We All Walked Together

East Orange native Dionne Warwick reminisces about growing up in New Jersey, and how the music of the streets that surrounded her helped propel her to super-stardom.

I live in South Orange now, and I have a place in Brazil, but I grew up in East Orange. I’ve always considered New Jersey my home, and I’ve always been proud of where I come from.

I was born at Orange Memorial Hospital in 1940. The first person who noticed me singing was my grandpa, in his church—St. Mark’s Methodist Church in East Orange. He was the minister. He was my biggest fan. I was 6 when he discovered me, but really I’ve been singing all my life.

At home in East Orange, it was me, my parents, and my sister and brother. We lived on Sterling Street, and both my parents worked—my mother was a court reporter, and my father worked at an electrical plant in Newark. I went to elementary school at what is now the Dionne Warwick Institute of Economics and Entrepreneurship [a school for pre-kindergarteners through fifth graders]. When I was there, it was called Lincoln Elementary.

For me, Sterling Street was like living within the United Nations—every race, creed, and color lived on that street. We all walked to school together and had sleepovers at everybody’s homes. We did everything normal children did at that time: We rode bicycles, skated. We played tennis and baseball and kickball and dodgeball—all the ballgames you could play. That was at Oval Park in East Orange, which is still there. I was nothing special as an athlete, then or later, at East Orange High School.

All that time, when I was growing up, music was always around me—my mother was a member of the Drinkard Singers, a gospel group that my aunts and uncles were also in; she had seven brothers and sisters. My father didn’t have a group; he sang in the church like everybody else. There was always gospel music in the house. But I didn’t start singing professionally until I was in college at the Hartt College of Music, in Hartford, Connecticut.

When I met Burt Bacharach, I was 18, already at Hartt studying music education. He asked me if I would be interested in doing background work, and that was the beginning of my career.

Conde Nast Archives.

I spent three decades living in Los Angeles, the 1960s through the ’80s, but my family was always in New Jersey. My parents are gone, and both my brother and sister are gone, but I still have a lot of family around—my aunts and uncles and cousins. I have two wonderful sons; one lives in Los Angeles, the other in Westchester. I have six grandchildren, so I visit them a lot.

But my family that’s still in New Jersey—we get together all the time. There doesn’t have to be any special reason, we’re just together. I still go to the church my family sang in when I was growing up. Not my grandfather’s church, but New Hope Baptist Church on Sussex Avenue in Newark.

Our choirs are magnificent. Yes, I still sing in church when I’m here and can get there, and my aunt Cissy Houston is the minister of music. I don’t know if there’s something in the water, but we do produce a lot of great singers. I don’t know to whom exactly I’ve been a role model, but I do have a very well-known cousin who also sang at our church. Her name is Whitney Houston. She was discovered—without my help—by Clive Davis in New York.

For the last three years, I’ve been doing a one-woman show about my life and my music called My Music and Me, mostly in Europe. It’s a wonderful engagement, and I hope to take it to Broadway. I’m looking forward to performing it, and I hope people are looking forward to seeing it.

When I am home in New Jersey, people recognize me, of course. But I do everything I want to do: I go to the movies, I go to restaurants, I go to the market. People respect my privacy, I think, because they know this is my environment, this is where I come from.

Not long ago I took a ride down to where I lived growing up. And I got lost. It’s just really strange, how much it’s changed. A lot of the changes haven’t been especially good, but I’m hoping it will get better. It just hasn’t done well economically, which may be the problem.

You asked why I’m proud to be from New Jersey and, oh boy—there are all these wonderful things about New Jersey; they don’t call us the Garden State for no reason. It’s beautiful. At my house, it’s just lovely outside—it’s very green, a lot of trees. And deer come to visit. There’s everything to enjoy here, which is why people from all over the country come here. I know not everyone agrees, but that’s their problem, not mine, you know? This is my home, where I come from, and I love it.

Five-time Grammy winner Dionne Warwick has earned eighteen top-20 U.S. hits in her five-decade recording career, including twelve written or co-written by Burt Bacharach.

As told to Tammy La Gorce.

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