick: Walk On By, the original that couldn't be surpassed

Updated: Apr 12

Rob Steen

If you see me walking down the street And I start to cry, each time we meet Walk on by Walk on by

The larynx that introduced the world to that most heart-busting of intros, to the most mesmeric of all tearduct-drainers, belongs to Dionne Warwick, now in her 84th year. Which is why, of all the dirt-cheap deeds done down the decades by way of covers, remixes, samples and even more shameless rip-offs, I’m certain I’ve just plumbed the pits: a Chipmunked version of the first song to make me cry. Makes Alvin and Co’s reimagining of PS I Love You sound like The Beach Boys performing a Gershwin-Porter co-write.


Dionne’s verdict would probably be unprintable. Nonetheless, were they still with us, composers Burt Bacharach and Hal David would be more inclined to smile than snarl. Uncommon, after all, are ballads that sire scores of wildly varying homages. By Gloria Gaynor (disco), Isaac Hayes (hot-buttered soul), Average White Band (reggae-fied funk) and The Stranglers (The Doors go punk); by Diana Krall, Melissa Manchester and Cyndi Lauper; by Ronan Keating and Burt himself. Even Aretha had a stab. Seditious as it may be to make such a claim, the Queen of Soul for once was trumped.


Like everyone else, she was behind the eight-ball: Burt and Hal had tailored Walk On By for Dionne’s range and sweetness. When Aretha’s take emerged in November 1964 it was virtually indistinguishable from the blueprint. Did she know she couldn’t top it? Did she blithely ladle her own honeyed soup over Burt’s masterly orchestrations out of respect as well as commercial nous?


Walk On By first hit the UK and US charts 60 Aprils ago, heralding the spring of 1964, Year Zero in terms of my musical apprenticeship and pop music’s evolution. Philip Larkin had hailed its predecessor, when The Pill became widely available in Britain, as the year sexual intercourse was discovered, ‘between the end of the Chatterley ban and the Beatles’ first LP’. But 1964 was the overture to postwar fun, a welcome mat to youth and modernity, a door to my hometown’s post-Blitz renaissance as the planet’s hippest city. A year that, five weeks in, saw four Merseybeaters cross the Atlantic and cause unseen hysteria, initiating a ‘British Invasion’ that would not be exclusively accredited to London, Liverpool and Manchester only because Chicagoans, Californians and Ohioans were less consumed by atlases than by Charles Atlas, a bodybuilder.

It was the year The Beatles occupied the top two and five of the top 16 rungs in the annual Billboard sales ladder, when The Kinks, The Animals and Them joined The Stones as affronts to decency and the fine art of barbering. The year Ronettes and Supremes fluffed and beehived their hair on their way to glory, of three-minute operas by not just Burt and Hal but Tony ‘Downtown’ Hatch from downtown Pinner. The year black music spread the gospel, from Motown to ska. The year, courtesy of Alan Price’s solo on The House of the Rising Sun, that millions of Grade 3 ivory-troublers were seduced by an organ named Hammond. Most radically of all, artistic breakthroughs made a mint. Even if so many were so bloody miserable.


Jolly and jubilant as pop’s first annus mirabilis was, many gems were more efficient downers than valium: It’s Over, You’re No Good, As Tears Go By, Don’t Let The Sun Catch You Crying, (There’s) Always Something There To Remind Me, I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself, Twenty-Four Hours From Tulsa, Where Did Our Love Go? Towering over them all was Walk On By.

I hadn’t a clue what Little Red Rooster was about, but then six-year-olds weren’t supposed to. About broken hearts, however, I already fancied myself an expert. Being brought up by adoring parents who’d long since fallen out of love felt like the definition of bittersweet paradox. The first cut was already the deepest.


Crucially, my father’s adoration for music was more fanatical than anyone I’ve ever known. A thwarted violinist and concert promoter, his gods were Wolfgang Amadeus and Ludwig Van. My induction comprised regular trips to his cathedral, the Royal Festival Hall, where he would nip backstage for a chinwag with the classical aces of his day, including Vladimir Ashkenazy, who stayed with us after fleeing Poland. But my kind of sound required electricity as well as insights into the agony and ecstasy of romantic love.


My earliest memory of the man who introduced me to joy remains the passion he poured into listening. The way this Finklestein-turned-Steen transformed into a Bernstein, conducting strictly for the pleasure of the mirror above the fireplace, waving his baton as he wept. Other than that, and an otherwise winning way with women, he could never fully express himself without causing offence. For father and son, music was the only balm.


