How does the world comprehend a loss of such magnitude as Whitney Houston? There's no denying that we've lost a multitude of legendary musical talents over the last decade. Somehow, though, losing Whitney Houston feels like the first huge loss of an artist whose music I grew up with. As a child of elementary-school age in the mid-1980's, my musical tastes were heavily driven to the rhythm and soul of popular African-American artists. Thus, I spent far more hours watching BET's Video Soul and Video Vibrations music-video programs than I did MTV. Mind you, this was before the latter network gave black artists—save for another great legend lost, Michael Jackson—any noteworthy airtime in their rotations. BET filled that void by showcasing the gamut of R&B singers fortunate enough to be financed with promotional music videos. Whitney Houston changed that pattern. Just as I was entering kindergarten, she was making her debut.
As I would learn many years later, the New Jersey native had actually begun honing her chops as a professional singer during the late '70s. Starting on record with a lead vocal appearance on the fun disco number, "Life's a Party," she graced the title track to an album by Michael Zager, who had produced a big hit for Whitney's mom Cissy called "Think It Over." Springing from that, Whitney would appear over the next few years in this lead role on projects by disco and funk producers ranging from the cutting-edge Material to disco royalty, the late Paul Jabara. But it was via two duets in 1984 that the public started to become aware of this talent who dazzled with both her awesome voice and awe-inspiring beauty—first with Teddy Pendergrass on "Hold Me," then with Jermaine Jackson on "Nobody Loves Me Like You Do." For the latter, she joined Jackson on the massively popular daytime soap opera, As the World Turns.
1985, however, would be a year of previously unscaled heights—both for Whitney and for many unsuspecting musical colleagues and listeners all over the world. While Diana Ross, along with The Supremes, had broken records two decades earlier as an African-American female artist crossing over to the pop charts with a pop sound, Whitney was about to do so with a sound firmly rooted in her Gospel roots. Since Arista Records founder Clive Davis had signed the 18-year-old singer and teen-magazine model in 1983 to an extensive record deal, he had been grooming her for success. Great care was taken in securing songs for her debut album which would not only resonate as pop classics, but also showcase Whitney's commanding vocal range and dynamic scope of emotion. Clive and Whitney also embarked on the challenging task of putting together a selection of tunes that would appeal to listeners of both black radio stations and white stations. That's right, this was indeed the "pre-Whitney" era during which both genre and racial lines were still clearly drawn on FM playlists.