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

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Whitney's most meaningful cut has to be I Know Him So Well, a power-pop ballad from the Broadway-bound musical Chess, which she sings with her mother Cissy. In the song, a grandmaster's wife and mistress muse about being unable to fulfill his needs for fantasy and security; in this version, mother and daughter sing about a husband-father, and it makes for an electrifying duet. Throughout the album, the range and vocal glamour displayed offer testimony that Cissy's girl has grown up. Whitney marks graduation day for the prom queen of soul.

Houston's triumph is all the more impressive for the odds it bucked. Two years ago, she was an unknown, a background vocalist in a cheerleader's body. Moreover, of her first album's ten cuts, six were ballads. This chanteuse had to fight for air play with hard rockers. The young lady had to stand uncowed in the locker room of macho rock. The soul strutter had to seduce a music audience that anointed few black artists with superstardom.

Houston was no trailblazer. She was a phenomenon waiting to happen, a canny tapping of the listener's yen for a return to the musical middle. And because every new star creates her own genre, her success has helped other blacks, other women, other smooth singers find an avid reception in the pop marketplace. As Whitney, her own most dispassionate appraiser, told TIME Correspondent Elaine Dutka, "Here I come with the right skin, the right voice, the right style, the right everything. A little girl makes the crossover and VOOOM! it's a little easier for the others."

Her pedigree may have made it a little easier for her. As Walden notes, "Whitney comes from vocal royalty." Cissy Houston has been a fixture in gospel and pop for three decades. Dionne Warwick, who crafted a unique pop style before Whitney was born, is her cousin. Aretha Franklin, the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, is known as "Auntie Ree" around the Houston home. Clive Davis, the industry swami who revived Dionne's and Aretha's fortunes when he signed them for his Arista Records, spent two years preparing each of Whitney's albums.

To her admirers, Houston's success represents an overdue vindication of that neglected American institution, the black middle class. Here is a morality play with a happy ending: two strong, affectionate parents nurturing their talented daughter toward the show-biz dream of fame without pain. To scoffers in the rock critical Establishment, though, the 5-ft. 8-in., 115-lb. beauty is a black Barbie doll. To them, Whitney's voice, so willing to roam through the breadth of pop music, shows no emotional depth; they find the selection of her songs bland and timid.

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