Interview: In troubled times, Dionne Warwick tells us what the world needs now

Dionne Warwick talks career highs and what the world needs now.

Dionne Warwick walked on stage at the Bayfront Theater on Nov. 3, 1967, in a white sequined gown, and sang about love and harmony at a time when the world was coming apart.

Warwick, 76, returns Sunday, a half-century after her first appearance at what is now the Mahaffey Theater.

At the time, Vietnam, the Middle East and race relations at home had Americans on edge. Warwick, one of the most versatile and fluid singers anywhere, was 26 and on her way up. She had recorded 14 singles and was coming off a Lincoln Center appearance and a European tour.

Time magazine was calling her "the best new female pop-jazz-gospel-rhythm-and-blues singer performing today." Warwick would go on to collect 13 Grammy nominations, winning five, and scores of hits. The voice behind Alfie, Walk on By, Close to You, and Do You Know the Way to San Jose? has returned to the Tampa Bay area several times, years marked by the ups and downs of her creative partnership with composer and songwriter Burt Bacharach, and by extension Bacharach's rocky relationship with lyricist Hal David.

Warwick can't sing all of her hits Sunday — that would literally take hours — but will give fans a generous portion of her best.

"I will perform to what people expect to hear from me," Warwick said in a phone interview. "It works."

Despite her status in 1967 as the No. 2 female vocalist on the Billboard charts, Warwick's fans paid just $3.50 to $4.50 a ticket to see her in St. Petersburg back then. The concert, sponsored by the Florida Presbyterian College student government association, drew 2,100 young adults and teenagers to hear the artist whose song, I Say a Little Prayer, was closing in on the top 10.

Warwick sang songs that hinted of the turbulence tearing countries and people apart, including Somewhere and One Hand, One Heart (from West Side Story) and What the World Needs Now. She invited the crowd to clap and sing along with her on Walk on By, and stayed on top of them through six tries until they got it right. She closed with Alfie, Bacharach and David's title song of a film about a chronic womanizer.

"For me to do a song, I have to get into the words," Warwick said. That versatility, which is what Bacharach relished since spotting Warwick as a 19-year-old backup singer, has distinguished her career and made it impossible to define.

"I have never been able to be categorized or boxed in," she said. "I identify as a singer, period. Music has no boundaries."

After a string of hits in the 1960s and early 1970s, Warwick's career stalled for a few years, collateral damage from an acrimonious split between Bacharach and David. She made a philanthropic hit for AIDS research in 1982, That's What Friends Are For, with Elton John, Gladys Knight and Stevie Wonder. Bacharach contacted her in the mid-1980s to rekindle the relationship.

"She sings with consummate ease," the composer said then. "She floats melodies that for other singers would be heavy labor."

Warwick has faced financial problems in recent years, including well-publicized troubles with the IRS. She claimed in a 2013 court filing that she had just $10 to spend monthly after expenses. She said her finances are on the way to being resolved.

"I don't think I'm the only one swimming up that river," she said.

She foresees a retirement in Brazil one day. In the meantime, she sees retreats to her native East Orange, N.J., when she can, visits with her seven grandchildren and catches up on sleep.

Asked for her take on what the world needs now, Warwick didn't hesitate.

"Love," she said. "Without a doubt."

Contact Andrew Meacham at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.