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FEBRUARY 14, 2012 10:21AM

Whitney Houston~ Didn't She Almost Have It All

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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.

                                                            The Voice

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 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.

                   A tribute from fans outside The Beverly Hilton Hotel
                                                       Images: Google

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Happy Valentine's Day, Babe! As I already said on some other posts, I thought she had a magnificent voice and I have nothing but compassion for her. We all have our demons. Some of us can out run them.
BSB the video with Mariah, shows her amazing voice. Thanks for this, very powerful.
This was great BBB.. worthy of Huffington.
I had no idea she was a model and my biggest fear is that her daughter Bobby might start medicating herself.
Lovely tribute.
A powerful talent, gone too soon.

I agree with you about her talent, bluestocking: impeccable, flawless and emotional. A rare combination these days. I have never liked Mariah Carey for the sole fact that she doesn't move me in the least --no soul in that voice. another one of my favorite contemporary singers who I believe has it all is Celine Dion. Thank you for this tribute.
This was such a beautiful tribute, it puts all the others to shame.
What a picture you paint of the reason so many loved her.
I remember seeing SNL making fun of her in her pain and feeling sick that they would pick on someone so obviously hurting.
rated with love
Great piece. I miss the her without all the complicated problems. But that is in a way to deny her humanity and her failings. The thing is with that powerful angelic voice, you almost think she was a supernatural kind of being, not one of us, flawed and human. Her humanity had some of those heady complications, addiction. Too sad. What a range of highs and lows. How does that even happen. Thanks for sharing this. Well done.
What a nice tribute. Probably the best I've read.
You nailed it. You expressed my exact feelings, top to bottom, of the importance of Whitney and why my heart is broken. And I couldn't agree more about "When You Believe." Mariah can't hold a candle.
Powerful tribute - thank you. I've avoided reading so much about Whitney because so much of it has been mean-spirited. This was compassionate and knowledgeable. Great job.n
Thanks all for your thoughtful comments. I'm at work so I can't do individual responses just now. Enjoy the music.
She made history when she appeared on the cover of Seventeen. When she sang our national anthem, she was in her prime. I'll always remember her acting debut in The Bodyguard was exceptional and her voice will always be phenomenal.

I hope her daughter gets professional help. She'll need it.
I was bowled over by Jennifer Hudson's tribute. It was brilliant.
An excellent tribute Blue. I, like you, will not dwell on her drug years. That voice is what I will remember!
I'm with Scanner - forget the drugs & just listen & keep listening. R
She was amazing - I loved her music since the first time I heard her many years ago.
She had an incredible voice and incredible beauty. Quite a combo and sure to create an icon.

She was fabulous, though, every minute in the spotlight.
Great post. Thank you. I agree about Mariah Carey - I've never responded to her singing. Whereas Whitney ... even though, like you, I didn't like the style of music she was making, I listened to it for the sheer joy of hearing her voice. Some songs, like Saving All My Love for You, or I Will Always Love you, bore listening to, over and over again for the interpretation, the range, the beauty and the emotion of her singing. I always thought Whitney was going to make her name and make her money and then start doing more interesting things with her instrument, her voice. Make a blues album, do more R&B, some interesting collaborations ... I was so disappointed when I realised this wasn't just the beginning, and that we were already at the end.
She was the prototype for the post-modern R&B Diva. I don't know if that's a good thing, as I'm not a fan of her vocal stylings, but it is what it is.

She was a rock star and she lived like a rock star. Only Elvis , Michael Jackson and The Beatles can compare to Whitney in terms of rock stardom, and even with the same issues, the former 2 never seem to be remembered as "troubled". Wonder why?
she had so much, & threw it all away. the word "codependent" comes to mind. she has no one to blame but herself. bobby brown seemed to have introduced her to drugs but she travelled the road on her own after taking that initial fork in the road.... she's simultaneously one of the greats, and human.
Thank you for a beautiful, honest tribute - the best and truest one I have read. I remember Whitney in those Seventeen covers and ads so clearly. She made such a big impact on my tween and teen years. The heavenly chorus has a new soloist, I think! I hope she has found peace.
Every time I heard her voice, I knew it was her. Strong, resonant, and extremely emotively inflected. You could hear smiles, pouts, frowns and joy in it with ease and power.

I was saddened by her passing. This is a very nice and respectful tribute to such a talented and obviously troubled woman. When we "find out" the cause of death, I am sure it will be vividly and luridly splashed across all the headlines. Even so, I think I'll remember this final tale instead.

