Dee Dee Warwick (1945 – 2008)

Many people know Dee Dee Warwick only as the less successful sister of Dionne – and that she recorded ‘Alfie’ before her better known sibling. However, she also made two of the greatest soul records of the late 60s and early 70s. While she may not have had Dionne’s refined pop sensibilities, she possessed a voice of great power and interpretative abilities on a par with many of her better known rivals.

Unusually for a hit record of the time, ‘Foolish Fool’ devotes a fifth of its playing time to a lengthy introduction. Brilliant as this is – a gritty guitar improvising over the harmony of the main refrain – it hardly prepares one for the outpouring of emotion that follows. On paper, the lyrics are less than promising. The opening line is an extended riff on the song’s title – ‘Foolish, foolish, foolish, foolish, foolish fool’ sings Warwick, repeating the phrase within a couple of lines (adding another couple of ‘foolish’es) and then immediately following this up with the variation ‘Crazy (times five) girl’. It’s not just that she manages to phrase each of the repeated words differently – her rhythmic sense of where to place each syllable in relation to the beat is unerring – but the combination of both distraction and anger with which she imbues each phrase is stunning. Her conviction that the rival for her man’s affections could ‘destroy my world’ is intense but conveyed with a restraint which makes it all the more unsettling. The whole lyric is addressed to the errant male and becomes increasingly desperate as she moves from disdain for her rival to fear that she may indeed lose her love as, perhaps, he fails to respond to her earlier assurance. Eventually, all her bravado melts away to be replaced by anguish as she can only repeat her increasingly empty assertion that her rival must be a fool to think she can steal her man. At times she seems to be addressing the lyric to her ‘Mama’ as well as – does she even know who she is talking to anymore? It’s a three minutes of raw melodrama with Warwick riding the suitably bombastic arrangement with incredible assurance.

Only months after the release of ‘Foolish Fool’ – and with a switch from Mercury to Atco Records – came something altogether different. ‘She Didn’t Know (She Kept On Talking)’ deals with near identical territory – a woman discussing her rival with her unfaithful partner – but the performance here plays up restraint over passion and is all the more powerful because of it. The scenario has Warwick meeting a woman at a party who, she realises, is having an affair with her husband. Her rival remains oblivious as the singer ‘turned my head so she couldn’t see me cry’ and hides her devastation behind discussion of ‘little private things and lady talk’. Only briefly does the emotion spill over when she tells how she ‘swallowed my pride and kept on steppin’ like a woman ought to’ – and at the end her façade cracks as she tells the man she’s leaving that ‘every time I see that woman I see you.’ Whereas in ‘Foolish Fool’, Warwick’s fury drives the song, here the scenario is even more affecting as her approach reflects the attitude of a woman who never calls out her rival and refuses to plead with her errant husband but, seemingly broken by the experience, simply moves on.

In an era when soul singing relies increasingly on volume and melisma as substitutes for emotion, Warwick’s interpretative abilities are a revelation. She has great power at her disposal but knows the value of holding it in check. She shares many of her sister’s instincts for how to manipulate rhythm as well as melody and, most of all, to imply much more than a lyric apparently states. She deserves to be far better known.

Dee Dee Warwick recorded for a number of labels – primarily Mercury and Atco. While Soul Music Records have done a great job of reissuing her Mercury sides (including ‘Foolish Fool’), at the time of writing the Atco material is harder to track down at a reasonable price. However her one and only album for the label – Turning Around – is currently available as a reasonably priced Japanese import (other current editions are in poor sound).