The soul searching of Whitney Houston

WAITING TO EXHALE Whitney Houston in Los Angeles in 2009 (Photo: Michael Wright/

HER fans would have been forgiven for thinking it was all over for Whitney Houston in 2010. Garnering mixed reviews for her Nothing But Love world tour, and walk-outs from fans disappointed that she could no longer deliver the kind of live vocal energy that made her famous, Whitney kept a very low profile as her terrible year in the spotlight came to a close.

But deep in the glut of online forums, neither her fans nor her detractors would let her go. Between posting videos of her glory days and widespread speculation that the act described by Oprah as ‘The Voice’ had simply run out of steam, Whitney Houston was generally consigned to the status of drug abuse victim.

Anyone whoʼd been watching closely should not have been surprised.

Infamously defensive during her 2002 “Crack is Whack” interview with Diane Sawyer, Houston cited her marriage vows as an explanation for staying in what was widely understood to be an abusive relationship with R&B ʻbad-boyʼ Bobby Brown. Adding further to the dysfunctional picture was her confession that the abuse went both ways. I gave as good as I got, former ʻgood-girlʼ Whitney professed.

But all that seemed designed to distract from the Houston’s almost voiceless answers in the interview. Worse than hoarse, she explained her condition was the result of recent long-distance travel and the upheaval of moving house. The clearest statement she made to Sawyer was that within ten years, sheʼd be happy to have retired from the music scene.

And she seemed to stand by her word. For the next seven years, Whitney Houston released only one recording and rarely performed. It was an uncharacteristic silence from one of the highest selling recording artists in history.

Instead, shocking pictures of trashed rooms, alleged to have been taken in her home, were published throughout the tabloid media.

WHACKY WHITNEY During a seven year hiatus from recording, Houston's appearance often caused drug-abuse speculation.
WHACKY WHITNEY During a seven year hiatus from recording, Houston’s appearance often caused drug-abuse speculation.

Her co-operation in reality television show Meeting Bobby Brown (described by one reviewer as a “train-wreck”) made for awkward viewing. She appeared to be putting on a good show for the cameras, escorting her husband to court appearances. Mrs Bobby Brown was about as far away from her career as she could get.

And what a career it had been up to that point. Famously discovered by Arista Records’ Clive Davis at the age of nineteen, Houston started singing in church as a New Jersey teenager, and accompanied her mother Cissy Houston onstage touring in 1970s America.

The familyʼs performing pedigree was already the stuff of legend by the time Whitney first took to the stage. Cissy had sung back-up for the likes of Elvis Presley and Aretha Franklin, and Whitneyʼs cousin Dionne Warwick was already an international star.

Houston also had the kind of looks that superstars are made of. She was never going to stop at the benchmarks set by her role models. This was an altogether different kind of star, and she rose incredibly fast.

Her 1985 self-titled debut album broke sales records, and at the 1986 Grammy Awards, Warwick was selected to present her cousin with the first of countless accolades, in that instance for her breakout hit ‘Saving All My Love For You’.

WHO LOVES ME Houston in the video clip for her 1987 smash hit I Wanna Dance with Somebody.
WHO LOVES ME Houston in the video clip for her 1987 smash hit I Wanna Dance with Somebody.

Responding to the high-energy (and extremely high-pitched) dance and pop scene of the late 1980s, Houston and Davis collaborated on further albums in 1987 (Whitney) and 1990 (Iʼm Your Baby Tonight). The first of these spawned one of her all-time hits – ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)’ – in which Houstonʼs voice soars high above the instruments with a kind of euphoric energy matched only by her striking beauty in the video clip. Iʼm Your Baby Tonight was a more modest success, but it was just the calm before the storm.

Houston later recalled being surprised that anyone was interested in her to star in a movie, although her agent warned the one-time model to get used to film offers. Fresh from the widespread success of Dances With Wolves, Kevin Costner approached Houston to take on the role of superstar Rachel Marron in The Bodyguard. Clive Davis was her manager at the time, and so a soundtrack album was quite naturally part of the deal.

In what must be one of Hollywoodʼs finest examples of colour-blind casting, Whitney took to the role which in many ways drew on her own experiences – fronting massive crowds, leading a life protected by security, all whilst searching for true love.

The re-hashing of Dolly Partonʼs 1970s hit ‘I Will Always Love You’ for the final scene proved a marketing masterstroke. The song became Houstonʼs biggest selling single to date, overshadowing the movie which it underscores.

