We lost Whitney. She was 48 years old and in her hotel room in L.A. and heading to Clive Davis’ party. And then she was gone. Of course it's not that simple. Houston’s public spiral and the way she mangled herself while escaping her pop princess shackles seemed a never-ending spectacle that threatened to overshadow her stunning talent.
The legacy of Whitney Elizabeth Houston begins with a legendary mother and remarkable family ties. Whitney was born the daughter of an upright singer with one more octave than her own. Cissy Houston could sing as well as (if not better than) many of the singers she supported as a background vocalist, including Whitney’s godmother Aretha Franklin. Yet she chose to side step the scrutiny and soul-suck that can be fame, opting to raise her son and daughter in the relative safety of the shadows of the spotlight.
Whitney was beautiful enough to model, and she did so successfully as a teenager. She also toured nightclubs performing with her mother and at only 15, she provided background vocals on Chaka Khan’s “I’m Every Woman”- a song she would later remake for “The Bodyguard.” In 1981, she became one of the earliest Black models to make the cover of Seventeen. She was long and lean with a tiny soft Afro she wore like a halo. Her face was thin with the kind of symmetry and fine features everyone agrees are pleasing. Her rich, brown glowing skin served as a quiet affirmation to Black girls everywhere. That same year, with the measured blessing of her parents and the well wishes of her famous cousin Dionne Warwick, Whitney signed to Clive Davis’ Arista Records and the world was introduced to that remarkable voice.
Houston’s three octave range was always less impressive than her control and her power. With her perfect pitch and modulation, she soared through the most difficult pieces of music effortlessly. Her choice of a tracksuit for the 1991 Super Bowl seemed strangely casual when she took to the field to perform the National Anthem. The one and a half octave range song is a mountain climb for most singers, but Whitney smiled through her strong, straightforward delivery like an uphill runner who can keep a fast clip and an easy conversation. There is simply no better performance of the song on film.
By then, Whitney had been a superstar nearly a decade, submitting one flawless live performance and chart topping album after another. If the 70s-soul music she'd grown up on was about Chaka Khan-style strapless silk jumpsuits and musical freedom, Whitney sacrificed that ease for a sound that was 80s shoulder pad polished with a pop sheen. Under Davis' guidance, Whitney became our first huge, global crossover soul singer. Diana Ross enjoyed such wide acceptance, but Whitney had the vocal ability of a Florence Ballard and the amplification of growing global technology. The 415 awards she received throughout her career (a Guinness world record), and nearly 200 million records she's sold to date only partly tell of her influence.
Whitney's style of showmanship, scale and flawless style are the reason American Idol and other talent shows captivate the public imagination.
Whitney's style of showmanship, scale and flawless style are the reason American Idol and other talent shows captivate the public imagination. She was such a dominant singer that she made solo singing the definitive American performance style. Her instincts and training were gospel and that truth transformed some of her more soulless pop song selections, particularly when she performed them live. A song like "How Will I Know" could have easily gone to a lesser singer like Madonna but Whitney's strength as a vocalist gave weight to even the most vaporous pieces of songwriting. When she was able to play with truly great songs, like Dolly Parton's "I Will Always Love You" she uplifted it and us all at once.
It is not too soon to write about Whitney's demons. No matter what the autopsy reveals, we lost our great beauty with the greater voice too soon because she never won her decades long battle with addiction. The public came to know of her problems when she married Bobby Brown. But music industry insiders, especially those close enough to know her as “Nippy”, knew she'd had a problem with cocaine from the beginning. Insiders always recognized that she was more Newark Black church girl than the debutante image that was paraded before the press. Away from the cameras, she swore like a sailor and partied with hard drugs. Her dysfunction could barely be hidden in her long marriage and she and her husband made decisions (such as starring in “Being Bobby Brown” a Sid and Nancy style reality show Houston later came to regret) that exploited, rather than treated their addictions.
In 2009, when Whitney went on Oprah-seemingly high-to speak candidly about her issues and what she was insisting was her recovery, she was slippery and it was sad. Surprisingly, Oprah