WHITNEY HOUSTON’S VOCAL CHORDS WERE BUILT BY God. Most of us get chords made by angels on the assembly line. For Whitney, He took His time, handcrafting gold-plated pipes with precision, all just to show off how bad He is. God blessed her not just with once-in-a-generation talent but also a family that could give her expert tutelage. Her mother Cissy Houston is a gospel legend; her cousin Dionne Warwick is a soul legend; and her longtime family friend Aretha Franklin is a soul goddess. As a teen, Whitney toured with another goddess: Chaka Khan. Whitney was also blessed with great historical timing. Like Michael Jackson, she was born during the Civil Rights Movement and became a solo star during the affirmative action-powered ’80s. They were both summa cum laude graduates of Black Music University, able to take all the sonic knowledge that the elders had acquired over the years and unleash it at a moment when crossover was no longer a dirty word, and powerful White men were willing to apply all their marketing might to selling attractive, young Black talent around the globe. Thus, they both became two of the biggest stars the world has ever known.
Houston was a pop star—a supernova, really—whose music was infused with a gospel sensibility, a jazzy underpinning and a soulful power, as well as an operatic range that’s able to take us from angelic delicacy to open-throat belting, and great shifts in tone or force with ease. She sang with poise—like a great athlete who can run fast while appearing not to expend much energy. That elegance became emblematic of the glitzy ’80s and the classy Black excellence that ran rampant on the cultural stage. ?love told me, “She had the soul of mustard greens but the presentation of sautéed broccoli. She was cosmopolitan model material with Chitlin’ Circuit flavor.” All that flavor, talent and class led to Whit-ney defining the category of the Modern Diva Queen: the woman who pretty much just stands there and sings. Sure, that kind of persona existed long before her, but Whitney emerged in the era of MTV, when staging was more about dancing, lasers and branding. Whitney’s success showed that a great voice could be the sole selling point. Several women—her musical daughters, if you will— emerged in her wake to follow her ex-ample: Mariah, Beyoncé, Adele, Mary J. Blige, Christina Aguilera, Jennifer Hudson and others. None could sing as well as she did, partly because most lacked the God-given gold-plated pipes. The few who did have that special dispensation didn’t learn a key lesson that Whitney took to heart: You shouldn’t sing to show us how well you can sing. You should sing in service of the song. Whitney was never a showboat doing vocal gymnastics for the sake of it. She used her prodigious talent to make us feel the words, never reaching for unnecessary ornamentation. She had the range, the style, the technical prowess and the emotional sensibility to be the consummate singer’s singer; to be the greatest singer of her time. Here are her 10 greatest songs.
10 “I’m Your Baby Tonight”
Most of this top 10 is composed of ballads because that’s where great singers really shine, but Whitney’s up-tempo songs show her genius, too. I could’ve chosen “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” but this song fills us with a sense of the way that new love infuses people with soaring confidence. I love the arrangement and the jazzy phrasing, the quick cascade of words as she flows through the verses and the ease with which she transitions into singing more quickly or slowly or loudly or softly. Whitney’s way with transitions is one of the most elegant elements of her style.
9 “Run to You”
A tragic love story, but not a tragic song. The character has her life together, except in the romance department. She’s a successful woman who’s manless: “Each day I play the role of someone always in control,” she sings. “But at night, I come home and turn the key. There’s nobody there. No one cares for me.” Whitney sings of wanting love desperately without making the character sound desperate because the bravura vocal performance—especially, the proud operatic chorus—tells us this woman still has dignity. Whitney’s ability to bestow dignity upon the women she sings about is one of her greatest traits, and perhaps, one of the reasons why fans identified with her so intensely.
8 “You Give Good Love”
Whitney’s first hit was the first single from her debut album. That’s a hell of a way to launch a career. This silky mid-tempo is a sim-ple song with very short verses. It’s Whitney’s vocal performance that lifts this to an elite level because she’s really living inside each word, articulating and vibrating and stretching each one. And she’s so