BODY OF WORK Houston's film roles in the 1990s created a new career for the singer, including the lead in Kevin Costner's The Bodyguard.
BODY OF WORK Houston’s film roles in the 1990s created a new career for the singer, including the lead in Kevin Costner’s The Bodyguard.

The combination of fabulous couture, stylishly staged musical numbers, and Houston’s singular beauty were topped-off by that voice, sliding up and down the scale with a beguiling lightness and a devastating power in turns.

Reaching number one on charts across the world, the song was played so much at funerals, weddings and in public places that it created a new career for Whitney. In the midst of the hype she married Bobby Brown and gave birth to their daughter Bobbi Kristina.

More films followed – Waiting To Exhale (1995) gave Whitney kudos within the African-American community. The Preacherʼs Wife (1996) teamed her with Denzel Washington, with a dose of the kind of gospel-inspired music sheʼd cut her teeth on back in New Jersey.

By the end of the millennium, Whitney Houston made music look and sound effortless. She reinvented her look countless times and backed-up the movie roles and high-end videos with sold-out world tours, and the vocally demanding ‘I Will Always Love You’ was on every song-list.

I recall hearing a radio news segment whilst living in Britain during the late 1990s in which it was reported that Whitney Houston had apologised to fans during a live show for not being able to reach the signature high note towards the end of that song.

It was odd not because an apology seemed so honest, but because it was Whitney Houston, ‘The Voice’. It showed a human side to this seemingly untouchable superstar, but in hindsight it was an indication that an extended silence was on its way.

Cut forward a decade, to the dawn of Oprahʼs 2009 season, when Winfrey managed to coax Houston back in front of the cameras at the end of her hiatus. Divorce from Bobby Brown in 2007, and stints in rehab, had left her unwilling to record or perform again for years. But, having released only two of her contracted seven albums, Houston and Davis finally had a highly anticipated product to tout – Whitney Houstonʼs first album in six years – I Look to You.

Houston appeared to be channeling the survivor-aura of Tina Turner. Certainly not as hoarse as she was with Sawyer seven years before, Houstonʼs speaking voice was nevertheless thin, but not out of character for a middle-aged singer whoʼd performed for three decades.

NOTHING BUT LOVE Houston after performing on Oprah in 2009.
NOTHING BUT LOVE Houston after performing on Oprah in 2009.

Revealing some of the truths of her drug use and her ongoing recovery, Houston allowed Oprah to search for reasons why sheʼd reached the point of giving up her voice, described as a “National Treasure”. Levelled by the questioning, Whitney cited lack of personal freedom and loss of identity as she grew through her twenties and thirties.

She also performed live for the studio audience. The song was ‘I Didnʼt Know My Own Strength’, tailor-made by longtime collaborator Diane Warren as a survivor anthem which placed few demands on Houstonʼs diminished range.

The clip of this performance (and her rendition of the same song at the 2009 American Music Awards) have become YouTube sensations. Fully inhabiting the role of world-weary diva, while capitalising on her strong, deeper registers, Whitney Houston struck exactly the right note.

After a hiatus from Arista, Clive Davis was back on deck and Houston credited him as the reason she returned to music and did not carry out her threat to disappear with her daughter and set up a fruit juice stand on an island somewhere.

If Whitney had left things at that – a new album and some select live performances to promote it – then her comeback would have been assured. Whether it was Davis who signed Houston up for a world tour, or Houstonʼs decision alone, it is generally accepted that it was the worst move considering Whitney’s vocal abilities at the time.

COMEBACK TRAIL Whitney Houston performs live for the first time in years in Central Park, New York, in 2009.
COMEBACK TRAIL Whitney Houston performs live for the first time in years in Central Park, New York, in 2009.

The Nothing But Love world tour did not start well. She kept a crowd waiting in Central Park, New York, before hitting the stage for a live set of new and old songs which was quickly truncated after her voice gave out.

On the road across Europe and Australasia Houston was boo-ed, walk-out-on and reviewed negatively at every turn.

One understanding fan has since posted a compilation of the best performances of this tour on YouTube. In these, Whitney seems genuinely elated that her voice is working, and she reaches the notes without wavering.

Other unkind clips record only the wall of ambient sound and none of the real quality of the live audio, leaving one of the worldʼs best vocal talents sounding lost and exhausted.

