Dionne Warwick honored with Marian Anderson award in Philly

Dionne Warwick waves to the crowd while accepting the Marian Anderson award.

Dionne Warwick receives the Marian Anderson Award at a ceremony at the Kimmel Center, on Tuesday. (Bastiaan Slabbers for WHYY)

Last night, the Marian Anderson Award was given to Dionne Warwick at a gala concert at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia. She was selected for the annual award for the excellence of her artistry, and her work with education and AIDS research.

Warwick released her first single as a solo artist 55 years ago — in 1962 with “Don’t Make Me Over” – and is best remembered for hits “Walk on By,” “That’s What Friends are For,” and “I Say a Little Prayer.” She has won five Grammy Awards, two of them in the same year for both Best Pop and Best R&B singer.

The gala concert featured friends and colleagues from Warwick’s half-century in the music business, including founding members of the 5th Dimension, Darlene Love (who sang backup for Warwick for 10 years), and operatic soprano Alyson Cambridge.

“The opera world is known for having divas,” said Cambridge. “But you, Ms. Warwick, are the epitome of the perfect diva.”

As the guest of honor, Warwick did not perform. Upon accepting the award at the end of the concert, she said she felt overwhelmed.

“This evening has been more than I could ever have anticipated,” she said. “ Overwhelmed? Yes. I am truly overwhelmed to have been thought of in the same breath as Marian Anderson. This is enough to be overwhelmed by.”

Anderson overcame racial adversity to become the first African-American opera singer to perform with the Metropolitan Opera in 1955. In 1939, she gave an historic performance on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial for a capacity crowd on the National Mall.

Warwick has a string of honors over her long career, but she said the Marian Anderson Award was the second most important.

“The first was when they renamed the grammar school that I attended in my name,” said Warwick about her childhood school in East Orange, New Jersey. “I never dreamed anything would surpass that. But guess what? Y’all did tonight.”

The evening had a surprise guest with Clive Davis, a longtime music industry executive who, over the course of his career, has been head of Columbia, Arista, RCA, and BMG. He worked closely with Warwick since the 1980s, shepherding her into a career revival.

“We all know we are living in troubled times – in unsettling times – and to come here and see in the city of Philadelphia that you have gone to the essence,” Davis said. “Year after year, you have honored the memory of the great Marian Anderson. It is so special.”

For 19 years, the award has gone to artists who have contributed significantly to American life – including Harry Belafonte, Gregory Peck, Maya Angelou, and Jon Bon Jovi.

The annual Marian Anderson Award concert is a fundraiser for a youth scholarship program.

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