Just when you’re foolish enough to think you’ve heard everything, along comes a young female black singer to make you excited again about music.

And no: We’re not talking about Whitney Houston.

Just when Houston is being hailed by many as the major new female pop vocalist of the ‘80s, along comes a formidable challenger. Indeed, Anita Baker is arguably the more compelling talent.

Tiny and small-boned, Baker, 28, has a strong voice with even more range and character than the younger Houston--and she displays keener instincts for challenging material.

At the Beverly Theatre on Saturday night, Baker also demonstrated more personality on stage than Houston. She knows how to put across an emotional, soul-drenched ballad like “Angel” or an exquisite, jazz-tinged vocal exercise like “Been So Long.”

Detroit-native Baker--whose sold-out engagement runs through Jan. 4--is no newcomer to performing. She grew up singing in storefront churches and by age 16 was appearing professionally in small clubs. She sang for a few years with a hard-core Detroit funk band called541288545(both as a member of that group and as a soloist) with small, independent labels.


But it wasn’t until last spring that Baker captured broad-scale media and public attention.

Backed at the Beverly by a hard-driving 10-piece band and the Perri Sisters vocal quartet, Baker sailed through a beautiful assortment of songs from “Songstress,” the 1983 album that received little airplay other than on black stations, and “Rapture,” the 1986 LP that has been a hit on both black and Top 40 radio formats.

Wearing a flowing, near-transparent white dress, Baker didn’t just rely on the music. Her dance moves--which appear a bit self-conscious in her videos--lent a natural, emotion-charged punctuation to “Watch Your Step,” on which her movements seemed synchronized with saxophonist Donald Albright’s muscular and assertive approach.

Baker is an ‘80s-styled sex symbol, causing several well-tailored men in the audience to abandon their polished cool Saturday to jump to their feet and call out her name.

Just as male artists like Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye and Teddy Pendergrass won female fans on the strength of their suave good looks and ultra-romantic musical style, Baker’s warm, sensual vocals place her solidly in territory reserved for soul music’s love purveyors.

There’s an “aren’t-I-lucky?” joyousness to Baker’s manner onstage. She greets fans bearing flowers with kisses and a hearty embrace. Her enthusiasm seems uncontrived, and when she includes a mid-'70s hit by the Emotions (“Blessed”) in her set, the song is as much a testimony to her own new across-the-board success as it is to that tune’s enduring charm.

The songs Baker truly takes command of are the ones she wrote (“Sweet Love,” “Been So Long,” “Watch Your Step”), although the high point of the evening was her rendition of pop writer David Lasley’s “You Bring Me Joy.”

Performed early in her set, the song’s sweet-natured grace showed off Baker’s flair for melodies that require a subtle, mood-inducing touch. Soul-based pop is definitely making a comeback and Baker is in the forefront of that movement.

Baker’s ascension to the top of the pop music world this year has been an intriguing thing to see; that she has done it while maintaining her own high standards and musical integrity is especially commendable.

Opening act Durell Coleman, a “Star Search” alumnus, has a Jeffrey Osborne-ish vocal style that’s even grittier and more soul-edged. Coleman sang a song, “With Love,” that Osborne gave him, but he was even more effective on the Percy Sledge hit that’s become his own signature tune, “When a Man Loves a Woman.”