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Whitney Houston was only 23 years old when she dazzled Toronto. Nearly 25,000 fans gathered at Toronto's Canadian National Exhibition Grandstand to hear the star performer. (Edward Regan/Edward Regan / The Globe and Mail)
Whitney Houston was only 23 years old when she dazzled Toronto. Nearly 25,000 fans gathered at Toronto's Canadian National Exhibition Grandstand to hear the star performer. (Edward Regan/Edward Regan / The Globe and Mail)

Music

Looking back: Whitney's big 'terrifying' voice, in the early days Add to ...

The Globe’s Liam Lacey met Whitney just as she hit the mainstream in 1985. A look back at his impressions. From April 24, 1985

The latest vocal sensation in mainstream pop is a 21-year-old singer from East Orange, N.J., by the name of Whitney Houston. First cousin to Dionne Warwick and daughter of gospel singer Cissy Houston, Whitney was already established as a fashion model, a critic's darling of the New York cabaret scene, and a high-profile back-up singer, before she released her self- titled debut album on Arista this year.

The album, which includes duets with Teddy Prendergrass and Jermaine Jackson, (who is also one of four producers on the album) is a deliberately mainstream record, and according to some reports, it is not a full indication of her real depth as a singer. New York reviewers, who have watched her grow up, have compared the room-filling vocal powers to those of Barbra Streisand and Aretha Franklin. Despite some mediocre material on the album, Houston's pipes are unquestionably great: free from affectation, clear and effortlessly powerful.

Arista Records, under the guidance of president Clive Davis, has taken the launching of Whitney Houston as its major project of 1985. On Monday, RCA-Canada (which distributes Arista) brought her to Toronto for interviews and a short showcase at the Club Bluenote. Houston came on stage in a pink gown with lots of fringes, and sang five songs (to back-up tapes) for the audience, which consisted entirely of media representatives.

The set-up wasn't exactly satisfying, but it did allow Houston to show off a voice that can scale mountains, turn somersaults and float down to soft landings. Her vocal quality suggests she has a "magic control knob" in her larynx: with no discernible physical effort, the voice make startling leaps in volume.

Houston seems an uncomplicated girl as she sits, diminutive and fawn- like, in a hotel room. She is dressed in faded blue- jeans and a loose, grey sweater. While watching the blatantly erotic video of her hit, You Give Good Love - in which Hustoun and a photographer have a suggestive encounter (the photographer with his zoom lens, the singer with her microphone) - she laughs and describes it as "cute." She learned to sing in a church choir, although since age 12, when "I first decided I wanted to do this as a profession," she has performed back-up in the studio, on her mother's records. More recently, she has served as a back-up vocalist on records by Chaka Khan, The Neville Brothers, Teddy Prendergrass, Lou Rawls and Michael Masser, and the avant- garde funk collective, Material.

The voice is a gift, she says, "a gift from God - but it's also a lot of work." At times, she admits, she has actually been afraid of her own vocal power. "The first time I did a solo - I was about 13. The choir master wanted me to do the solo, and I really didn't want to. Eventually, he made me do it, and I was terrified. I spent the whole time staring at this big clock in the church, just watching the hands and trying not to think of anything. When I finished, everyone was going crazy, laughing and cheering and crying. I couldn't figure out what the fuss was about. "Then when I got older, I discovered more things that my voice could do. My voice didn't really change too much in my teens; it just got better. I got a much stronger lower end, and I could sing higher as well. Sometimes, I got upset, wondering where it was going. I'd say to my mother: "When I do this, I want to cry, or when I sing this way, it sounds really strange. "She just laughed and said, 'Girl, you've got a lot of years ahead of you yet. Don't worry about it. Just let it go and see where it leads you.' "Now I'm looking forward to what it will sound like when I get older. I listen to my mother (a member of Aretha Franklin's back-up trio, The Sweet Inspirations), and her voice sounds better than ever, and Dionne (Warwick) is still sounding great. It's hard to learn, but this is just a gift, and I'm learning to stand back, let it go, and get out of the way."

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