The great Whitney Houston, the diva who brought Gospel and R&B to the Pop charts, is gone. She died alone in the bath, on the eve of the Grammys, incapable of overcoming a life of excess.
Last Saturday evening, one of the great voices of America went quiet. The pioneer of bringing melodramatic vocal acrobatics to the charts passed away, a victim of herself. She had it all until the mid-nineties. However, in the spotlight, while occupying most of the white space in the tabloids, the first diva of R&B Pop became a soul in pain, unable to cope with life. According to legend, there were even moments she had to sing a few ditties on the streets of Los Angeles to get some money for a hit. True or not, a few months ago we thought she had picked herself up again - after her mentor, Clive Davis, revealed that she would be returning to Hollywood to play one of the mothers of The Supremes in “Sparkle”. The years don't go by unnoticed for anyone - more so when drugs have been dominating one's life for over a decade. Whitney Houston died in a bath; now the whole world is crying over the loss of a woman who played Russian roulette, in full knowledge of the fact that she would lose her biggest treasure: her talent.
The mezzo-soprano who broke all the records
The daughter of one of the most celebrated Gospel voices ever, Cissy Houston, the niece of two other important singers, Dionne Warwick and Dee Dee Warwick, and the goddaughter of Aretha Franklin: little Whitney was destined for the stars. At the age of 11, she started to sing in a Baptist church in Newark. Two years later, she became a backing singer for Chaka Khan on “ I’m Every Woman” (a track she would later perform in the film “The Bodyguard”), and one of the most sort after magazine models. Her beauty was indisputable, but when she started to sing, everything around her simply stopped, in awe of the texture of her mezzo-soprano voice.
When she accompanied her mother one night in the clubs of New York, Clive Davis, the boss of Arista Records, heard her sing and offered her the contract of her life. It was 1983. In spite of that, it wasn't until two year later that “Whitney Houston” (Arista Records, 1985) came out. It made a quiet entry on the charts, but thanks to the success of singles like “ Saving All My Love For You”, “ How Will I Know” and, most of all, “ Greatest Love Of All”, the album went to number 1 in the sales charts, a year after its release, selling 28 million copies worldwide. It was a dream come true for the African-American newcomer.
Releasing seven number 1 hits between 1985 and 1987, Whitney Houston broke the record that, to that day, was held by The Beatles and The Bee Gees. But her biggest success - more important than her achievements with “Whitney” in 1987 and “I’m Your Baby Tonight” in 1990 - was that she broke the racist taboos in pop in the mid-eighties. Until that moment, only Michael Jackson would be shown on MTV. So she had no other option than to fight the status quo with the video for “ How Will I Know”, in order to pave the way for Black women in the mass media - way before Toni Braxton, Janet Jackson, Mary J. Blige and Mariah Carey (with whom she shared the success of “ When You Believe” for the film “Prince of Egypt”) arrived.
Despite her success, Whitney still had a few cards up her sleeve for the further establishment of her myth. After turning down several offers from the film world, in 1992 she said “yes” to Kevin Costner for the Drama “The Bodyguard”. The film, in spite of its shocking simplicity, was a box office hit (410 million dollars worldwide) and 44 million copies of the soundtrack were sold. Her fourth best-selling record ever, it contains some of her classic songs, such as “ Run To You”, “ Queen Of The Night” and her universally famous cover of Dolly Parton's “ Queen Of The Night”.
“I Will Always Love You”
Buried in life next to Bobby Brown
At the peak of her career, in 1992, Houston married rapper Bobby Brown, whom she had met at the Soul Train Music Awards, three years earlier. They were the couple of the moment: beautiful, filthy rich and with a bright future ahead of them. However, rumours began to circulate at the end of the nineties, when the star's public appearances started to become less frequent - and when she did surface, she didn't look so well. Drug abuse started to cast its shadow over the marihuana and crack smoking couple, there were stories of snorting any old powder available, and of physical violence on a daily basis.
Everybody knew Whitney had become a junkie, but the star didn't come out until 2002, in a historical TV interview with Diane Sawyer. The vultures started to approach the scene: one of the most respected artists in the world was digging her own grave. She was stuck in this vicious circle until 2006, when she filed for divorce. But it was too late to come back through the big doors. In 2009, she released “I Look To You” - which could never shine as brightly as her last urban record until then, 1998's “My Love Is Your Love” - and she started a tour that revealed her astounding voice had all but disappeared.
Girls On Top. “I Wanna Dance With Numbers”
At this point, the question is: how will Whitney Houston be remembered? Nobody can deny the enormous impact she has had on mainstream music for Black women. The way she brought the Gospel and Soul she grew up with to adult-orientated radio - and the fact that she paved the way for the vocally acrobatic ladies of Pop. However, like Michael Jackson, her productivity in recent years has been virtually zero. So we have no other option than to depend on video to remember those not so distant times when her star shone bright - as the great voice that she was, is and always will be.