Editor’s Note: If you do the math in the first sentence, you might glean that this article was originally published in July 2008. For now we’re leaving it as written, but as you read it you should add the appropriate number of years for perspective. As of this writing, it is now almost 50 years…
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. Indeed it must’ve been #1 airplay in some cities.
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.
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 insisted 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. Competition? 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.