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A Diva for the Ages: A Tribute to Whitney Houston

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Over 25 years ago, the young woman with the dazzling smile and bow atop her head dominated MTV. Dancing in a room adorned with bright colors, she seemed the picture of someone with a charmed life and a bright future.

On February 11, 2012, Whitney Houston’s successful career yet deeply troubled life came to a tragic end. According to People, members of Houston’s entourage found her lifeless body in her room at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, just hours before she was to perform at Clive Davis’ annual pre-Grammy party. As of this writing, the cause of death had not been determined.

In recent years, her tumultuous marriage to Bobby Brown, struggles with drugs, and erratic behavior overshadowed her powerful voice. By the time she reentered drug and alcohol rehab again in May 2011, it had become virtually impossible to reconcile the broken Houston with the youthful and vibrant woman from the “How Will I Know” video.

In 1985, Houston seemed destined for stardom—after all, she had vocalist Cissy Houston as a mother, Dionne Warwick as a cousin, and Aretha Franklin as her godmother. Showing great talent at an early age, Houston sang in the church, occasionally performed with her mother onstage, sang backup vocals on records for Lou Rawls and Chaka Khan, and modeled—all while she was a teenager. When legendary star-maker Davis saw Houston sing at a nightclub in the early eighties, he offered her a contract with his label Arista. Before Davis released her debut, she recorded a duet with Teddy Pendergrass; the track, “Hold Me,” received modest attention in 1984. But the best was yet to come.

It’s difficult to imagine now, but her 1985 self-titled debut album was not an instant smash; according to AllMusic, the first single, “Someone for Me,” bombed on the charts. But the second song, “You Give Good Love,” became a massive hit. “Saving All My Love for You” then cemented her place as Generation X’s Diana Ross, a beautiful diva with a phenomenal voice. Ultimately Whitney Houston sold 13 million copies, still a record for a debut by a female artist.

The hits just kept on coming with 1987s Whitney–”So Emotional,” “I Wanna Whitney HoustonDance with Somebody,” and “Where Do Broken Hearts Go” all furthered her squeaky-clean image. Other than the single “One Moment in Time,” recorded for the 1988 Olympics, she did not release another album until 1990 with the New Jack Swing-filled I’m Your Baby Tonight. While it spawned the successful title track and the hit “All the Man That I Need,” the album did not sell as well as its predecessors. Therefore Houston turned her attention to her burgeoning movie career, mainly releasing soundtrack albums for her films The Bodyguard, Waiting to Exhale, and The Preacher’s Wife. An exception was her rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” at the 1991 Super Bowl. Partially due to her vocals and partly due to the surge in patriotism during the Persian Gulf War, her live version was released as a single and actually reached the Top 20.

Her film debut, The Bodyguard, may have garnered mixed reviews, but became extremely popular with movie-going audiences. The album fared even better, with her rendition of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” becoming the song of 1992. However, her “all-American girl” image began showing some cracks around this time. First she admitted that she became pregnant during the filming. The father? Bad boy Bobby Brown, the ex-New Edition member that gained a reputation as a womanizer, world-class partier, and drug addict in addition to being an R&B star. As the public scratched their heads at this unlikely couple, the duo defied expectations by marrying in late 1992; Houston gave birth to their daughter, Bobbi Kristina, almost a year later.

Although she continued appearing in hit films and recorded some music, she never quite equaled her Bodyguard peak. Instead, Houston and Brown became the tabloids’ dream couple; Brown’s frequent arrests, rumors of the pair’s drug use, and tales of their marriage teetering on the verge of collapse began overshadowing her career. She did release a critically and commercial successful album, 1998’s My Love Is Your Love—her first full-length album in eight years—but soon her life seemed to spin out of control. A bizarre 2002 interview with Diane Sawyer found her somewhat admitting past drug use, but vehemently denied smoking crack–”crack is wack!” she exclaimed. Subsequently a disturbing 2003 Dateline NBC special, “Diva in the Desert,” depicted her alarmingly eccentric behavior and rocky marriage. Though she mounted a comeback, her 2002 release Just Whitney… sold three million copies, a disappointment for an artist at her level.

Fans hoped Houston was turning her life around when she separated from husband Brown in 2006; Davis stepped in, acting as a surrogate father and helming her next comeback. She released I Look to You in 2009, but it failed to generate any major hit singles. A subsequent world tour generated poor reviews due to her deteriorating voice, leading to its early cancellation. However, she was trying once again to return to the spotlight; her final film, a remake of Sparkle, will be released this summer.

