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.
In March of ’85, Whitney’s powerful pipes would start to tear down the walls of radio segmentation. Cooing and belting her way through “You Give Good Love,” she attained the admirable feat of hitting #1 R&B and #3 Pop. Her enchanting performance of the romantic slow-jam, penned by R&B composer La La and produced by soul artist Kashif, opened the floodgates for big-voiced female R&B singers in the “crossover” market of the 1980′s and ’90s. Says Kashif, “Clive [had a lot of] insight to put Whitney and I together. We all need to know that it all starts with a great song, which La La wrote. Whitney and I both gained a lot from our collaboration. That song took my career to a whole new level and helped to cement my status as an elite producer. For that I am eternally grateful to Whitney.”
But Whitney’s impact did not stop there. Because of the talent Clive paired her with, Whitney also transformed the landscape of commercial R&B for further African-American songwriters and producers whose work had previously been overlooked by top-40 programmers. Narada Michael Walden, Preston Glass, and LeMel Humes are just a few of the talents who would benefit from this association. Following “You Give Good Love,” her reading of the smoky R&B ballad “Saving All My Love for You” topped the success of “You Give Good Love” by climbing to #1 on both the R&B and Pop charts. Subsequently, fans got a taste of Whitney’s prowess with uptempo grooves—first with “Thinking About You,” a funky number pushed mostly to R&B radio; then with the ebullient, hook-laden “How Will I Know,” another #1 success on both the pop and R&B charts.
The dawning of 1986 would forever secure Whitney’s prominent place in universal pop culture and the lives of countless millions. “Greatest Love of All,” a Michael Masser-Linda Creed composition first recorded by George Benson in 1977, was selected as the final single from Whitney’s self-titled debut album. Aside from staying atop the pop charts for three weeks and hitting #3 R&B, Whitney’s incomparable reading of the self-love anthem became the soundtrack to graduations and celebrations of achievements everywhere. From her sparkling diction, to her passionate delivery of the song’s chorus, up to her spine-tingling, sustained closing note, she ingrained the empowering words of “Greatest” into the hearts of sentient beings aged one to 100. In the accompanying music video, she displayed a graceful stage presence and striking loveliness which furthered her reach and significance to people of all nationalities. At age 8, this writer was so inspired by all aspects of her performance that it became a mandate to perform my own rendering of the song at all family functions and get-togethers with friends. That was on top of singing the song in summer-camp choir and walking to the tune of Whitney’s recording at elementary-school awards ceremonies!
Whitney Houston would go on to sell 13 million copies in the U.S. alone, while achieving gold, platinum, or multi-platinum status in an additional 15 countries. It also garnered Whitney over 20 prestigious awards, including Grammy’s, American Music Awards, and the People’s Choice. But Whitney did not rest on her laurels. She kept the momentum going with her simply titled sophomore set, Whitney. I can still remember the excitement of seeing the premiere of the music video for “I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me),” the album’s lead-off single. Although the tune and arrangement (courtesy of Narada Michael Walden) bore some similarity to “How Will I Know,” the overall sound was considerably groovier and spunkier than the softer ballads with which many had begun to associate Whitney. The video added to that new energy with Whitney trying a few of her own dance moves and a fun supporting cast. As a second-grader, I called the local record shop with that same energy the day before the album’s release to make sure there would be a copy for me when school was dismissed.
The happening of Whitney’s concert at The Scope in Norfolk, Virginia forever immortalized my ninth birthday—as I’m sure it forever made a landmark of that day for all in attendance. While I was in school, my dad had stood outside the box office for hours to ensure good tickets—third row! The whole experience of a stadium concert was totally new and overwhelming for me, but I remember being in awe of the sheer elegance and power Whitney let shine through in that concert. It was as if the performances on the Whitney LP—”Love Will Save the Day,” “Where Do Broken Hearts Go,” and “Didn’t We Almost Have It All”—were reflective of only one aspect of her vocal abilities. In concert, she presented another dimension with a further glimpse into her gospel upbringing via improvised melodies and unexpected phrasing. Paired with delightful glamour and refined stage mannerisms unscathed by negative forces in the music industry, her indisputable musical talent was magnified even further.
Whitney was the first-ever album by a female artist to debut at number one on Billboard’s Top Pop Albums chart. When all was said and done, it moved nine million units in the U.S. and obtained platinum (or better) certification in ten additional countries. The follow-up album, 1990′s I’m Your Baby Tonight, came close to duplicating this success; but it was by way of a notable career transition in 1992 through which Whitney would achieve her greatest success ever. Co-starring alongside Kevin Costner in the action film The Bodyguard, she recorded half of the movie’s original soundtrack. A heart-wrenching cover of Dolly Parton’s 1974 country hit, “I Will Always Love You” served as the theme song, breaking world records by staying at number one for fourteen weeks on Billboard’s Pop Singles chart. She won Grammy’s, MTV Movie, and Soul Train Music Awards—to name a few—in the process. The soundtrack’s momentum continued for over a year after the movie’s release with long-running hit singles such as “I Have Nothing,” “Run to You,” and “I’m Every Woman” (originally recorded by Chaka Khan).
