The night before Dionne Warwick was set to record “That’s What Friends Are For,” she ran into Elton John while grocery shopping in Beverly Hills.
“I said, ‘I’m recording tomorrow and I need you.’ That’s how simple it was,” Warwick tells PEOPLE of how she recruited John at the last minute, back in 1986.
John showed up, along with Warwick’s friends, Gladys Knight and Stevie Wonder, to record the song, which would reach number one on the Billboard charts, and earn Warwick her fifth Grammy award.
Warwick, 78, who has a new album She’s Back (out on May 17), says the idea to donate proceeds from the song to amFAR, the American Foundation for AIDS Research, came from Elizabeth Taylor , who attended the recording session. She was a friend of the song’s composers, Burt Bacharach and his then-wife, Carole Bayer Sager.
“Elizabeth felt the song could be an anthem to help get the point across about the need for help, and also to help get amFAR up and running,” Warwick recalls.
The song became an anthem of sorts for AIDS awareness and compassion, and eventually raised an estimated $3 million for amFAR.
In 1987, President Ronald Reagan appointed Warwick as an honorary ambassador of health to help with public outreach.
According to Warwick, who wrote about the incident in her 2010 autobiography, My Life As I See It, she was the one who got President Reagan to say AIDS at a press conference.
“He would not say the word AIDS,” says Warwick. “He evaded it in every fashion that he could. I didn’t understand why.”
“[At the press conference], I said our president was benevolent enough to make me an Ambassador of Health,” Warwick recalls. “And I asked him ‘President Reagan, what is that disease you’re talking about?’ He had no choice but to say AIDS.”
“I’m still involved with the AIDS issue,” she says. “I lost my valet to AIDS and that was long before we knew what it was.”
“We lost so many people, especially within our industry, hairdressers, makeup people, cameramen, lighting people, so many in the areas that revolved around my profession.”
Warwick, who has sold over 100 million records in her 58-year career, has no intention of slowing down.
“I will continue to do my part as long as it’s around,” she says of the fight to educate and continue research for a cure.
“I don’t know what it means to slow down,” she adds. “I love what I do. I don’t consider it work. It’s just an extension of me.”
For more from Dionne Warwick, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.
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