A generation of divas, from Mary J. Blige to Mariah Carey to Beyoncé, owe their careers to Houston. Her frequent appearances on MTV helped break down barriers for African-American artists, and her gospel-enriched style of singing resonates from the charts to American Idol and Glee. As years pass, let’s hope that Whitney Houston will be remembered for her incredible voice, her feel-good songs, and her beauty rather than her troubled later life.

What follows is a playlist containing some of her best performances—some tracks are well-known, and others are “should have been” hits.

  • “Saving All My Love for You” (1985): This jazz-kissed ballad heralds the arrival of an 80s diva. Just listen to her belt out the line “Cause tonight is the night, for feeling all right,” and you’ll feel every ounce of passion the lyrics convey.
  • “Someone for Me” (1985): Her enthusiastic, young-sounding vocals encapsulate the lyrics’ universal theme: will the protagonist, a teenager, ever find Mr. Right?
  • “Thinking about You” (1985): Sure, she can sing ballads, but can she groove? This danceable track, written by R&B singer/songwriter Kashif, lets her sound sexy and ready to hit the dance floor.
  • “Love Will Save the Day” (1987): A guest appearance by vibraphone virtuoso Roy Ayers, along with interesting chord changes and Houston’s powerful vocals, elevates the track into realms of sophistication.
  • “For the Love of You” (1987): Her take on the Isley Brothers’ slow jam showcases the subtlety of her voice, which she should have featured more frequently.
  • “I’m Your Baby Tonight” (1990): Yes, most of the lyrics seem to consist of the word “baby.” Yet she proved she could ride New Jack Swing grooves as easily as any other style.
  • “Lover for Life” (1990): Similar to “For the Love of You,” Houston reveals a tender, almost delicate side to her voice.
  • “Miracle” (1990): This is a lovely ballad that she sings with conviction. Today, verses such as “I made a choice/ And today I pay/ My heart is full of pain” seem eerily prescient of her later troubles.
  • “I’m Every Woman” (1992): Normally only a foolhardy singer would take on Chaka Khan. Yet Houston’s rendition soars with her confidence and obvious love of the classic R&B tune.
  • “Exhale (Shoop Shoop)” (1995) – Houston underplays her vocals to great effect, helped along by Babyface’s typically smooth-as-glass production style.
  • “I Believe in You and Me” (1996): Here Houston demonstrates how she can turn what could have been a run-of-the-mill ballad into a dramatic showcase for a talented singer.
  • “Step by Step” (1996): Written by, of all people, Annie Lennox, this gospel workout feeds the soul and satisfies the spirit as well as the urge to dance.
  • “It’s Not Right But It’s Okay” (1998): A funky, slightly off-kilter beat anchors her soulful voice; when she ad-libs toward the end, she sounds like she’s having more fun than she has in ages.
  • “Heartbreak Hotel” (1998): No, this is not her take on the Elvis Presley classic; rather, it’s a tale of female empowerment, a 90s version of “I Will Survive,” with a little help from Kelly Price and Faith Evans.
  • “My Love Is Your Love” (1998): This Wyclef Jean-penned track represented a departure from Houston’s usual sound; instead, the reggae-tinged beat allows her to show some warmth and depth.
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About Kit O'Toole

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    Timely article, Ms O’Toole.

    Here’s the latest, Grammys Last-Minute Tribute.

  • Leroy

    “Diva?” I don’t think so. That’s just a promotional term thrown around carelessly by Hollywood PR agents and pop music promoters.

    Outside of Hollywood there was only one Diva: Maria Callas. Inside Hollywood everyone is a diva, rendering the term meaningless.

    Houston wasn’t really that good, anyhow. She was a creature of the Pop Hit machine, a showbiz automaton of money making cliches. Perhaps the hollow feeling of being a pumped up robot caused her malaise and death. PR kills.

  • http://www.kitotoole.com Kit O’Toole

    Thanks for the info, Roger! Very sad all around.

  • Joann

    Her earlier work is all I’ve heard, but your list of later highlights is intriguing–gospel written by Annie Lennox?!

  • http://www.kitotoole.com Kit O’Toole

    Yes, interesting, isn’t it, Joann? I was surprised myself. Apparently Lennox wrote and performed that song previously, then Houston rewrote some of the lyrics and rearranged the tune.