Dionne Warwick celebrated her birthday a few days early this year — with a huge helping of family, friends and holiday festivities.
The legendary vocalist, who turned 79 on Thursday, performed an intimate concert two days prior at Saks Fifth Avenue’s flagship store in Manhattan. The event was part of the “Live at L’Avenue,” a musical series staged at the Le Chalet cocktail lounge beneath Saks’ gourmet eatery, and Warwick kept the yuletide cheer flowing with a track from her latest album, Dionne Warwick and the Voices of Christmas.
“I want to put you in the holiday spirit!” she told the crowd — which included longtime David Letterman music director Paul Shaffer, Orange Is the New Black actress Lea DeLaria, and Broadway stars Erich Bergen (Jersey Boys) and Major Attaway (Aladdin) — packed into the cozy accommodations, modeled after a Northern Italian ski lodge. “So, are you ready to hear some songs from my latest CD? It’s a great album full of duets with some of my friends, with traditional songs, and some songs I bring into the 21st century.”
Without further ado, Warwick launched into a country-tinged version of “Jingle Bells,” which she recorded for the album with John Rich, The Oak Ridge Boys & Ricky Skaggs.
Speaking to PEOPLE shortly before her performance, Warwick explained the genesis of the collaborative Christmas album. “I wanted to do something with people that I wanted to sing with,” she says. “I came up with the title first, and then came up with the arrangement for the songs.” The familiar titles are done in a variety of genres and styles, ranging from Nashville twang to cool R&B and soaring gospel.
“That’s the fun of the entire CD, it has something for everybody,” she says.
One of her favorite tracks on the album is her version of Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” recorded with Johnny Mathis. “Absolute magic,” she says of working with the fellow music icon. “I refer to him as ‘The Master.’ He’s been a dear, dear friend for many, many years. It’s not only a dream but it’s a pleasure singing with him. He makes it so easy.”
Voices of Christmas was produced by Warwick’s son, Damon Elliott. Despite the family ties, she insists that Elliott (who also works under the name BUCK 22) kept it very professional — to a point. “The only difference working with him rather than other producers is that he calls me ‘mommy’ instead of Dionne,” she laughs.
Elliott was one Warwick’s many family members who came to cheer her on at Le Chalet. The family will convene again in a few weeks at Warwick’s New Jersey home for her annual holiday dinner — a tradition that she admits is “sometimes daunting.”
“I do it every year,” she explains. “There’s a big menu, which consists of every meat, every fish and every bread and desert eaten throughout the year.”
The consummate hostess works hard to ensure that her family enjoys a special holiday, but Warwick gets reflective when asked what she wants for Christmas herself. “I want my country back,” she says. “That’s really what I want.”
The wish is an echo of her beloved Burt Bacharach classic “What the World Needs Now Is Love.” First released in 1965, Warwick decided to revisit the track on her new album She’s Back, which hit shelves earlier this year. “We certainly need [love] desperately,” she says. “I mean, I don’t know what’s going on here anymore. I wake up some mornings and don’t know where I am, with all the fighting. It’s so stupid. I want my world back.”
Warwick also sang “What the World Needs Now Is Love” at Le Chalet alongside her granddaughter, 25-year-old vocalist Cheyenne Elliott. Together they teamed up for the evening’s musical finale, an emotional version of “That’s What Friends Are For” — but there was one more surprise in store. The evening ended as Cheyenne helped present her grandmother with a macaroon tower (L’Avenue at Saks’ version of a birthday cake) for her upcoming milestone and lead the crowd through an enthusiastic version of “Happy Birthday.”
As she enters a new year, Warwick remains grateful for the moments she’s onstage, sharing her gifts with the world. “How fulfilling it is to know certain songs have touched people in certain ways. Music has been such a healing factor for a lot of people. It’s brought many people through a lot of trying times. It will continue to do that, and that’s the joy of it. It continues to grow. I love that I can look out into my audience and see smiles, see an arm go around a shoulder or a hand being grabbed. It’s a comforting feeling to know you are bringing joy and happiness.”