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Singer Houston Brings San Diego To Its Feet

December 02, 1985|By ROBERT HILBURN | Times Pop Music Critic

SAN DIEGO — Whitney Houston has three things that money can't buy a performer: a sensational voice, captivating poise and uncommonly good looks.

With all that going for her, it's no surprise that the public has been quick to declare her a star. Her debut album--which has spun off two Top 10 singles--has sold more than 2 million copies since its release last spring.

And Houston--still in her early 20s--is just as big a hit live. The audience at Golden Hall here Saturday night gave her one of the most enthusiastic standing ovations I've seen in ages.

In fact, the audience seemed drained. The show lasted about 75 minutes, but Houston used her voice so dramatically--moving in quick spurts from one intensity level to another--that it sometimes was breathtaking.

She didn't even need time to warm up. On the opening number, the daughter of singer Cissy Houston stretched the word "children" into all sorts of tuneful shapes.

Part of the impact is the suddenness of these vocal moves. Houston will start a line routinely, even start the word rather conventionally, then break away, increasing the volume threefold and holding a syllable for several seconds. So, children becomes chi-ILLLLLLLLLLLL-ILLLL-DDReeeen --or something like that.

It's called control, and Houston--who was also scheduled to appear Sunday night at the Universal Amphitheatre--has so much of it she can give you chills.

So should all other female pop vocalists simply chuck it in and give all the Grammys and Top 10 singles for the rest of the '80s to this newcomer?

Not yet. There's another quality that money can't buy for a singer and this one may be the most important of all: character. Or, if you prefer, soul.

It's hard to define character, but it has something to do with convincing the audience that you've lived the words you're singing. Think of Aretha Franklin, Janis Joplin, Tina Turner and Judy Garland--four singers who display enormous character in different ways.

Houston demonstrated painfully little character Saturday. Once you got past the dazzle of her vocal ability, you realized there was a gap. You didn't feel at the end of the evening that you learned anything about her--or yourself.

The best singers touch you in a way that invites you to relate your own experiences to theirs. Houston sings about all the familiar things--the absence of love, the searching for love, the disappointments of love. But it's colorless. There's little revelation or testimony.

Are we expecting too much? After all, she's still young. Doesn't it take time to develop character?

Not always. While some singers do gain authority over the years, most of the great ones seem to have an instinctive ability to convey their deepest emotions in a moving and meaningful way.

The biggest danger with someone like Houston is that she'll simply let the adulation and natural talent be ends in themselves.

One handicap is her material. Except for the recent hit, the seductive "Saving All My Love for You," the songs on her debut album are conventional tales that don't exactly inspire a singer to reach inside herself.

On the plus side Saturday, she put infinitely more punch into her live renditions than she displayed on the album. But, again, that was more a victory for technique than emotion.

The key is in finding better, more meaningful songs--and then convincing us she cares about them. There's a million stories out there, Whitney. Which ones really matter to you?

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