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MELI’SA CARVES OUT HER OWN POP NICHE

“Isn’t that Whitney Houston?” a male teen-ager said excitedly to a female friend as they walked by a tall, attractive, young black woman in a short, skin-tight red dress who was posing for pictures in a hotel lobby. “That’s her, I’m sure of it.”

About a minute later, a short, elderly man watching the same photo session argued with a woman companion: “You’re wrong. That is Whitney Houston. If that’s not her, I’m Barry Manilow.” The woman whisked him away before he could ask for an autograph.

Several others observing that brief early afternoon photo session at the Marriott near LAX figured the tall woman was Whitney Houston. Actually, the statuesque singer they were buzzing about is a 22-year-old newcomer named Meli’sa Morgan. On her way from San Francisco back home to New York, she detoured here for a few hours for this Calendar interview.

During lunch, Morgan, who was relaxed, friendly and very talkative, said she doesn’t particularly like being mistaken for Houston--whom she really does resemble, by the way.

“It doesn’t happen that often that people approach me as if I was Whitney,” explained Morgan, who sang backup vocals on a song on Houston’s big hit album. “Possibly many more people think I’m Whitney, but they don’t come up to me and ask for an autograph--Whitney’s autograph. I remember at the Grammys, people thought I was Whitney.

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“I want to be recognized for what I do, not for looking like somebody. But the tables will turn one day. People will look at her and say, ‘Isn’t that Meli’sa Morgan?’ Of course, I have to get famous first.”

Morgan is poised on the threshold of fame. Her first single, the Prince composition “Do Me Baby,” dominated the black charts and was a modest pop chart success. Her remake is even sexier than the Prince original. The single comes from her debut album, “Do Me Baby"--on Capitol Records--that’s faring well on the pop charts. It’s No. 41, impressive for a first album and particularly impressive for a debut album by a black female artist.

Morgan is part of a wave of young black female singers who are having unprecedented success. In the past, it was considered a good year if one black woman singer surfaced and was fairly successful. But last year, with Houston and Sade recording smash hit debut albums, was remarkable.

With all due respect to Houston and Sade, Morgan may be the best young soul singer in the business. With her sultry, smoldering style she falls somewhere between super-soulful Chaka Khan and pop-oriented Houston. Morgan’s appeal is rooted in her knack for saturating a song with passion and sensuality. Though she can capably handle up-tempo funk, she’s at her best when pouring her soul into a ballad.

Morgan is also a composer, co-writing seven of the album’s eight songs. “I’ve been writing since I was 14,” said Morgan, who spent two years in her late teens studying music theory at the prestigious Juilliard School of Music. “I do lyrics and melodies. I have so much to learn about songwriting that it scares me sometimes. I want to be good--great even. I’m far from that now.”

There’s more. Morgan produces too. With 25-year-old songwriting partner Lesette Wilson, Morgan co-produced most of her album. How did they persuade Capitol to give them a shot at producing? Few women get involved in producing, let alone rookie black women singers with no producing experience. “I had to fight to get to produce,” she said. “Capitol didn’t understand. They were going to let Lesette produce because she has some experience. But they didn’t want me to do it because they said I was busy enough with the singing and songwriting. Plus I didn’t have any experience. But I wouldn’t accept that. I had exposure to producing, enough to know I could do it. My attitude was that if they wanted those songs to be recorded, they had to let me be involved in producing them. I just wouldn’t take no for an answer.”

Morgan talks in a hoarse, husky voice that, she’s often told, magnifies her sex appeal. Discussing that sex appeal, a crucial aspect of her overall appeal, bothered her.

“I like to think it’s my music that attracts people, not how I look,” she explained. “I know if I couldn’t sing or write very well, people wouldn’t be interested in me, no matter how good they say I look.”

Though it would seem that men would be lined up at her door, she claimed that’s not so. “Maybe they’re intimidated by me,” she said. “But I’m not looking for men anyway. I want to concentrate on my career. A relationship would just get in the way.”

Morgan, who looks gentle and innocent, warned that her demeanor is somewhat misleading: “Nobody pushes me around. I don’t let it happen. I’m not super-tough and I’m not hard-as-nails. But I am aggressive when I have to be. I’m not dumb. I look and listen and learn. You get trampled in this business if you don’t. I know what I want and I go after it.”

For one thing, Morgan demands to be treated like a star in many circumstances: “When I go to a hotel, I should have a suite, not just a hotel room. That’s not asking too much. After all, I had a No. 1 record (on the black charts). My status is higher. There are certain things I deserve. I’m not a nobody anymore.”

Morgan, who grew up in New York, polished her singing style doing backup vocals on recording sessions and in concert. Her first job was touring with Chaka Khan. Later she went on the road with budding R&B; star Kashif. Studio assignments with Kashif, Houston and Melba Moore followed before her management company, Hush Productions, landed her a deal with Capitol Records.

“I learned a lot about discipline when I was a backup singer,” she recalled. “You really need discipline and control. You have to know what your voice can do and know how to use it just right.”

Though Morgan has no immediate plans to tour, she’s eager to perform again. Before concentrating on backup singing, she had considerable club experience. “Singing in the background is easier,” she said. “When I was doing it, I wanted to be out front, in the spotlight. I always felt that’s where I belonged.”


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