Dionne Warwick sends a “message”

Today we’ll take a look at a song that was a Top 10 hit for Dionne Warwick in 1966, even though the composers of the song didn’t want her to record it!  Read on for the full story as I continue to highlight some of the entries in the unpublished book, The Top 1,000 Hits of the 1960s.

In case you haven’t been following, the final positions are based on a mathematical formula applied to every Billboard magazine Hot 100 chart from the first week of January 1960 to the last week of December 1969, with weeks in 1959 and 1970 added in where needed to compile a song’s complete consecutive chart run. (By doing so, no songs were unfairly omitted because they peaked too early in 1960 or too late in 1969.)

# 986
Message to Michael / Dionne Warwick /
Scepter SCE 12133
(Total points: 884 / Chart debut: 4/2/1966 / Chart peak: 8 / Weeks on chart: 12)

By the time “Message to Michael” became Dionne Warwick’s third Top 10 single – and her first in almost two years – the song already had a long, convoluted history. Warwick’s version marked the third different title for the previously luckless Burt Bacharach-Hal David composition. Adding to the intrigue was that its co-writers adamantly did not want Warwick to record it!

The first of eight Warwick recordings in the top 1,000 of the 1960s originated with Jerry Butler, whom you’ll also encounter several times in this countdown. He recorded it under the title “Message to Martha” in 1962. It remained unreleased until his December 1963 album Need to Belong (Vee-Jay 1072), the cover of which was reissued in 1964 using the title Giving Up on Love, though the labels retained the original name. Even on that first release, it was given no respect; both the LP cover and the label give credit to “Leiber-Stoller” (Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller) as the composers!

Next, Lou Johnson, who recorded many Bacharach-David songs without ever having a Top 40 hit with one, waxed it under the title “Kentucky Bluebird” on Big Hill 553. The best his version could do was the Bubbling Under the Hot 100 chart, peaking at #104. Johnson’s version also was released in England, where Adam Faith quickly covered it on Parlophone (R 5201) using the combined title “A Message to Martha (Kentucky Bluebird)”; his version made the top 20 in the U.K. Faith’s version was not issued as a single in the United States, though it did appear on the self-titled album (Amy 8005) his U.S. label compiled in early 1965 to capitalize on the Top 40 success of the song “It’s Alright.”

And there the song rested until in early 1966, Dionne Warwick suggested that her co-headliner at the Paris Olympia Theater, the popular French singer Sasha Distel, use “A Message to Martha” as part of his show. A backing track was prepared, but then he decided against singing it. Hating for that instrumental to go to waste, Warwick then contemplated using it herself. But when she told Bacharach and David of her plan, they strenuously objected, as they still regarded it as a male song. David added that “Michael,” a name he hated, was the only man’s name that would work in the lyrics. Warwick took his objection as a suggestion, though, and recorded it that way while she was still in Paris. It would be the only one of her Scepter hits not produced by Bacharach and David.

Scepter still had to battle the composers to sign off on releasing the newly rechristened “Message to Michael” as a single. Steve Tyrell, who later became a popular interpreter of jazz and pop standards, was working at Scepter in 1966 and believed in Warwick’s version; he was able to convince Bacharach and David to have it released, but agreed to bury it on the B-side of “Here Where There Is Love.” Indeed, when Billboard reviewed the new 45 in its March 12, 1966 issue, it noted the chart potential for “Here Where There Is Love” and mentioned “Message to Michael” only in passing, in its role as the flip side.

However, Scepter worked to undermine Bacharach and David on other fronts. Every copy of the original Scepter 45 has the number “SCE 12133 A” on the “Message to Michael” side. In the same March 12 issue in which Billboard reviewers essentially ignored the song, the label took out a front-page ad in Billboard to promote it. Finally, Tyrell personally flew to New Orleans, which is mentioned prominently in the lyrics, and got the city’s WTIX radio to start playing it immediately. The song spread nationally from there.

Not only did Warwick’s recording peak at #8 on the pop charts, it also did even better on the R&B chart, making it to #5. And Hal David did finally admit that the song worked as sung by a female; he wrote in his book What the World Needs Now and Other Love Lyrics in 1968, “Dionne’s vocal was so brilliant that it was obvious we had subconsciously written the song for her, even while we thought we were writing it for a man.”

Collector’s notes: All copies of the original Scepter 45 are basically identical. It was not issued with a picture sleeve.

Fast fact: Warwick debuted her version of “Message to Michael” on the TV show Hullabaloo on March 9, 1966, the same week as the aforementioned Billboard ad and non-review.

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