Born c. 1947, in Orange County, Calif. Addresses: Record company --Arista Records, Inc., 6 W. 57th St., New York, N.Y. 10019.
The career of vocalist Jennifer Warnes can be viewed in two distinct stages. She first came to public attention as a folksinger in the late 1960s, gaining important exposure as a regular feature of the television series "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour." After dropping out of music during the mid-1970s, however, Warnes resurfaced later in that decade as a country artist, scoring a huge success with the 1977 single, "The Right Time of the Night." She has since garnered a wider audience with her duet performances of popular film themes, such as those from An Officer and a Gentleman and Dirty Dancing. Warnes also won much critical acclaim by returning to her folk roots and recording an album of songs composed by Leonard Cohen, Famous Blue Raincoat.
Warnes was born in Orange County, California, in about 1947. She developed an interest in music early in life, and first sang in front of an audience when she was five years old. She also enjoyed acting, but she was so committed to Catholicism that she entered a convent when she graduated from high school. Apparently, however, Warnes discovered that she did not have a religious vocation; by the late 1960s she had landed an important part in a local production of the rock musical "Hair."
From there Warnes joined the cast of "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" on the Columbian Broadcasting System's (CBS) television network; she was known to the viewers by her first name only. In addition to singing folk songs, she put her acting talent to use in some of the show's comedy skits. Because of her popularity with the television audience, Warnes was signed to a recording contract with Warner Brothers, and she put out several albums, including See Me and Jennifer. She also worked as a back-up singer for other artists, including Cohen.
While touring Europe with Cohen in 1972, Warnes's career began to deteriorate. She had angered Warner Brothers by turning down an opportunity to serve as pop star Neil Diamond's opening act in order to make Cohen's European tour, and the company dropped her from its roster of recording artists as a result. She returned to California to find that she had little money left from her previous work. Warnes had a further setback in 1974 when a longtime boyfriend, a cabdriver, was killed during a robbery. Following that personal tragedy, she retreated to a cabin in a quiet area near Carmel to sort out her feelings. Finally, as she told reporter Dennis Hunt in the Los Angeles Times, she "got bored," and "moved back to [Los Angeles] and put a band together and started putting my career back together again."
By 1977 Warnes had released a comeback album on the Arista label, titled simply Jennifer Warnes. Her music now had a flavor that was something of a cross between country and pop, and the formula worked well for her. She had a top-ten hit with the smash love ballad, "The Right Time of the Night," and scored with a follow-up from the same album, "I'm Dreaming." She toured the United States that year, and found that she was much more popular than she had ever been in the first stage of her career. Nevertheless, Warnes continued working as a back-up singer, working on the Excitable Boy album for rock artist Warren Zevon. She also did vocal arrangements for a 1979 Cohen album, and performed duets with him on some of its tracks.
Around the same period, Warnes began exploring a career avenue that would eventually yield some of her greatest hits--she recorded a theme song for the film Norma Rae. Though that particular theme did not attract much attention, her later romantic duet with rock star Joe Cocker, "Up Where We Belong," from the motion picture An Officer and a Gentleman received a great deal of radio airplay. Even more successful was her 1987 theme from the film Dirty Dancing, "The Time of My Life," which she performed with former Righteous Brother Bill Medley. Warnes also sang one of the songs for the motion picture Ragtime.
Meanwhile, Warnes continued to release country-oriented albums. Her 1979 effort, Shot Through the Heart, pleased country fans and included a remake of "Don't Make Me Over" which became a hit in 1980. But her finest hour in the eyes of music critics came in 1986 when she recorded some of Cohen's songs. Having maintained a deep friendship with Cohen throughout her career, Warnes also held onto her desire to make an album of his work. The various companies with which she has recorded long discouraged the idea because they did not think it would be profitable, but finally Cypress, a smaller record label, provided her with the opportunity to fulfill her dream. The result, Famous Blue Raincoat, was heralded by Steve Pond of Rolling Stone as "a collection of some of the finest versions ever of Cohen's songs," and labeled "one of the year's most stirring recordings" by critic Alanna Nash in Stereo Review. Especially praised was Warnes's African-style rendition of Cohen's classic "Bird on a Wire," influenced by her interest in the South African folk group Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Cohen himself told Pond, "I always thought it was a country song, and when I heard the track without her vocal, I couldn't see it at all. But she was right: it is really, I think, a stunning treatment of the song." Nash also expressed appreciation for "Warnes's remarkable vocal ability," and her "intelligently sexy readings" of Cohen's work. Pond concluded that Famous Blue Raincoat was an excellent example of "resonant and often stirring adult pop music."
by Elizabeth Thomas
Jennifer Warnes's Career
Solo recording artist and background singer, late 1960s; performed in a local production of "Hair" in southern California, late 1960s; regular performer on "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" (television variety show), late 1960s; dropped out of music, c. 1974-c. 1977; solo recording artist and concert performer, 1977--. Recorded themes for films, including Norma Rae, An Officer and a Gentleman, and Dirty Dancing.
- See Me Warner Bros., 1970.
- Jennifer Warner Bros., c. 1971.
- Jennifer Warnes (includes "The Right Time of the Night," "Love Hurts," "Daddy Don't Go," and "I'm Dreaming"), Arista, 1977.
- Shot Through the Heart (includes "Don't Make Me Over"), Arista, 1979.
- Famous Blue Raincoat (includes "Bird on a Wire," "Joan of Arc," "Song of Bernadette," and "First We Take Manhattan"), Cypress, 1986.
- Also recorded singles "Up Where We Belong," with Joe Cocker, and "The Time of My Life," with Bill Medley.
- Los Angeles Times, May 22, 1977.
- People, November 24, 1986.
- Rolling Stone, March 12, 1987.
- Stereo Review, May 1987.