October 15, 1979 12:00 PM

For more than a decade Dionne Warwick was a red-hot singer of cold-hearted hits spanning pop, jazz and R&B. She told the world to Walk On By, sent a bittersweet Message to Michael and swore she’d Never Fall in Love Again. Looking back, those were the good years. Around 1975, her life turned sadder than her songs. First her marriage of 10 years to actor and jazz drummer Bill Elliott ended. Then Hal David and Burt Bacharach, the song-writing duo behind most of Dionne’s best-sellers, broke up. Her husband demanded—but didn’t get—alimony. When Bacharach and David split, Dionne sued, claiming they had thus breached a prior agreement to produce her albums. The resulting maze of legal troubles was only recently settled out of court. “Going through two divorces at once was really heavy duty,” recalls Dionne, 38. That wasn’t the end of it: Five consecutive albums bombed her into obscurity, and she recalls thinking, “I’m not a recording artist anymore.”

Her judgment, happily, has proved to be premature. Dionne’s new single, a tender ballad, I’ll Never Love This Way Again, is her first hit in four and a half years, while the LP Dionne, released last spring, has minted gold. Moreover, her partnership with her new producer, Barry Manilow, is thriving. “She can sing a ballad as well as Streisand,” says Barry, who’s wanted to return a favor since 1975 when one of his first big breaks was to open for her at a Central Park concert. “Dionne’s one of the all-time best.” Besides, he adds, in contrast to many singers, once in the studio “She doesn’t have to snort coke and wait for the lightning bolt to strike.”

Their collaboration, suggested by Arista chief Clive Davis, has suited Dionne too: “Working with Barry is one of the easiest things I’ve ever done.” If a touch of disco on some cuts has old Warwick fans hollering “sellout,” Dionne snaps defensively: “Disco is why I didn’t record for three years. I’m too much of a snob to do faddish material.”

Curiously, during her East Orange, N.J. childhood, she “never wanted to be a performer at all.” The oldest of three children of a butcher/railroad man and a gospel-singing mother, she started singing in a church choir. Dionne occasionally rode the bus to New York during high school to work on demo tapes in the famed Brill Building, where so many songwriters had offices. There in 1959 she met Bacharach and David, two unknowns who were “writing their hearts out in a cubicle” while she was earning $40 for singing backup on songs like the Drifters’ Under the Boardwalk. Meanwhile Dionne, figuring on a music-teaching career, earned a degree from Hartt College in Connecticut.

Then in 1962 Don’t Make Me Over launched a decade of Top 10 hits (Do You Know the Way to San Jose, Alfie, I Say a Little Prayer, Trains and Boats and Planes, et al). Warwick, Bacharach and David sold 12 million records in four years. “Show business,” she says, “became my life.”

When David and Bacharach decided to split up in 1975 as a result of personal feuding, Dionne suddenly found herself without words or music. She did manage to tour (and record one album) with Isaac Hayes. But her own slumping album career led her to tell her manager, “Hey, that’s it. No more recording.” On the advice of astrologist Linda Goodman, she added an “e” to her last name for “vibratory reasons.” But even that ended when “Every place I worked that had the ‘e’ on the marquee, something went wrong.” She next turned to God (“I happen to know I’m one of the chosen few”) and nonstop touring. “I felt I’d blow emotionally if I didn’t immerse myself in work. I pushed myself.” (So hard, in fact, that she had to cancel a show in June due to exhaustion.)

Her marriage to Elliott had long been troubled. “Bill made a wonderful dad to our two boys but a lousy husband,” Dionne says. “The male ego is a fragile thing.” Still, as her career rebounds, so has her love life. “It’s nobody’s business who,” she insists. “Do you invite the world into your bedroom?” All she will say is that he’s “tall, dark, handsome, rich and wonderful.” But hold the rice. “I don’t think I’m marriageable,” Dionne protests. “I’m not in one place long enough.”

Home is a lavish two-story mansion in Beverly Hills, shared with sons David, 10, and Damion, 6. “They’re my life now,” she says. On weekends they ride horses in L.A. or ski in Aspen. Dionne cools out on needlepoint and spends her nights “discreetly. I’m not promiscuous and I’m not a party person. And I don’t take anything. I’m scared to death of drugs, including aspirin.” She combats “road fever” with nothing more serious than shopping sprees. (She once boasted a huge wardrobe and had to rent an extra apartment just for storage.)

Her comeback also includes a shot at a role in the movie version of the musical Purlie and a prospective TV pilot. Surviving has left its own message. “Talent will prevail,” she says. “Nobody, bar none, can do what Dionne Warwick does.”

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