Whitney Houston~ Didn't She Almost Have It All
On the eve of music's biggest night, the voice of a peerless performer was suddenly, tragically silenced. For now the cause of death is shrouded in mystery, but we all know of her struggle with substance abuse in recent years. Whitney Elizabeth Houston was found dead at the age of 48, in a hotel bathtub just hours before she was to attend a party in that very hotel. Given the circumstances it was inevitable that we would all assume the worst: In one way or another, self-destruction.
In the days since Ms. Houston's passing, much has been said about this troubled icon, and much more is to come. Some have chosen to sharpen their critical claws, taking the opportunity to share what they didn't like about her, musically and otherwise. If anyone cared what I thought about proper decorum, I would say that Whitney Houston was someone's mother, daughter, sister, and friend-- a human being lost to those who personally knew and loved her. Surely we can hold off on the harsh critiques at least until she's officially laid to rest.
Houston had not been a relevant presence in the music industry for decades. Artists like Adele, Beyonce, Christina Aguilera, and Jennifer Hudson had long since taken up where she left off. The ravages of hard living and drug abuse had robbed her of the brilliant voice that made an indelible mark on our collective consciousness. So why did she still matter so much to so many? As a vocalist and avid music fan, I'd like to make the case based on the singular quality of her instrument alone.
Honestly, I didn't always like the songs she chose to sing, even in her heyday. I was not alone. Houston was once booed at the Soul Train Music Awards. Black audiences can be tough on those they consider to be sell-outs. They wanted more R & B from her. Far from being any kind of purist in that regard, this was not a problem for me. The up-tempo, confectionery pop that was produced for Whitney in her early career was just never much to my liking-- though it should be said, even those tunes were infused with an emotional gravity that transcended the genre. I preferred her signature ballads--songs like Didn't We Almost Have it All, Run To You, The Greatest Love of All, Saving All My Love For You, One Moment In Time, Where Do Broken Hearts Go?, and of course her spirited rendition of The Star Spangled Banner. These songs and her flawless voice inspired me to be better than I ever could. She was the model of perfection and though I never felt I could reach those heights, I took comfort in the fact that no one could.
When I first heard the raspy strains of her ravaged voice a few years ago, I was angry. How could she be so cavalier with her gift? Didn't it belong to all of us? I couldn't imagine what she was smoking, drinking, or snorting to ruin her voice forever. Hadn't Chaka Khan and Natalie Cole found their way back from the depths of addiction and reinvented themselves? I had allowed myself to hope there might be a surgery or perhaps a long rest from whatever she was doing that could restore her voice. It was not to be, but eventually I forgave her for being human. Now that she's gone, I have nothing but compassion for the woman who almost had it all.
Whitney Houston deserves her place among the pantheon of gifted artists because she influenced nearly every vocalist that came after her. She had what few have and most would die for; a combination of agility, versatility, precision/clarity of tone, effortless power, and emotional depth. To add icing to this magnificent cake, she was also blessed with a pleasing tonal "color". I think of this as the natural timbre of a person's speaking voice. Some voices are just more appealing than others. Simple as that. Hers was the perfect commercial (not necessarily a bad word) cross-over sound. While it had an undeniable gospel flavor, it was still light enough to be universally accessible. This was remarkable given that a gospel voice and style can be highly parochial.
Another sign of greatness; Whitney's sound was impossible to mimic, at least for me. Many great singers are actually easy to imitate. Now, I don't claim to be able to hit every note or riff in every instance, but with enough practice, if one has a reasonably good ear, it is possible to replicate thier sound to the point where a listener could recognize the artist. This works best when there is something aurally distinctive like a nasal or brassy sound to help you access the tone. Also, some singers have little tricks that can be mastered--a useful skill for a wedding singer.
With Whitney, there is no such easy access. Her voice was just that, her voice. She sang as if she had nothing to prove and nothing to fear. As singers, most of us worry a bit from time to time. Will I hit that note the way I want to? Can I trust my voice not to crack or break? In her prime, Whitney made it look so easy...total confidence. She could glide easily between her upper, middle, and lower registers, hitting each note with stunning grace. It's one thing to have range, which she did, but when you can travel freely within that range--well, that's what separates the divas from the rest. When I hear vocalists like Christina Aguilera and Mariah Carey, though they are undeniably talented, I often get the sense they're trying to wow us with vocal acrobatics. Sure Mariah can hit those otherworldly highs, but far from serving the music, it often seems more like a gimmick than true artistry.
Speaking of Ms. Carey, here's a performance from the nineties when Whitney and Mariah collaborated on the song, When You Believe from "The Prince of Egypt." Carey has a impressive instrument herself, but next to Whitney she sounds like a tiny bird warbling in the distance.
A teen model before she ever met Clive Davis, here's covergirl Whitney in 1981, before all the wigs and couture gowns. A stunning combination of beauty and talent. Who could have imagined it would end this way.
Here are two lesser known R&B tracks from her early career--an Isley Brothers cover, For The Love Of You, and Just The Lonely Talking Again.