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 innocent-sounding here that she can get away with this subtly sexual song. Whitney denied it, and the good love he gives could be purely emotional. But there’s a bedroom-y lushness here that makes me say no, he’s giving her something she can feel.
7 “Didn’t We Almost Have It All”
The relationship is ending, and yet, Whitney is joyous. The song is wistful but majestic. Her performance gives us a thrilling power ballad focused not on the sadness of losing love but the excitement of having had it. She sings, “The ride with you was worth the fall, my friend,” emphasizing ‘my friend’ and speaking to her peace with this ending.
6 “The Star-Spangled Banner”
Whitney and her musical director Rickey Minor created their own version of the song, changing the meter from 3/4 time to 4/4, thus giving her a little more space to do her thing. And, oh, she does. She makes it soulful and powerful. She holds the final “brave” for a stunning 11 seconds, and, at a moment of intense patriotism, when America was mired in the Gulf War, she sings with brilliance, joy and dignity (yes, that word again) that lifts America’s spirits even higher.
5 “All the Man That I Need”
When Whitney opens up and lets loose for the majestic chorus that’s like a cathedral of sound, I’m certain that the man we’re talking about isn’t human. She’s talking about Him. Again, I marvel at Whitney’s smooth transitions, the poised way she leaps from delicate verses to powerful choruses that make it seem as if she’s grown in size because she’s filled with the spirit.
4 “Saving All My Love for You”
A song from the perspective of a devoted mistress is a bold choice for the beginning of a career. And it’s a sympathetic portrayal. She’s not unhinged; she’s understandable. We see why she suffers when we hear how happy she is through Whitney’s soaring voice and gloriously held notes about “makin’ love the whole night through!” It’s a great story song be-cause the character is drawn well, the point of view is unusual, and despite the woman in question being trapped in a tragic situation, Whitney sings in a resolute way, giving this long-suffering lover dignity.
3 “I Have Nothing”
The gigantic, thrilling chorus is the zenith of this song about the intense desire for love. Yet, the woman is clearly not going to crumble if she doesn’t get love because she’s got dignity. She’s been hurt, but Whitney’s voice is so strong, so unwavering, she doesn’t sound defeated or depleted. Even if she doesn’t get his love, she will survive. My favorite line: “Can’t run from my-self/There’s nowhere to hide.” Indeed.
2 “The Greatest Love of All”
This song was written as one of its two writers was battling breast cancer. You can see how that struggle would clear the mind for searching one’s soul. It’s fitting that this is one of the biggest singles of Whitney’s career because, in many ways, the lyrics are the culmination of that career. If you can love yourself, you’re on the path to a love much more powerful and fulfilling than one found in a relationship with another person. If you can love yourself, then you have dignity, the undercurrent for so much of Whitney’s music.
1 “I Will Always Love You”
Naturally, a song all about dignity tops the list. Would that we all could have this much peace, poise, selflessness and generosity of spirit at the end of a relationship. She walks away with her head held high, wishing him well, allowing him to forever occupy real estate in her heart. But what really makes this No. 1 is Whitney’s iconic, unforgettable vocal performance. This is her greatest mo-ment as a singer. The delicacy of the song’s a cappella beginning, the lush beauty of Whitney’s voice, the power of that mesmeriz-ingly long-held note at “I”—the zenith of singing in American music in my lifetime.
Read more in the April 2012 issue of EBONY Magazine!