Walk On By

if you see me walking down the street

Walk On By

Dionne Warwick is in my head and I don’t know how she got there. It was just a normal day, and then I realized that I kept hearing those crystal clear, bell-Iike tones of her in the early 1960s singing Burt Bacharach’s “Walk On By.” The song rolled through my brain, and initially I thought nothing of it because so many songs run through my head on any given day for a wide variety of reasons. But “Walk On By” kept reappearing, not an earworm, and by that I mean: the annoying repetition of a line or a chorus of a song you do not like or do not want to hear.

No, Dionne’s appearance was more like how you used to hear distant tinny music playing as you went about your day in the time before everyone walked around with headphones on. It wasn’t the kind of force of someone carrying a boombox down the street, that was a statement, an aggressive action – but just the sound of someone listening to AM radio in their kitchen with the windows open, or a small transistor radio playing quietly next to you while you laid on a blanket in the park and read a book. You registered it in passing or you heard the quiet hum in the background, but it wasn’t obnoxious, it was just part of the everyday stew of noise. It’s the kind of thing that would bother someone like me, who is an inveterate eavesdropper and if I hear a distant melody I have to identify it or it will drive me insane. Once I’ve clocked it then I almost don’t hear it any more.

My late mother Barbara, of blessed memory, loved music. She hung out in jazz clubs in Chicago as a young woman, she played piano, and she had a record collection and my childhood memories always involve music of some sort playing. She loved Johnny Mathis and Frank Sinatra and Broadway musicals. When I was very small -- around the time “Walk On By” came out -- we had moved from New Jersey to Maryland, just outside of Baltimore, and we had what seemed like a gigantic split-level ranch for which we did not have sufficient furniture yet. In the living room was one of those massive mid-century modern wooden console stereos, alongside my brother’s ride-in fire engine and a child-sized indoor dome tent. This made sense at the time.

I don’t think she owned any Dionne Warwick albums, because later in my life I would go through every one of her records in detail, but she definitely enjoyed Burt Bacharach and I could have heard “Walk On By” on the radio at any point -- it went to #6 on the Billboard Hot 100 -- and I have clear memories of Dionne singing the chorus while I laid on my back in the tent in that living room in Ellicott City. Her voice was so clear, I remember thinking how soft it sounded, what I would now be able to describe as her vocal control and the utter command of her tone. “Walk On By” is not a simple melody and yet every version of it she performed live was always perfect.

This is the performance I remember and the one I decided to go look for when I needed to try to get it out of my head and figure out how it got there in the first place. I wish I could remember where I saw this performance of Dionne Warwick singing “Walk On By” in front of a large and friendly audience? I know I saw it because I have such specific memories of her inviting the audience to sing and specifically her hand gestures. I remember the gratification on both sides, the delight in the audience being invited to sing and then absolutely nailing it on cue, the smile on Dionne’s face as they did. It must have been a thing, you know, because there’s no way this is the first time it happened. How did the kids know what to do? When was the first time it happened? Can you imagine that, in a time where the only way you knew what an artist was like in concert was if you went to the concert. You couldn’t check out the setlists, you couldn’t watch videos on YouTube, you couldn’t download shows on torrents, there was a small group of bootleggers but they weren’t going to see Dionne Warwick and recording them, because it was dudes with literal reel-to-reels. (Can you just imagine? That was commitment.)

Do I remember it or am I willing myself to remember it? I was so young, we lived in Baltimore until I was almost five. But I remember so many specific things about that time, I remember what the house looked like, what the street we lived on looked like, the enormous weeping willow tree in the backyard, the patch of wild mint growing next to the patio outside the empty living room. Why do I doubt myself when it comes to a memory about music, of all things? The piano refrain on the second chorus. The way she holds the note on the final “byyyyyy” of the chorus. The muted trumpet notes. The way she and the backing vocalists merge into their own orchestration as the strings glide in and out. It is beautiful and comforting and sad and contains multiple shades of heartbreak.

Dionne is so young here, with unbelievable grace and poise, which she always had and never lost. I know that was something I was drawn to, both in the song and in that footage above. I was a toddler and we had a split-level house and I was always tripping up or down the stairs stairs. By comparison, my mother always, always looked perfect, absolutely perfect. There is no photograph of Barbara Rose that exists in which her hair and makeup is not spot on; when she was in the ICU the nurses could not stop talking about her manicure. It was a standard I was never going to have the energy or patience to live up to, but I love watching humans who are effortlessly put together like that. It’s not at all effortless, but the people who are the best at it make it seem that way. Everything about Dionne Warwick is effortless, every performance is comfortable and relaxed. Of course now I know that this is the end result of years and years of practice. Dionne is happy to be here, singing for you, or she convinces you that she is. That is a skill. Stage presence matters. She had it.

This version of “Walk On By” [which YouTube has taken down] is worth watching because it is so 1960’s, down to her matching green shoes and the elaborate choreography, and please watch it until the moment where Dionne joins the dancers. I could have seen this, it seems so familiar, or maybe it’s just the Sesame Street-lookalike set that makes it feel like I’ve seen it before. But the song itself and Dionne’s performance of it is a time machine that instantly shifts my mind. I can see the angle of the sunlight on the living room floor. I can smell the brand new carpet. We all know music can do this, it is one of the many reasons you are here and why I am not a lawyer.

Here’s an amazing footage of the 1969 Grammys, which begins with Glen Campbell ending “Wichita Lineman,” before Burt Bacharach introduces Dionne singing “Do You Know The Way To San Jose” which I know is not the point of this essay but it is too cool to not share. Wait for the end where Mama Cass introduces the Beatles!

I remember the song because my mother loved music. I love music because she did. Maybe I heard the song while walking around the grocery store, maybe I heard the Doja Cat sample, maybe it is just the holidays and this is my mom’s way of saying hi. She does that, sometimes, when out of nowhere I feel like listening to Frank Sinatra or watching an old black-and-white movie, sitting on the living room floor with a glass of Tab and a cigarette burning in the ashtray next to me. I can’t drink diet soda and I haven’t smoked since 2003, I still don’t know why I need to listen to Dionne Warwick all of a sudden, but it’s been a blessedly comforting mixture of delight and detective work trying to figure it all out.


I never remember to mention these kinds of things, stuff that’s interesting but doesn’t necessarily rate an entire or even part of a newsletter, until after I have written and sent the newsletter, so I am now going to say I am going to do this in the hopes I continue to do so, and don’t just blank that I suddenly have zero recollection of anything I’ve been doing with my time.

I am watching: the Michael Hutchence documentary (Mystify) was surprisingly well-done, sympathetic and sad and made you both appreciate his talent and be endlessly furious at the loss.

I am reading: But Will You Love Me Tomorrow?: An Oral History of the '60s Girl Groups. I will write about it when I am finished, but right now I am reading it in bits, loving every moment of being able to immerse myself in the important stories of all of the women involved, the singers and songwriters and managers and record label owners.

I am listening to: Neil Young, Before and After. Hoping there is a live show in my future. Come to Chicago, Neil, at least.