As of July 2008* it is now 40 years since Dionne Warwick ruled the airwaves with Burt Bacharach and Hal David's "Do You Know the Way to San Jose." Although the song peaked at #10 on the national pop charts (some sources show #8 as the top position) it was so successful across so many formats -- pop, easy listening, r & b -- that it was one of those songs that seemed to be everywhere.
In the New York metro market the song dominated the radio waves, prompting legendary WNEW-AM jock William B. Williams to quip, "Someone should record a song called 'Yes, I Know the Way to San Jose!'" Implying that, perhaps the song had oversaturated the market.
Warwick herself admits that she was rather unimpressed by the song when she heard it demoed. Whether it was the subject of Tinseltown failure or the near-smarminess of the title rhyme, she's never really said. Dionne just didn't like the tune. Legend has it that Bacharach and David pleaded and cajoled her until she finally agreed to give it a try.
If you compare Warwick's vocal efforts on "San Jose" with other work from the time, such as "(Theme From) Valley of the Dolls," or the earlier "Message from Michael," it clearly lacks the same punch...it's as if she breezes through the recording. Disinterested perhaps? We don't want to imply that Warwick was ever remotely unprofessional nor that she ever gave less than 100% effort in a recording. But she's human, after all. And that effortless, carefree vocal, is possibly a result of her unenthusiastic feelings -- and it's also quite possibly the key to the record's success!
The song could easily be overdramaticized, and therefore would be rather defeatist. On the other hand, it could be sung with too much smile, and therefore would be more of a novelty song. Dionne just sort of breezes through -- and the listener jumps on, and enjoys a nice, carefree ride to San Jose in the process. The listener understands the broken dreams, but Dionne's style is not to emphasize that, but to casually take the listener forward -- reminders about friends, roots, and going home to love and safety. In the meantime, our ride is an easy, breezy one with the top down and the California coast setting the tone.
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* Never mind that this is supposed to be a June 2008 column. We're usually a month late in case you hadn't realized that by now. There's just too much fine-tuning and fact checking to get this stuff out in a timely manner. Sorry, nothing we can do about it.
Here's a video montage of Dionne set to the tune of "Do You Know the Way to San Jose." Please note you probably have to click the little arrow twice to get the video to run.
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Interestingly enough, this easy-going performance followed hot on the heels of another top hit from 1967, "I Say a Little Prayer," which at #5 actually peaked higher on the national charts than "San Jose." (See if you can follow this, because it supports our contention that "San Jose" was a monster hit only because Dionne performed it so breezily.) "Say a Little Prayer" was another Bacharach/David song, and the production was flawless. Perhaps too perfect? Aretha Franklin came along and did a soul version that really made "Say a Little Prayer" work. Decades after the fact, Bacharach insists that Franklin's version was in every way superior to what he arranged for Warwick. At the time, he felt that they were beaten with their own song, even though Aretha's version peaked at #10.
Now, consider if Aretha Franklin had done the original recording of "San Jose." With her soulful, full-blown vocals, the song would've been too bluesy -- too urgent to be carefree. Even Dionne, at 100% range, the song would likely be too soulful. No, it's her easy, breezy approach to the song that makes it work.
Despite a heap of competition in 1968, "San Jose" won Warwick a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Pop Vocal Performance, Female. Competion? Songs like "Love Child" by Diana Ross & The Supremes, "Chain of Fools" by Aretha Franklin, the massive and well-performed "Harper Valley PTA" by Jeannie C. Riley, and the epic "Son of a Preacher Man" by Dusty Springfield. In retrospect, "Son of a Preacher Man" would be the Grammy winner if they had to do it all over again, because these days a "gritty" vocal beats "breezy" every time.
So was it disinterest that made the song sound the way it does? Perhaps. But as a professional, we'll give Ms. Warwick the benefit of the doubt and report that she planned it that way. And we have a feeling that if the song were released for the first time, today, 40 years later, it would still dominate the airwaves.
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If you would like to read and listen to last month's forgotten gem, Orange Crate Art, please click here.
|Here's a terrific compilation of Bacharach/David tunes that really shows the songwriting prowess of this team. Of course it has "Do You Know the Way to San Jose" by Dionne, along with a few other of her hits. And yes, it has Aretha's version of "Say a Little Prayer." Why? Because Burt wanted that version on this album. You'll also get classics by Tom Jones, Gene Pitney, Sonny & Cher, The Carpenters, Herb Alpert, Jack Jones, The Drifters, Olivia Newton-John, Neil Diamond, Sergio Mendes, Dusty Springfield...this is simply a must-have record. The link here goes to Amazon.com, which has excellent shipping, is easy to order from, and they have an outstanding return policy. Sometimes you can get a used copy of this for peanuts!|
|Usually we put another album here, but the one at left is so important, so definitive, we're going to use this space to tell you that you need to look back over there and click the thing. If you don't feel like going back over to the left hand side of this page, fine. Here's the link: Burt Bacharach & Friends - Gold We warn you, this album is a landmark collection, an absolute "must-have."|