Voices: R.I.P. Whitney Houston (1963-2012)

She was a power house and a natural from the beginning, from the time I saw her in her mother’s act to the time I introduced her on the Merv Griffin show. You went to see the show and heard what they were doing abroad and you would hear Whitney Houston sing Home and it would send shivers through you.

This was an incredible natural, natural vocalist. She became more and more familiar in the studio. Michael Masser is a perfectionist, of all of the producers he was the perfectionist and every note and every sound — he was putting her through the paces of singing, so I’m sure she learned in the making of this album, it wasn’t that she knew how to record. She would just sing. I know on the front line, he very much was there, but he and I had become very good friends by that point. He played takes for me, rough cuts for me and I’d make some comments. She was always very willing, a workaholic. She would go back and do it and it wouldn’t be a problem.

– Arista Records producer Clive Davis, Gulf News

2. How Will I Know?

Her decision not to follow the more soulful inflections of singers like Franklin drew criticism by some who saw her as playing down her black roots to go pop and reach white audiences. The criticism would become a constant refrain through much of her career. She was even booed during the “Soul Train Awards” in 1989.

“Sometimes it gets down to that, you know?” she told Katie Couric in 1996. “You’re not black enough for them. I don’t know. You’re not R&B enough. You’re very pop. The white audience has taken you away from them.”
– Nekesa Mumbi Moody, Associated Press

3. One Moment In Time

Two years ago, Bobby spent a lot of time with me while I was on tour. And on his tour I spent a lot of time with him. We watched each other. I admire him because he makes people go where he wants them to go. Bobby’s very sensual, very sexual onstage. Women watch my husband with an intensity that I’ve never seen before. It’s like they get turned on.

I’ve learned to be freer from Bobby. I’ve learned to be a little more loose. Not so contained, you know? I like the way my husband moves – I wish I could move like him. He just naturally has this . . . [imitates Bobby’s strut in her seat and laughs wildly]. And since I’ve been around him, I’ve gotten, you know, a little bit freer with my shit [laughs].

Bobby’ll listen to me sing, and we’ll work on things together. Like falsetto, different voices, things that he wants to learn how to do with his voice. And he’ll say to you today that he’s become a better vocalist by being with me. I help him with his breathing, and I help him keep his voice in shape.
– Whitney Houston, Rolling Stone, 1993

Between 1985 and 1990, Houston topped the Billboard charts nine times, including a spectacular run of seven consecutive No. 1’s. “Saving All My Love for You,” “How Will I Know,” “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” “So Emotional” — this was the friendly sound of adult contemporary music. Houston didn’t sing for the city streets or for the suburbs: She reached everybody. In so doing, she became a model for current female pop stars to emulate — post-ethnic and relentlessly positive, with a voice larger than life.

It was a role she was born to fill. Houston was born into one of Newark’s first musical families — her mother, Cissy Houston, was a member of gospel standouts the Drinkard Singers before embarking on a successful solo career. Dionne and Dee Dee Warwick were her cousins, and her godmother was the Queen of Soul herself. (“How Will I Know,” the most upbeat of Houston’s early singles, was addressed to Aretha Franklin.) The elder Houston sang, for years, at New Hope Baptist Church, and young Whitney was part of the choir — but even as a child, it was clear that nothing could keep her in the background for long.

The pop singer Darlene Love, who had known her since she was a child and remains close to her mother, described Houston’s voice as almost ethereal.

“Her gift was from God,” Love said. “She had that kind of voice that nobody else can have.”
– Tris McCall, The New Jersey Star-Ledger

Though she may be remembered for her ballads – “Saving All My Love for You,” “Greatest Love of All,” “Where Do Broken Hearts Go” – she could bring the funk, too. In a landscape in which Michael Jackson and Prince were duking it out for America’s affections and George Michael was offering romance, Whitney jumped in with a couple dance-floor bangers that not only brought a defiant confidence but pushed her voice in more gospel-oriented ways: “I’m Every Woman” not only jammed but preached, and “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” delivered her message loud and clear.