My immersion was slow and shallow. Radio 1 was three years away and reports of naughty pirate stations conjured up Captain Hook. Alan Freeman on Pick Of The Pops was the one show worth braving the tomb-like Light Programme for, but that was ample until TOTP arrived on New Year’s Day 1964. Inheriting hypersensitive ears and a vulnerable heart, I listened hard and rebelled early. Was that Love Me Do or Please Please Me I first encountered via a leather-clad portable radio while perched on the loo? I’d have sworn it was The Everlys.

So much for the hors d’oeuvres. Year Zero was a banquet, prepared by a multitude of chefs whose hemisphere-crossing dishes were unprecedented for speed of impact and hip-shaking, globe-quaking consequences. The non-stop feast brimmed with fresh, distinctive, indelible voices. Roy Orbison, Van Morrison, Eric Burdon, Ray Davies and Gene Pitney kept their end up for the boys, but I was more interested in the girls: Lulu and Petula, Sandie and Dusty, Diana and Florence, Mary Wilson and Mary Wells, Cilla and Millie, but above all Dionne, a slender graduate from New York City’s Hartt College of Music.


My ardour had less to do with her outer beauty (ah, those cheekbones and Eartha Kittish eyes!) than the way she nailed those eternal inner conflicts. Yet, staggeringly, in their quest to halt a run of flops Dionne and her manager originally chose Walk On By as the B-side to Any Old Time Of Day. Its substance sprang from the pain and pride and determination in that muscular yet ethereal voice, floating above as if renting the cloud closest to the sun. Verses were briskly dispatched but with absolute clarity and command of phrasing and never showily stretched. She gave life to David’s couplets with such exquisite balance: soft, understated, tremulous yet grounded and assured, conveying a depth of feeling I’d never heard before, and haven’t since.


Where Aretha et al milk the sadness and anger, Dionne is grateful, gracious, restrained, accepting, philosophical, bereft yet quietly defiant, bent more on survival than regret. The universality of the words had located their mate. There was a certain irony in the author’s somewhat limited experience of heartache and loss: in contrast to his oft-wed partner, David enjoyed a long, strong marriage.


None of that would have mattered had the pluckers and bowers and blowers not done their stuff. From that daring guitar-scratching intro, the A minor chord not giving way to D until two lines into the song, to those tortured, staccato trumpets via the soaring strings that midway send this snapshot of a break-up into heart-tugging orbit, here was New York’s answer to what Berry Gordy was up to in Detroit. The power springs from the sum of impeccable parts and immaculate conception.


‘Beautiful’ doesn’t begin to do justice to Burt’s arrangements and those of his accomplices. Ernie Royal and Irwin ‘Marky’ Markowitz’s horns parp sharply but mournfully, car horns at a Tijuana funeral. That minimalist chorus folds around Paul Griffin’s piano, strident yet melancholy. Small wonder, a dozen years later, that those connoisseurs and collectors of fine musicians, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, would requisition his services for The Royal Scam.

And even smaller wonder, for all the rows and lawyers, that our trio would reunite so frequently and resoundingly. Burt, Hal and Dionne counted the dollars; sisters and mothers and aunts counted all those coffee breakdowns, wishing and hoping and praying. Wondering why a house ain’t necessarily a home. Or if they could only find a hundred to put down, buy a car and head back to San Jose, who knows? In a week or two, they could be a star.

 

Union Chapel, Islington, 1994, and I’m finally seeing Walk On By performed live. Not, regrettably, by Dionne but the worthiest of substitutes: Laura Nyro, after whom we had recently named our first-born.


Rarely glimpsed on stage since David Geffen began building his empire around her a quarter of a century earlier, the reclusive Bronx Bronte was overweight and dying, did we but know it, of ovarian cancer. All I knew was that those multi-octave swoops of her teenage voice were still intact, likewise that Italian-Jewish soulfulness. Besides, how could anyone go wrong with those lyrics or that tune? She gave it her all, which as Joni and Rickie Lee will gladly affirm, is really saying something. There was more fragility and more yearning but, inevitably, more than too little Dionne.

I had interviewed Laura Sr by phone not long after Laura Jr’s birth (and planned but forgotten to mention the family link) but this was the first time we’d been in the same room. That Walk On By, a total surprise, should be the only song I can recall from that Chapel evening seems rather apt.

 

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