Friends and family are most always the cornerstones of the holiday season and for Dionne Warwick, they played an integral part in the creation of her new Christmas album. Aloe Blacc, Andra Day, Johnny Mathis, Michael McDonald, The Oak Ridge Boys and John Rich are among the artists joining the 78-year-old icon on Dionne Warwick & The Voices of Christmas, releasing Oct. 18 BMG.
“Every song, I felt, suited my duet partner. That’s why it’s called The Voices of Christmas,” the five-time Grammy winner tells Billboard. “Each of the songs felt suited to each one of the people I was singing with and that’s how we chose them. That’s the approach I wanted to take, and I wanted to do arrangements of the song to suit that particular person as well.”
Produced by her son Damon Elliott, also known as Buck 22, the project was recorded in Nashville, Los Angeles, New York and Las Vegas this past summer. “It was wonderful,” she says of working with Elliott. “He’s earned the right. He’s a wonderful producer."
With a voice as clear and strong as ever, Warwick breathes new life into holiday standards “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” “The Christmas Song” and “Silver Bells,” and is joined by an all-star cast of duet partners. “Jingle Bells,” featuring John Rich, The Oak Ridge Boys and Ricky Skaggs, is being serviced to country radio and “This Christmas,” a duet with Blacc, is being serviced to Hot AC and Urban AC radio.
One of Warwick’s favorite tracks is the soulful, understated version of “Rudolph” with Andra Day. “Andra is such a special talent and such a sweet lady,” says Warwick, who credits her son with the unique arrangement. “When most people sing ‘Rudolph,’ it’s that up and up and up kind of thing, and it’s really a pretty sad song until you hear what Santa said to him at the end. Up until that point in time, it’s very blue and that’s exactly what we wanted to treat it like.”
Elliott agrees. “‘Rudolph’ is one of my favorite songs and it’s actually a sad story,” he says. “It’s kind of funny the originally is an up tempo, happy kind of groove when it’s a sad story…we wanted to approach it as a mid-tempo ballad where you actually pay attention more to the lyric because it’s a story of Rudolph being left out and being the black sheep. So it makes you listen more having that approach. I feel it fits the song and the vibe.”
The album was recorded during the summer months, but Warwick jokes that is was usually so cold in the studio that it felt like winter. Blacc joined Warwick for an impressive rendition of “This Christmas,” which is premiering on Billboard today (Oct. 16). “He’s such an incredible musical person and boy did he give a wonderful performance. It was a thrill to work with him,” says Warwick, who will be honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Recording Academy’s Grammy Salute to Music Legends, airing on PBS Oct. 18.
The album also features several Nashville artists including Rich, The Oak Ridge Boys, Ricky Skaggs and Eric Paslay. “He’s wonderful,” Warwick says of Paslay with whom she recorded “Frosty the Snowman.” Rich, one half of hit-making country duo Big & Rich, helped Warwick recruit some of his country pals.
“The Oak Ridge Boys were so incredible,” she says of the Country Music Hall of Famers. “This CD was meant to be made with everybody on it, especially with them. They were on tour and John [Rich] called them and asked if they’d like to do some background work on this particular song and they said, ‘Sure, we’d love to.’ They drove into Nashville from wherever they were. They came into the studio, did what they do so very well and got back on that bus and went back out on tour. How many people would do that? It’s just a magical thing going on with this Christmas CD.”
The Oaks, Rich and Skaggs also joined Warwick to film a video for “Jingle Bells,” which was shot at Rich’s Nashville home. “It was a ball. It was an absolute Christmas party. That’s what it was,” Warwick enthuses. “There were dancers. We had a band playing. It was wonderful. At the end of the video shoot itself, the Oaks did ‘Elvira’ live. It was a wonderful evening.”
Rich was happy to help Warwick engage some country artists for the album and to host the video shoot. “I met Dionne on Celebrity Apprentice. That’s how far back we go, which was 2010,” Rich tells Billboard. “I [remember] looking over there going, ‘Wow There’s an actual R&B legend sitting 20 feet away. I’m going to go make friends with this lady if at all possible.’ So I went over and introduced myself to her and we hit it off in a big way in the craziness of that particular season…we really bonded during that show.”
Rich recalls going to see Warwick do a show in New Jersey with Meatloaf and Lil Jon during a rare night off from taping Celebrity Apprentice. “She’s just pure class from beginning to the end and still has all her chops. She’s just a gorgeous person,” he says. “I think she really appreciated that we took time out to come see her show and that struck up a real friendship. I became friends with her son, Damon. He hit me up a few months ago and said, ‘Hey, I’m producing a new Christmas record on mom and wanted to know if you wanted to sing ‘Jingle Bells.’ I said, ‘Well of course I want to sing ‘Jingle Bells’ with Dionne Warwick! Where do I need to go?’”
Elliott and Warwick came to Nashville to record and Rich suggested adding the Oaks to the song. “I said to Dionne, ‘The way you’ve recorded this version of ‘Jingle Bells,’ it’s almost got that Elvis Memphis swing thing going on underneath it with country as well. Remember back when The Jordanaires were singing background with Elvis? And she goes, ‘Oh yeah absolutely! I saw them do it with him.’”
Rich pulled out his phone and called Oak Ridge Boy Joe Bonsall, and they enthusiastically agreed to participate. “The last piece was one section of the song that needed a solo and I said, ‘Man, if we could get Ricky Skaggs on mandolin, wouldn’t that be cool?’ Five minutes later I called Ricky and he said, ‘Yeah, send me the track.’ I was honored that she asked me to be on it and I thought the least I could do was bring as much horsepower to the situation as possible. I think with the Oak Ridge Boys and Skaggs, that’s quite a collaboration.”
Warwick says dates are still being determined for her Christmas tour, but she’s hoping Rich will be able to join her on a few of those dates. She’s looking forward to fans hearing her new holiday music. “Christmas is my favorite time of year. I wish it could be Christmas every single day,” says Warwick. “Christmas seems to bring everything wonderful out of people. They all of a sudden become human. They are smiling and saying, ‘Hello.’ They open doors for you and even offer to carry your packages for you. It just seems to bring something wonderful out of people.”
Listen to “This Christmas” below.
A complete track listing for Dionne Warwick & The Voices of Christmas is below.
“Silent Night” “Jingle Bells” featuring John Rich, The Oak Ridge Boys & Ricky Skaggs "Frosty The Snowman” featuring Eric Paslay “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” featuring Dianne Reeves “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” featuring Jason Scheff “White Christmas” featuring Johnny Mathis “This Christmas” featuring Aloe Blacc “The Christmas Song” featuring Wanya Morris “Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer” featuring Andra Day “Jingle Bell Rock” featuring Michael McDonald “Silver Bells” featuring Chloe x Halle “The First Noel”