It was in a place called The Video Café in London’s West End that I first became aware of Whitney Houston. In 1985 the concept of a restaurant playing video promos of pop music on big screens was still so novel as to present a special gastronomic experience. So I heard, and saw, Whitney singing How Will I Know there. She wouldn’t bother the British charts for another few months when she topped the charts with her cover of Marilyn McCoo’s Saving All My Love.
We know the trajectory her career took, from superstardom to megastardom to megadivadom to trainwreck who couldn’t buy a comeback for love or money. Following her passing yesterday, she’ll have that comeback. The timing of her death, on the eve of the Grammys, guarantees it. What a way for a diva to go out (even if that will be of scant consolation to her grieving mother Cissy, her daughter, her family or friends)! The tributes are flooding in, as they tend to when somebody as famous as Whitney Houston dies. People who should know better declare Whitney Houston the “Queen of Pop”, her lack of success or accomplishment over the past decade or so notwithstanding. And even in her pomp, Madonna and Mariah Carey had more solid claims to that crown.
Simon Cowell, who has done more than most to molest and maim popular music, has proclaimed Houston the most influential artist ever, or hyperbolic words to that effect. He might have a point: Houston was in the vanguard of singers who pushed the ostentatious soul wailings so overcooked by people like Patti LaBelle into the mainstream (she was joined there by the even greater offenders in that unwelcome development, Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men), replicated to nauseating effect by many who tried for Cowell’s talent shows. And, of course, many singers say they were inspired by Whitney Houston, and we must take their word for it.
Of course, Houston will be remembered rightly as a singer with a truly great voice, a woman of great beauty (which even in her drug phase was evident beneath the addict exterior), and as an artist who was ready to encourage young talents. She will be remembered as a diva and as a hitmaker. She will be remembered by some with emotions that are less than fond for her ubiquity in 1992/93, when her love-it-or-hate-it version of I Will Always Love You was impossible to bypass. And she will be remembered as a cautionary tale about the very real perils of drugs and marrying men who are known to be major douchebags. Eventually it will be remembered that for all her talent, voice and poise, Whitney Houston’s output didn’t quite justify the acclaim it is getting now.
Her song-choices and much of the production often failed to do her voice justice; for a soul singer, there was a tendency of technique trumping emotion (her song So Emotional is a good example of that). And when the production really let her voice soar, as it did on I Will Always Love You, it annoyed many and turned them conclusively against Whitney. So she leaves us with six albums, a couple of soundtracks, a few singles (such as the 1988 Olympics anthem One Moment In Time), and her spine-chilling performance of the US national anthem that provided the soundtrack to George Bush Sr’s Gulf War.
Her eponymously titled debut album from 1985 remains the stand-out in Houston’s catalogue. The power ballads are already there, as are the pop numbers, like the deliriously catchy How Will I Know. But the LP has a soul feel, especially when Whitney duets with Jermaine Jackson and Teddy Pendergrass (their Hold Me is just beautiful) and on tracks like You Give Good Love.
The sophomore album, titled with a singular lack of imagination Whitney, dispensed with the soul and recycled How Will I Know as I Wanna Dance With Somebody (both co-written by George Merrill, Shannon Rubicam and Michael Narada Walden) and All At Once as Didn’t We Almost Have It All (both co-written by Michael Masser), just with bigger productions, bigger synths or bigger orchestras. It is an album that has not aged well.
The third album, I’m Your Baby Tonight (1990), traded the Masser productions for those by LA Reid and Babyface, with Walden, Stevie Wonder and Luther Vandross also chipping in. It was a patchy album, but Whitney regained some of the soul cred which she would promptly lose with The Bodyguard (1992), the soundtrack of the movie in which she acted poorly opposite Kevin Costner, the thespian version of Kenny G (who, predictably, features on the soundtrack). Houston contributed about half of the songs to the soundtrack, which is quite awful once her songs are done with. And even those are not great. Run To You is a sweet song and I Have Nothing is a showstopper type of affair which should go down well at drag clubs. But the horror was Whitney going rock on the dreadful Queen Of The Night, one of the very few songs on which she earned a writing credit.
A couple of other movies and associated soundtracks followed. Of those, The Preacher’s Wife (1997) is mediocre, but Houston’s three turns on the Babyface-produced soundtrack for Waiting To Exhale (1995), are good. A creditable fourth album in My Love Is Your Love (1998) followed – and nothing really worth recalling thereafter.
She had hits, and she even had some fine records, but this is not the strike rate of a legend. Her status as a legend is guaranteed by three other things: her voice, which touched and, yes, influenced many people; her poise, which never suggested, even in her drug-addled days, that she was anything less than a star (the Norma Desmond effect, if you will); and her death at a relatively young age, before her beauty went and before her voice disappeared entirely. She clearly was a troubled soul, far from the seemingly carefree young woman whom I saw in on the screen in The Video Café 27 years ago. May she rest in peace.
Over the next few days we will hear enough Whitney Houston material, and people singing Whitney Houston material in ways that may or may not be classifiable as tributes. So here are the originals of some of the songs Whitney Houston covered. The one non-original is All The Man That I Need, which Sister Sledge covered in 1982 from Linda Clifford’s 1981 original, with guest vocals by David Simmons, before Whitney recorded it in 1990. Their version is superior to Whitney’s. As are, in my view all the other originals, with the exception of Marilyn McCoo’s excellent Saving All My Love For You, which Whitney not only eclipsed but hit out of the park. Singing backing vocals on I’m Every Woman is a 15-year-old Whitney Houston…
Marilyn McCoo – Saving All My Love For You (1978).mp3
George Benson – The Greatest Love Of All (1977).mp3
Isley Brothers – For The Love Of You (1975).mp3
Sister Sledge – All The Man I Need (1982).mp3
Dolly Parton – I Will Always Love You (1974).mp3
Chaka Khan – I’m Every Woman (1978).mp3