As Houston’s fame grew beyond radio and onto the screen, where she delivered a blockbuster performance in “The Bodyguard” both as an actor and as the soundtrack’s star, we started watching her closer, and as the ’90s gave way to the ’00s, it soon became evident that something was amiss — that the delays between albums, her failed appearances and airport security run-ins were starting to affect her talent.

The rest is the train wreck part of her life, and the sad truth is that her memory will forever be tarnished by her addictions. The images that we carry of her are hard to reconcile with the voice. But that’s where “I Will Always Love You” comes in. Put it on. Turn it up. Close your eyes. Whitney’s voice, mere hours after her death, has already proved it can outlive her body. Even if her humanity couldn’t handle that tone, posterity certainly can.
– Randall Roberts, Los Angeles Times

Modern stars are simultaneously coddled and mocked for their addiction. Our collective voyeurism, schadenfreude and hypocritical rush to judgment would suggest that our own families are junkie free. In a country where addiction is criminalized rather than being treated as the national epidemic that it is, we were both too quick to accept Whitney’s post-divorce narrative of recovery and far too willing to gaze upon her many public car wrecks. It is especially heartbreaking when our most widely beloved artists, those whose work gives our lives such rich meaning, are lost in and to the loneliness of addiction. We all wished to see Whitney whole again, but not 48 hours before she died in a Beverly Hills hotel room, she staggered-bloodied and photographed-from a Hollywood club.

Cynics will remind you that as Clive Davis’ annual pre-Grammy celebration took place without his beloved muse, the entire room had been anticipating her early death for a decade. But that doesn’t make her death any less jarring. Tonight’s award ceremony has been recalibrated to celebrate Whitney and we wait, cross-toed, for a tribute that’s worthy of our icon.

Whitney Houston was a featherweight, grand beauty, a whale of a singer and a fragile, tortured superstar who is finally free of her addiction. Her body of work is an eternal testimony to her dignity, grace and her out-of- this-world ability. Her life, which only those closest to her will ever truly know in full, tells a more complicated story.
– Dream Hampton, Ebony Magazine

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  • Anonymous

    I remember as a little girl seeing Whitney Houston for the first time in the “You Give Good Love To Me” video.  I remember thinking she was the most beautiful, perfect lady I’d ever seen (in my entire decade or so of life at the time).  I was mesmerized, and pointed her out to my mother.   After that, any time she was on TV, I had to watch her. 
    One thing that was really special about Whitney for me was seeing a brown-skinned black lady in magazines and in heavy rotation on MTV when that was so rare.   She was black, she had dark skin, and she was beautiful.   I never wanted to be a singer, but I definitely wanted to grow up to be a regal and proud black lady, and seeing her on TV made that seem very possible.  While I definitely enjoyed seeing black artists on BET, I think that I appreciated her crossover appeal because I was raised in an environment where black faces were few, and Whitney Houston was one of the few artists that my school friends (who were all white) and I had in common.  She definitely paved the way for many black female artists who followed her to dominate the pop charts.Many are compared to her but none really compare (or deserve to be in my opinion).  There was something so natural and beautiful about her voice(and now that she has passed away, so haunting) that very few have, and while there are many imitators, the range and strength of her voice at its peak is not something any current artist possesses.  And perhaps some of the beauty came from the pain of her internal struggles, because many other great talents have been lost too soon to the same addictions that she had.  Is the pain an inextricable part of that kind of prodigious talent? Or is just the access to the “good times” that eventually envelop people in a grasp so tight that few can escape?   I don’t really know.  I only know that she is lost to us forever.  What was always hard to for me to reconcile was that that great beauty and talent was struggling with some powerful demons that eventually won and ended her life.   I think that made me think that this day was not going to come as soon as it did.  I’m so very sorry that she is gone, but glad that her struggles are over.  R.I.P. Whitney.