Dionne Warwick: Lending Her Voice
BY Julie Bolcer
November 30 2011 3:40 AM ET
Almost 30 years have passed since Dionne Warwick and friends Elton John, Gladys Knight, and Stevie Wonder recorded their smash-hit charity single, “That’s What Friends Are For.” The song generated over $3 million for the American Foundation for AIDS Research and heralded a new era of celebrity-driven fundraising and activism.
Some things have not changed for the New Jersey-born performer whose career has spanned five decades of hits, many composed by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, such as “Don’t Make Me Over,” “Alfie,” and “Walk On By.”
“Lyrically, it’s the same message of ‘I’m going to be there for you,’” said Warwick, 70, before a September town hall she organized on HIV/AIDS in New York City. “Friends are the ones who are there for you. That’s exactly what this is all about. Being human. Having humanity.”
The town hall, presented with Harlem United Community AIDS Center, drew nearly 200 audience members, most of them African-American, to ask questions and hear perspectives from leaders in the health, policy, advocacy, and religious communities. Panelists included Warwick, actress Sheryl Lee Ralph — a member of the original Broadway cast of Dreamgirls and founder of an HIV-charity called The DIVA Foundation—and Rae Lewis Thornton, the first African-American woman to tell her story of living with AIDS to a major publication, Essence, in 1994.
“Education is really the key,” Warwick said. “We have to know what we’re fighting in order to be able to fight it.”
She speaks from experience. Warwick lost her assistant to AIDS in the 1980s before the disease even had a name and before Rock Hudson had put a face to it. Her assistant, initially thought to be suffering from cancer, would be the first of many among her colleagues to face the disease.