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Dionne Warwick knows the way to a hit

DAVID VANCE

At first, Dionne Warwick wasn’t sold. When the songwriting team of Burt Bacharach and Hal David brought their newest song to their favorite muse, they explained they’d written it with another of their artists, Gene Pitney, in mind.

“It was a cowboy song,” says Warwick. “It had all the cowboy accoutrements.”

So she turned it down. “I said, ‘This is not me. I’m not Annie Oakley this year,’ ” she recalls with a laugh.

Pitney didn’t want the song, either. Unloved from the start, “What the World Needs Now Is Love” would became a surprise Top 10 hit for Jackie DeShannon in 1965.

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“They took what was known as the ‘Dionne Warwick formula,’ and that’s what the song became,” says Warwick, who headlines the Cabot in Beverly on Friday. She recorded it a year later, and again in 1996. Now the 78-year-old singer, among this year’s Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award winners, has cut the song a third time, for her latest album, “She’s Back.”

She and her son, Damon Elliott, who produced the album, wasted very little time debating the remake. It just seemed right.

“As we all know, our world is so chaotic right now, especially here in the United States,” Warwick says. “I don’t know where I live any longer. We need some love here. We need a lot of it.”

Warwick’s extensive catalog — she’s charted 56 singles in the Billboard Hot 100 over the course of her career — is drenched in love songs, from early hits such as “Anyone Who Had a Heart” and “Reach Out for Me” to her 1973 No. 1 with the Spinners, “Then Came You,” and later successes such as “I’ll Never Love This Way Again.”

“I feel most comfortable listening to wonderful words being said to me, wonderful melodies being given to me,” she says. “I stick with what I know.”

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She grew up in Orange, N.J., the oldest daughter of Mancel Warrick, a Pullman porter and jack-of-all-trades. (The family name was misspelled on her first single, and it stuck.) Her mother, Lee Drinkard, managed the Drinkard Singers, a family gospel-pop group that included Lee’s sister, Cissy Houston — Whitney’s mother.

“My father loved Nat King Cole, and my mother loved Dinah Washington,” Warwick says. As a child of the ’50s, she preferred Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, but she also admired her parents’ favorites.

“When people ask me, ‘How do you describe your music?,’ I say, ‘I don’t,’ ” she says. “That’s the beautiful part of it. I’m whatever the listening ear decides I am. If you think I’m jazz, I’m jazz. If you think I’m pop, I’m pop. If you think I’m R&B, I’m R&B. If you think I’m, you know, opera, then I’m opera.”

What she’s been since her breakthrough in the early 1960s, beginning with the wrenching declaration of independence that was “Don’t Make Me Over,” is one of popular music’s most elegant voices.

That voice has aged naturally, not drastically. “Like me, it has matured,” she says. “I don’t think I can still sing in the same range I did 50 years ago. I’d be crazy to think that. But I still have enough highs to do certain things vocally.”

Divorced since the 1970s, she’s a self-assured woman who speaks her mind. She has withstood financial mismanagement and a 2002 airport bust for possession of marijuana, among other setbacks. (“I call it ‘tobacco,’ ” she says with a laugh when asked about legalization.)

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After her valet died of AIDS in the 1980s, Warwick devoted herself to better understanding and awareness of the disease. President Ronald Reagan, who was criticized for his inaction on the epidemic, named her the nation’s ambassador of health.

“He avoided the word, even. And I got him to say it.”

With some help from her son, who has produced tracks for contemporary acts such as Pink and Destiny’s Child, she makes some concessions to modern pop on “She’s Back.” She duets, for instance, with Musiq Soulchild on “Am I Dreaming?” She didn’t know who he was until she met him in the studio.

Warwick lived for about 20 years in Brazil, moving back home over a decade ago to care for her ailing sister, fellow singer Dee Dee Warwick, and their mother.

Besides the sensual music in Brazil, she says, “they have something that was totally missing here in the United States — respect for elders, love of children. You get in an elevator here in the States and everyone looks at the numbers. You get in an elevator in Brazil and they say, ‘Good morning. Good afternoon. Bom dia.’

“It was just an overwhelming breath of fresh air, and I still find it there.”

Habitually composed, the six-time Grammy winner let down her guard one day a few months ago when the president of the Recording Academy called to let her know she’d been chosen as one of this year’s Lifetime Achievement winners.

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“I let out such a scream!” she says. While she’s thrilled to receive the award, she can’t pass up an opportunity to sass just a little.

“It took them long enough,” she says with another laugh.

Dionne Warwick

At the Cabot, 286 Cabot St., Beverly, June 28 at 8 p.m. Tickets: From $59.50, 978-927-3100, www.thecabot.org


James Sullivan can be reached at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.