Following The Bodyguard, Whitney would star in and record songs for the films Waiting to Exhale and The Preacher’s Wife,, collectively racking up over 10 million album sales stateside alone. With her focus having shifted to acting and soundtracks for much of the ’90s, many questioned if Whitney could make a “comeback” with her next studio album, 1998′s My Love Is Your Love. She soon silenced all doubts when the album achieved quadruple-platinum status in the U.S. and scored five worldwide hit singles: “When You Believe” (which paired her with a singer she greatly influenced, Mariah Carey), “Heartbreak Hotel,” “It’s Not Right But It’s Okay,” “I Learned from the Best,” and the title track.
By the time Whitney was into worldwide touring and support of My Love Is Your Love, tabloid commentary on her personal life began to take unfortunate precedence over her music. Beginning with her 1992 marriage to R&B singer Bobby Brown, there was increasing attention to her affairs outside of the entertainment industry—a habit which prompted her to record “In My Business” on My Love. Negative publicity peaked with embarrassing interviews during which an often rude, sometimes seemingly under-the-influence Whitney struggled to keep her private life out of the limelight. She remained quiet on the entertainment front for several years after, in attempts to sort out some of the personal issues on her own time. It wouldn’t be until late 2002, in fact, when she would finally release her next album, Just Whitney. Some of her negative experiences with the media were reflected in the lyrics to songs here, including “Whatchulookinat.” To many critics and some fans, this was to the detriment of the album’s musical merit. Many journalists wrote that Whitney had passed her vocal prime. Missed gigs and live performances in which she didn’t seem to give 100% also had fans wondering if she had lost the magic.
In 2004, many of Whitney’s personal travails became even more public by way of the reality TV show, Being Bobby Brown. Episodes of the series showing Whitney behaving erratically, coupled with a growing list of cancelled concerts and speculation by industry insiders, were part of a downward spiral for her. Family and friends intervened, with cousin Dionne Warwick and Natalie Cole joining Whitney for the “Soul Divas Tour” in 2004 as a sisterly, therapeutic effort to help her get her life back on track. In 2007, after 15 years of marriage to Bobby Brown—which she would later describe as abusive and drug-laden in an interview with Oprah Winfrey, her petition for divorce was granted. Although health struggles continued as a result of drug abuse, intervention by her mother, Cissy, seemed to help get her back on track. Finally, by 2009, she was back in the studio, recording I Look to You, which marked the comeback of a sober Whitney who seemed more in control of her career again. Aided by her mentor, Clive Davis, she went on to promote and tour in support of the album worldwide, with singles such as “Million Dollar Bill” and “I Didn’t Know My Own Strength” reconnecting her with her loyal fanbase.
In spite of negative response to concerts on her 2010 “Nothing But Love” tour, Whitney remained active through a variety of performances, highlighted by a duet with gospel singer Kim Burrell on BET’s “Celebration of Gospel” TV special in January, 2011. Whitney was starting to sound like Whitney again. A few months later, there was a publicized rehab stint for drugs and alcohol; but she was frequently seen about looking in better health, and even mentioned plans for her next studio album.
As of this writing, the cause and details of Whitney’s death on February 11, 2012, are not confirmed. It seems likely that the years-long struggles with drugs may have played some role. Whether that is the case or not, Whitney’s passing at the young age of 48 is tragic on several levels. Musically speaking, Whitney not only broke color and gender lines on pop radio and in pop culture worldwide. With her no-holds-barred soulful delivery, she single-handedly converted the idea of a long vocal career built on power-ballads from a mere concept to a highly marketable, universally appealing career option which many artists have subsequently employed to great fame. Were it not for Whitney’s readings of “Greatest Love of All,” “All At Once,” and “Didn’t We Almost Have It All,” would Celine Dion have taken off in the U.S. in the early ’90s? Would Mariah Carey have been given a second thought at radio when she debuted with the church-infused “Vision of Love”? In the personal realm, the loss is truly even more of a case of “Heartbreak Hotel.” With a one-of-a-kind musical gift that could move the masses, it’s hard to accept that the vices and pressures of an industry that is often opposite in nature to the art it promotes diminished the value of that gift for Whitney herself. Fame takes a huge toll on many celebrities. But when it has the power to overtake one’s entire spirit and take away the innate talent responsible for that fame in the first place, isn’t the price way too high?