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Whitney Houston In Concert hide

Whitney Houston, the statuesque young belter who could become the queen of soul of the 80's, will graduate from clubs to Carnegie Hall tonight in a sold-out concert. The performance will be a homecoming for a singer who by birth and training is heir to the pop-gospel tradition of Aretha Franklin, Dionne Warwick and Valerie Simpson.

Eight months ago, the 22-year-old performer, who is the daughter of the gospel singer Cissy Houston and the first cousin of Dionne Warwick, released her debut album, "Whitney Houston," on Arista Records. The record, which is currently No. 3 on Billboard's pop album chart, has already sold 2 million copies. Weekly album sales continue to average around 100,000. Two singles from the album - "You Give Good Love" and "Saving All My Love for You" -each have sold more than 750,000 copies. Both tunes are solid if unremarkable commercial ballads made extraordinary by Miss Houston's fire-and-steel voice. In her hands, they transcend romantic cliches to become hymns of faith in a love that goes beyond the secular.

No Sacred-Secular Conflict

Miss Houston, who has performed here at such clubs as the Horn of Plenty, the Bottom Line and Sweetwater's, possesses one of her generation's most powerful gospel-trained voices, but she eschews many of the churchier mannerisms of her forerunners. She uses ornamental gospel phrasing only sparingly, and instead of projecting an earthy, tearful vulnerability, communicates cool self-assurance and strength, building pop ballads to majestic, sustained peaks of intensity. And unlike many of her elders, she sees no conflict between the sacred and the secular ends of music.

"Whether it's gospel, pop, rhythm and blues, soul or jazz, singing is about feeling," Miss Houston said last week. "Although I started singing in the church choir when I was 7, it wasn't until I was 12 or 13 that I realized I was a singer and that this gift God gave me was something I could spread around."

Born in Newark and brought up in East Orange, N.J., Miss Houston lives in an apartment in Woodbridge, N.J., when she is not on the road. Poised and aristocratically good looking, she also enjoys a second career as fashion model. But when she is home, she still finds the time to sing at the New Hope Baptist Church in Newark, where her mother has been "music minister" for many years. Her father is the administrative secretary of the central planning board in Newark.

Influence of Gospel

"I grew up in the church, and gospel music has always been the center of our lives," Miss Houston said. "At family celebrations, we always end up sitting around the piano and singing. I couldn't get enough of gospel music when I was growing up."

While growing up Miss Houston also spent many hours in the recording studio with her mother, who led Aretha Franklin's backup group, the Sweet Inspirations, at some of the most important soul-music recording sessions of the 1960's.

"I was only 6 or 7 at the time and didn't realize history was being made - I just loved the way 'Aunt Ree' sang and how she made people feel," Miss Houston said. "Dionne was a legend when I was growing up and has always been like a second mother. But my mom has been my biggest influence. Everything she knows physically and mentally about singing she has passed on to me, and she taught me everything I know about the technology of the recording studio and about the business."

Sang at Mother's Side

Miss Houston's show-business career has received unusually careful nurturing from both her family and her record company. While in her early teens, she began singing backup vocals with her mother on recording sessions for Chaka Khan, Lou Rawls and others. At 15, she started singing in clubs with her mother, who allowed her to do first one, then two, then several solos in her act. Before long, they were headlining together.

Clive Davis, the president of Arista Records, saw her for the first time when she was 19 1/2, at Sweetwater's on Manhattan's Upper West Side, and signed her to the label with the understanding that he would take a strong supervisory role in her career. Mr. Davis, who has overseen the commercial resurgence of Aretha Franklin's and Dionne Warwick's recording careers on the label, is known in the business as a "song man," with an ear for commerical ballads. Before she went into the studio, Mr. Davis introduced her personally on "The Merv Griffin Show" as the inheritor of the mantle of pop-gospel singing. Then he took her to Los Angeles and arranged a nonpaying music industry showcase to which he invited many of the top commercial songwriters and producers who contributed to her album. The album was recorded painstakingly over a year and a half at a cost of $270,000, well above the average budget of a pop album.

"The album expresses a lot of who I am," Miss Houston said. "I consider myself a mature person, although I still have a little-kid streak in me. I am also a perfectionist and my own worst critic. I believe that God is responsible for everything that has happened to me. At the same time, it all goes to show that hard work does pay off."

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