Compare these clips with the videos that were produced to support I Look To You. The first, ‘Million Dollar Bill’ harks back to Whitneyʼs heyday, with its upbeat melody and memorable riffs.

The second, the title track from the album, is a very different experience. Whitney sits alone, delivering a gospel-inspired song written for her by R. Kelly a decade before.

LOOK LIKE YOU Whitney Houston's maturation reveals her striking resemblance to cousin DIonne Warwick.
LOOK LIKE YOU Whitney Houston’s maturation reveals her striking resemblance to cousin Dionne Warwick.

Less than a minute in, with her downturned face and her hair in a modest fall, Houstonʼs more mature appearance at age forty-six reveals the family facial structure – youʼd swear it was Dionne Warwick.

In the recording studio, Whitney explores the depths of her range in a manner suggesting a lot of soul searching. Her upper registers have narrowed, yes, but visual comparisons with Warwick should remind critics that Warwick’s career was not built on a powerhouse live voice, but a gentle, reaching quality on lighter ballads.

In the light of her live vocals, the question Whitney Houston fans are left asking is this – is ‘The Voice’ now damaged beyond repair?

The truth is not all bad news.

As 2011 dawned, she made what was to have been a low-key appearance at the BET (African-American Entertainment Network) Celebration of Soul in Los Angeles.

The exact number Houston was to perform in the line-up of established Soul and Gospel stars was kept under wraps.

Kim Burrell was introduced, embarking on a wonderfully husky rendition of Houstonʼs ‘I Look To You’. Beloved within the Gospel scene for her pastoral work and her vocal abilities, Burrell deserved a number all to herself, and seemed to be getting it, until the start of the second verse, when another voice came from behind the scenes.

It took a few moments for the crowd to recognise Whitney Houston. Up went the scrim, and a simply dressed, visibly nervous Whitney walked to Burrellʼs side, singing through the standing ovation she received, not quite able to grasp its magnitude.

SWAN SONG Whitney Houston's triumphant live performance at the 2011 BET Celebration of Gospel.
SWAN SONG Whitney Houston’s triumphant live performance at the 2011 BET Celebration of Gospel.

If 2010 had been a year for Houston fans to forget, 2011 started with this knockout duet. Burrell turned instant backing vocalist, encouraging Houston to let the performance grow. Together, they drew-out the energy of the song and lifted the roof off.

At one point, Burrell allowed Houston to take centre stage in a thrilling moment akin to the best live performances of Mick Jagger.

That her voice was husky was of no concern. She was pitch perfect, and her heart seemed to be in right place.

If someone ever makes a movie of Houstonʼs life, this should be the penultimate scene. It was her true comeback moment, wrapped in love.

In the twelve months since, her fans have been hitting the internet with this performance as evidence to silence the doubters and the detractors.

And the moment seems to have worked for Whitney in equal measure. Recent interviews from the set of her return to the big screen (a remake of the 1976 movie Sparkle) reveal a healthier, more centred woman. Notably, her speaking voice has recovered.

Generous with journalists, Whitney shared the story of how this project was shelved in the wake of the sudden death of its intended star Aaliyah in 2001. A decade on, American Idol winner Jordin Sparks has been cast in the lead, with Houston taking the role of mother to three aspiring singers in 1960s Detroit.

The parallels with her own upbringing, in the era where the young Whitney met Elvis, watched from the sidelines as Dionne became a legend, and was introduced to Aretha at the peak of her career, are obvious.

An upcoming documentary about Houstonʼs family and their musical roots will probably go a long way to cementing her links to Dionne Warwick, and possibly allow her reinvention to come full circle.

For Houstonʼs fans, there is plenty of new stuff on its way.

Sparkle is set for an August 2012 release. A sequel to Waiting to Exhale is also in the pipeline, penned by African-American author Terry McMillan, whom Houston admits has gently coaxed her into reprising her role as the lovelorn Savannah.

With Clive Davis on board for both projects, the soundtracks are likely to include new recordings from Houston.

PLUCK COVER copyHouston described her comeback in 2009 as “more of a come through”, and itʼs probably only fair to give her the last word. Ten years since she hoarsely told Diane Sawyer that sheʼd like to have retired within a decade, Whitneyʼs still here, and if you cut her a bit of slack, sheʼs in fine voice.

This article was written a week before Whitney Houston died.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

This article appears in Michael’s eBook Pluck: Exploits of the single-minded.


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