Solid retrospective. I really appreciated the focus on her voice, her instrument. I've been thinking a lot about it lately. The last time I heard her sing, I could tell the damage was irreparable. There's a tired voice, a damaged voice and a blown voice. Hers sounded like the latter.

And I wondered what specifically did that and its hard to say. Of course, smoking cocaine for years on end will def contribute. But like any other performer (a Steve Perry, for instance) who has been going strong for decades, damage can occur. Her placement was extraordinary. Her control was fantastic. She's used as an example of proper larynx placement in vocal videos. But even one small misstep that you repeat for decades could cause damage.

I say that because it's frustrating that so many people think it was drugs; it wasn't. Like her death, it will be a combination of factors.

I always LOVE watching her and Mariah sing - and not for the reason you expect. I actually don't think they sound good together. I like it because you can palpably feel the tension between the two women. And then I love, how at some point, Whitney leaves Mariah in the dust...I know, I'm mean! Of course, they are two very different voices as well. Mariah has a lighter, airier voice.
Written as a singer, for a singer. The love comes though.
Lovely tribute!
In my mind's eye, you are like Whitney, at least in looks (!) so I really enjoyed your thoughts and the way you processed. Also, as a singer, you encapsulated things I could not. Check out my tribute to has been heartbreaking for all of us.
Bbabe, that is some excellent music writing coming out of you! Seriously, I really like your analysis of her career and her singing, Congrats on the cover!
Damn. I only listened to the one selection; "When you Believe".
Just damn. There isn't another voice like that right now that we know about. Where is it BB? A child somewhere, stretching to hit the highs and lows, who feels it and doesn't know yet what it is they feel but it has to come out. Maybe we'll hear it again our lifetime, maybe not. But God Bless that child. Let her soar among the angels and keep her from harm.
As a singer also, I thought she was really overrated. A sad person who had a big voice that she never used with any artistry. (It was also a voice that was not pretty as much as grating.) She also had awful taste and/or advice when it came to choosing material.

I pity her and am sorry she didn't do much musically with a bit of a gift she had. But as a singer, sorry she was really overrated.

And, yes, that is just an opinion.
I want to be very careful here -- and god knows I don't want some fool to take this to mean anything other than exactly what I'm about to say. Being a superstar from the get-go is an unimaginable burden for anyone. For starters, there is nowhere to go from the pinnacle but down -- and there are plenty of small, jealous people looking for you to do just that.

But Whitney had a much larger problem, a problem that began even with her too-white name. She was a 'tweener like Obama, neither white nor black enough to suit people on either side of that foolish divide. As you point out, her choice of material only exacerbated that problem.

Put all that together, throw in the monumental other pressures an artist faces night after night working a high-wire act without a net, add a couple dozen toadies and a marriage to the very wrong partner -- well, frankly, this comes as no surprise.

All that sad, the ultimate responsibility for how one reacts to such pressures is on the person who chooses to put themselves in that position -- or at least chooses to remain in that position.

