The Prom Queen of Soul

Whitney Houston is sleek, sexy, successful -- and, surprise, she can sing

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Whitney Houston holds her award for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance at the 30th Annual Grammy Awards March 2, 1987

There she stands, Miss Black America. With her impeccable face, sleek figure and supernova smile, she looks like a Cosby kid made in heaven. She stirs sentiments not of lust but of protectiveness and awe; everybody around wants to adopt her, escort her or be her. And now this perfect creature picks up a microphone. Oh. You mean she sings too?

Oh, yes. Whitney Houston can sing, and not just too. Beneath the Tiffany wrapping lie the supplest pipes in pop music. Her precocity and virtuosity, her three-octave range and lyrical authority, are, at 23, scary. She can switch moods without stripping emotional gears, segueing from a raunchy growl to an angelic trill in a single line -- no sweat. She coaxes the back-street torch song Saving All My Love for You until the song's Other Woman sounds like a little girl lost in faded rapture. She stands up to the string section in that anthem of enlightened egotism, Greatest Love of All, finding the prettiest weave of velvet and voltage. Then the synthesized percussion starts blasting, and she escalates into purring teen ecstasy for How Will I Know and her new hit I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me). This is infectious, can't-sit-down music, and her performance dares the listener not to smile right back.

Just about everybody has bought the smile and the sound. Whitney Houston, her first album, has sold more than 13 million copies worldwide to become the best-selling debut in history, garnering the singer a Grammy and seven American Music Awards. And now, as she kicks off a summer-long tour of 45 concerts, she has done it again. Her new collection, Whitney, made pop-music history as the first album by a female singer to debut at No. 1 on Billboard's pop chart. The album's first single, I Wanna Dance with Somebody, scampered to the top of eight different Billboard hit lists, from Adult Contemporary to Crossover and from West Germany to Australia. Her "birth-to-death demographics" attract nearly every music listener and a few who just watch. "She can get the kids on the dance floor," says Narada Michael Walden, who produced I Wanna Dance and six other cuts on her new album, "then turn around and reach your grandmother."

Grandma better get ready to boogie. From the very first cascading wooooo! on I Wanna Dance, the new album showcases a Whitney Houston who sings bolder, blacker, badder. This Whitney doesn't just want to dance with somebody, she wants "to feel the heat with somebody," and the vocal scorches. The rest of the album -- a mixture of party songs and love songs -- displays its star's subtler readings, greater vocal nuance, more dynamism and control. On the jazzy ballad Just the Lonely Talking, she eases into an adventurous scat duet with an alto sax. But she can still sing it straight and sweet, as in Michael Masser's romantic elegy Didn't We Almost Have It All, an instant standard with a spiraling melodic line.

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