WHEN Jennifer-Yvette Holliday was younger, she wanted to be a lawyer. But now she is 18 years old, is worried about making records, and says, "Maybe I'm destined to be a star".
That thought also may have occurred to audiences at the Warner Theater, where Holliday -- after years singing with Houston church choirs -- is making her professional stage debut in the production of "Your Arms Too Short to Box with God." In the first eight months of her career, she has drawn one rave notice after another. At the Warner, where the show has been extended a week, through Sept. 30, she usually gets a standing ovation after every song.
The climax of this supercharged musical -- in which melodious testimonials to the greatness of God and faith follow upon each other like converts flocking to the rail in a summer tent revival -- comes when Holliday sings a song called "I Love You So Much Jesus".
She lets out all the stops of her huge voice like the Washington Cathedral organ bursting into Bach at the end of morning prayer. Holliday, audiences agree, is more than just a singer. She is an experience, right out of the long gospel tradition of Bessie Smith, Mahalia Jackson, Clara Ward and Aretha Franklin.
Late one morning last week Holliday sat down over a breakfast of grapefruit, dry whole-wheat toast, iced tea and a poached egg to discuss the jolting effects of her instant success. It has brought her, in little more than a year, from the senior class of Houston's High School of Engineering Professions, where she was student council president, to adulation in one of the more enduring musicals of recent years.
After ordering her meal, she felt compelled to explain shyly, "Normally I would eat a different breakfast, but I'm dieting, I don't want to get any bigger."
Asked what kind of breakfast she prefers, she replied straightforwardly, "Fried chicken, grits and Coca-Cola." Coke is my favorite beverage in the United States and the whole world. And I used to work at Popeye's Fried Chicken in Houston."
Touring with the production, things like Coke and fried chicken matter a lot to the young woman who has been taken away from her home for the first extended period in her life. For eight months she has been separated from family and old friends.
"I still get a little homesick. So during the first week we were playing in Detroit, I went to a place called the Puppy Palace and bought a Pekingese, which I named 'Coke' [after Coca-Cola]. I needed something to love.
"All the time we were in Detroit, I was housebreaking him and training him and loving him. And my friend Michael Powell [a piano player with the show] went out and bought a case for Coke to travel in. Then I went to the store and got some paint and painted the Coca-Cola logo on each side of the case."
Asked it she excels at the visual arts as well, Holliday explains, "I'm a Libra, and Libras are talented. They can do a lot of things."
Holliday's vocal talents were nurtured in those traditional training grounds of the gospel singer, the black churches -- specifically, in this case, the black Baptist churches of Houston. Gospel historian Tony Heilbut explains, "You start pretty young, usually when your mother takes you to church and starts clapping your hands for you. Before long those free, almost anarchistic cadences and rhythms are party of our system."
Holliday recalls that "I started out in the choir of the Garden of Gethsemane Baptist Church, and when I was in the fifth grade I became a soloist there.After that my family was in the Tabernacle Baptist Church.
"And then, when I was in the eighth grade, a young man came to me and asked, 'How would you like to be on television?' That turned out to be an offer from the Pleasant Grove Missionary Baptist Church, which is quite a large church. It's the biggest black Baptist church in Houston. Right now they are raising $2 million for a new building.
"That was a great opportunity for me, because their Sunday morning service is televised every week. It's really one of the places to be. That was my first time in the lights, and before long I was well known around Houston."
Holliday's style of singing was carved out by instinct in those years in the choir stalls. She did not take well to formal training. "I took music in junior high school, but I got out because I had a lot of trouble with music teachers. They wanted me to sing the notes and no more. But I wanted to sing it in my own style, the gospel style. They would always want me to give more vibrato and things like that. So I would always get Cs in music. Otherwise I would make good grades. I was bright."
Her style follows the classic gospel pattern, as Heilbut describes it; "Much of what gospel singers do is irregular. They're often off the beat. And they will play with note values. And the range is enormous. It is the music of male sopranos and female basses."
No wonder the Holliday voice -- as well as her style -- must have been a formidable force for her teachers to contend with. What it lacks in subtlety it makes up for in size and presence. Likewise, her range is remarkable. She says, "I can sing anything from deep bass to soprano. I think they call it contralto."
She is asked to compare her voice with that of Aretha Franklin, whom she calls "my idol." "My voice is heavier, I have picked up some of her techniques and tricks, but my style is gutsier. I think anything I do will have more of a gospel flavor." She has never met Franklin, although she says, "We were performing in Detroit when she came back there after her father was shot. And I was really hoping she would come and see the show, but I don't think she ever did."
For all her natural talent, Holliday maintains she did not take the prospect of a singing career seriously until this past year. "It was not my interest. I wanted to be a lawyer. I guess that was because of of the influence of Barbara Jordan," also from Houston. Meanwhile, after high-school graduation, she was living with her mother "trying to help out with the family while she taught school. She worked to see that even though I didn't have a father I had everything I wanted. We weren't rich and I don't think we would be upper middle class, just middle class."
That career course was suddenly altered last December when actor James Patterson came to Houston with the national company of "A Chorus Line." He spotted Holliday in a semiprofessional production of "Don't Bother Me, I Can't Cope," another musical creation of Vinnette Carroll, the author and director of "Your Arms Too Short To Box With God." Holliday was sent off to auditions in New Yrok and passed with flying colors. The opening was in Artford in late winter.
Holliday's immediate future is set. After the Washington run, there is Philadelphia, where she will celebrate her 19th birthday. And after that will be six months in Los Angeles.After that she would like to perform in a musical such as "A Chorus Line," which was the first musical she ever saw. "I think I could sing that kind of song," she says. "After all, I'm a singer and as far as I can tell I'm a pretty good singer." She also likes to act and would like to try plays and the movies. "Vinnette says to me, 'You could be a bit theater star. Take speech and dance to build up your energies. And watch what you eat, to control your weight."
She is already worrying about the prospect of making records. "When we get to Los Angeles, I will probably be approached about making records. And I would really be in a bind, because I don't have an agent or a lawyer. There just wasn't time, This show got started so fast. I just don't know what to do."
Asked about the special impact she is having on audiences here, Holliday replies, "Well, I think that growing up in the church has given me a kind of fiery quality and they hear in it something that they connect with religion. It certainly is heartfelt."