That said, in her defense, Whitney is far from alone; thousands die every day in this country in much the same way with much less pressure on them. One would have loved to have seen that inimitable voice mature with the person who owned it, would have loved to see Whitney become another Nancy Wilson or Ella. But alas, for whatever reason, it wasn't to be, and all of us who love good music are sadder for it.
I will miss Whitney's voice, very much. Her rendition of the Star Spangled Banner in 1991 was apparently her last hurrah, although I wish with all my heart that things had turned out differently. I was waiting to hear about how she had finally kicked her bad habits and had started back on the path to reclaiming her former glory, but no... it wasn't meant to be. Such a waste... she had such an amazing voice, and what was also very obvious-- there was Joy in her singing. 20 years ago, she really loved to perform, felt at home on the stage, and that was clear to everyone who saw her onstage. RIP Whitney, you were amazing, and made your mark in '80s music. (And no snarking on Mariah-- her first single, "Vision of Love", in 1990, was really incredible. There's the same Joy in Song that Whitney had, and her voice was just as effortless, and powerful! Only in recent years has Mariah's voice become more predictable and mechanical-- she seems to have lost that Joy.)
[r] wonderful tribute. thank you. i remember exercising to "I Want To Dance With Somebody!" so many years ago. It gave me such a bounce, the energy and that exciting voice! I was born in the same city, Hartford, as her cousin was originally from, Dionne Warwick, and when Whitney came along with her greatness, I was so impressed and felt a special affection for her as I did for Dionne. i didn't keep up with the detailed gossip surrounding either women, but i felt so sorry for Whitney's struggle with drugs and her tough marital relationship. someone at work told me she has one child, a daughter 18. i am glad she is at least that old, but how hard for her!!! i am not gifted in singing, so it was particularly interesting reading a tribute by someone who is! thanks for the pix and links. best, libby
Homage. But you miss the Whitney interviews revealing an addict in denial. Her voice is ravaged by 2002. She has had little to offer in the way of her art since the early 90's. She wanted this, just like Michael Jackson, Elvis and Kurt Cobain. In the end she was the worst possible combination- faded beauty, post-menopausal, bloated, defensive, lonely, angry, righteous, monied, vapid, irrelevant has-been singer who couldn't write songs, couldn't act, couldn't perform anymore who was going to ONE MORE PARTY before she self-destructed. Good riddance.
marshallj4--You're right, I made it a point not to focus on the drug abuse issue, as is my perogative. I wanted to discuss why her instrument was so impressive and influential for me personally. How can you say "good riddance" to the death of a human being with an illness--yes addiction is an illness. Clearly you don't have a heart, or maybe it's only for perfect people like you.
Excellent tribute. I love your description of her multi-faceted voice. At 48, she was still a gorgeous woman. Her rendition of the national anthem has never been equaled. She had demons, as superstars often do. Her life wasn't easy. I hope she's found a well-earned peace.
Addiction is not an illness. The Medical Model of Diagnose-Treat- Cure needs an Illness to be be treated. There is No medical treatment for addictions- be it obesity or alcohol or crack or hoarding. These are all BEHAVIORS and as such can only be dealt with using behavioral modifications. No one is perfect, but Ms. Houston had ALL the advantages in life (including being born Aretha Franklin's Goddaughter) and yet she chose to self destruct- you shed no light on the reasons she did. Have your homage, but know your facts.
marshallj4--Merriam Webster defines illness as an unhealthy condition of body or mind. I don't care what your medical models say. People don't engage in dangerous, self-destructive behaviors from a position of strong mental health. Suicide and self-inflicted pain is unnatural. Many people recover from substance abuse and go on to live long productive lives, some I've known personally. When one dies before they are able to dig their way out of this unhealthy behavior pattern, it is a sad day even if it is thier own fault.
Granted, you could extend addictive behaviors to be an illness that wasn't dealt with, however her death is only a sad day for those inclined to see Ms. Houston as a 24 year old or younger. As I wrote before her second 24 years or so were misspent horribly. And as a 48 yr old she was as wretched person as I've have seen- and as a mental health professional- I've seen plenty. I stand by my earlier assertions, as I know you do yours. They are not incompatible, they make up who Ms. Houston was. Just as the term "pedophile" fits Michael Jackson. And Good Riddance to him as well- even though he was still capable of producing art closer to his self destruction.
Well marshallj4, I suppose we can agree to disagree respectfully. I won't defend Michael Jackson, (though I was an avid fan in my teens) because he abused children which puts him in a different category in my view, but I wouldn't say "good riddance" either. Not my style.

As for Whitney, regardless of what one may think of her god-awful choices, for me it's all about compassion, which is what you seem to lack entirely. As a singer, I'm better for having heard her voice, so therefore I'm glad she was here. As a person who lost my disfunctional mother very young, I know that Whitney's 18-year old daughter deserved to have more time, even if her mother was a walking mess. Why? Because as long as someone lives, there's always a chance for change.
Rwoo5g--I have the same mixed feelings. Perhaps "flat-out legalization" is not the way. That idea scares the crap out of me because it might cause many more people to try something in the spirit of adventure and then find themselves hooked. I do however believe marijuana should definitely be legal. The trafficing of this relatively safe substance (never heard of OD death from weed smoking) is causing so much death and destuction along the border...makes no sense.
As a youngster I was a big fan of O.J. but feel it is unwarranted to feel for him doing 30 or so years behinds bars- self inflicted as that pain surely is. I reserve my compassion for those truly misfortunate (Ms. Houston, with her talent, looks, voice and pathway to stardom never fit that category) and understand and appreciate the way to change- not the blind hope you describe. Ms. Houston without her voice knew how pathetic she was and probably could not face another crowd who possibly would ask her to sing. She has spent more $$$$$$$$$$$ on coke than you will ever see in your lifetime. Could she have been redeemed? Possibly, not highly likely given her attitude about "where she came from" (Newark, NJ). She played the victim while she could have helped people. She abused herself instead of reaching out to others. I am for the living. And for the people who want to invest energy into making change. Life is too short hoping another run-of-the-mill addict will do anything but feed her addiction. Those are healthy boundaries. Peace.