While for those with short memories it may be difficult to think of Whitney Houston outside of her regular starring role in the tabloids during the 21st Century, soul music fans certainly remember when she arrived in 1984 as a talented, stunningly beautiful young vocalist who appeared to have the whole package. She largely delivered on the promise over the next decade and a half, becoming perhaps the most influential female singer of her generation (its easy to forget that Mariah Carey was once viewed as Whitney Part II) and one of the biggest popular music performers of all time.
Born in 1963 as the daughter of singer Cissy Houston, Whitney was performing by the time she was a teen and was discovered by A&R man Gerry Griffith and signed as a solo singer at age 20 by Arista President Clive Davis. Her first recording was a less-than-inspiring duet with an aging Teddy Pendergrass called "Hold Me," but it was her 1985 debut album and the Kashif-produced "You Give Good Love" that made her a star. Her big, bright voice was an incredible instrument and it was nearly impossible to avoid gaping at her breathtaking physical beauty. Davis modeled her for crossover success, delivering to her a series of instantly likeable pop-oriented singles that, one after another, shot to the top of the charts. Arista also fashioned a public relations campaign that painted her as a spiritually grounded, nearly perfect pop princess - an almost holographic caricature of every woman's friend and every man's dream that was impossible to live up to or sustain.
Houston's self-titled album became the biggest selling female debut of all-time, and she immediately moved near the top of the pop music royalty. Her follow-up album, Whitney, continued the ascension, boasting four more #1 pop hits (alternating between bright dance tunes and formulaic ballads that were notable only for her always-solid vocal performance) and solidifying her position as an artist who appeared incapable of slipping. By now it was clear that Houston was largely a singles artist - her albums were simply a collection of melodic cuts from a number of producers with no particular cohesiveness - but she made those singles her own and sang the heck out of them.
Houston tried to create an ever-so-slightly hipper sound on her third disc, 1990's I'm Your Baby Tonight, working with hot young producer Babyface. However, expectations had grown so artificially high that the disc was considered a disappointment because it only spawned two number one hits, the title track and a remake of Linda Clifford's "All The Man I Need." She recovered on the charts the next year with her version of the "Star Spangled Banner," which was released around the time of the beginning of the Gulf War (and which topped the chart again after 9/11).
Houston's transition from singer to actress began with 1992's The Bodyguard, a by-the-numbers movie that teamed the biggest singer in the world with the biggest actor in the world, Kevin Costner. It was a smash, and was only surpassed in notoriety by the uber-popular soundtrack and Houston's cover of Dolly Parton's "I Will Always Love You," a show-stopping vocal performance that became the biggest hit of Houston's career and one of the best selling singles of all time. The second single, the David Foster-penned "I Have Nothing," was perhaps even better, and also hit #1. She followed The Bodyguard with two more movies and soundtracks, Waiting to Exhale and The Preacher's Wife, each of which spawned hits but failed to reach the popularity of its predecessor.
With her movie career over, Houston came back to music in 1998 with My Love Is Your Love, her most ambitious and urban sounding album. While it didn't meet the sales of her earlier albums (it was her first disc to fail to hit the top 10), it was a refreshing change and included a some very memorable songs, including the reggae-influenced title cut (courtesy of Wyclef Jean) and the edgy "It's Not Right But It's Okay." She also ventured back into big ballad territory and to the top of the charts on her #1 duet with Mariah Carey, "When You Believe."
Unfortunately, around this time Houston's life appeared to be unraveling, with legal problems, marital issues with husband Bobby Brown, erratic public behavior, scary weight loss and drug problems creating for her a regular front page column in the tabloids that continued until her death. These personal travails tended to overshadow her enjoyable 2001 release Just Whitney and her 2003 Christmas album. The latter album also showed the first signs of a growing roughness in her voice, which appeared to fall short of the crystalline tones of her earlier performances but which also gave new character.
In 2008, Houston began working on her "comeback" album I Look to You, working with such current R&B luminaries as R Kelly, Stargate, Akon and Tricky Stewart. The title cut hit radio in the Summer of 2009 with some success, but it was the Alicia Keys-penned follow up track, "Million Dollar Bill," that made radio take notice. While the disc showed that Houston had lost some of her overpowering vocal skills, it was nonetheless a welcome and worthwhile return for her.
She followed the album with her "Nothing But Love" tour, which, unfortunately, showed Houston struggling as a singer in ways her fans had never before seen. The tour was largely criticized and ended early. Houston voluntarily entered rehab for dependencies in 2011. She died suddenly on February 11, 2012 in Beverly Hills.
While her personal life unfortunately took front and center during the last decade and a half of her life, it should not make soul music lovers forget the immense talent that Houston brought to a quarter century of music. And though her albums (especially her early work) were too often dominated by safe, formulaic ballads, her performances always rose above the material with which she she worked and resulted in a career full of memorable moments. She was considered by many as the voice of her generation, and it is for that voice that she will always be remembered.
By Chris Rizik