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Category:    Home > Essays > Music > Biography > History > Pop > Soul > The Legacy Of Whitney Houston

The Legacy Of Whitney Houston


By Nicholas Sheffo



Though we knew her health was questionable, that did not lessen the shock sinking in that Whitney Houston was gone at the age of 48.  This is being finished less than 24 hours after her death and we do not know the specifics of how or why, but this piece is not about what the media is going to focus on, report and repeat non-stop for the rest of the year.  This is not about her personal life or even about the quality of her music.  It is obvious she had huge hit albums and singles, which seem less impressive as so many have had many hits since, but you have to go back and put her success in context to understand why she was so important to so many and to the music industry.


Even if you don’t like all or any of her music, the fact is that she could sing and the way she did had her in full command of her phrasing, powerful vocalizing and in her element so strongly at her best that it is no wonder that she became an international music icon.  But this just did not happen out of nowhere.  Her mother being gospel singer and Sweet Sensations member Cissy Houston (who had backed and toured with the likes of Barbra Streisand and Elvis Presley), cousins were Dee Dee & Dionne Warwick (Cissy Houston and Dee Dee Warwick backed Dionne on many of her classic 1960s hits) and godmother was The Queen Of Soul, Aretha Franklin.  Even all that was no guarantee of commercial success, though.  There was one person determined to put her over the top however, and he did, legendary record executive Clive Davis.


Davis first made a name for himself at Columbia Records signing acts like Donovan, Janis Joplin, Aerosmith and Earth, Wind & Fire, bringing the label into the modern age they had somewhat avoided before his 1967 arrival.  He then moved on to become the founder of Arista Records and they became a major hit machine for decades to come.  In the wake of Michael Jackson’s Thriller and the record-breaking success of Madonna, Davis decided to back Houston and the result was not just a smash debut album, but Houston becoming the artist that would finish shattering the walls of racism in the music business Jackson started to dismantle and walls of sexism Madonna was boldly tearing down.


Though the industry had many female vocalists who sold millions of records, it did not always mean huge album sales.  Warwick, Streisand, Franklin, Diana Ross, Linda Ronstadt, Carole King, Petula Clark, Brenda Lee, Connie Francis, Olivia Newton-John, Donna Summer and Helen Reddy were inarguably some of the biggest female solo vocalists since the Rock era began in 1955, yet none of them had a long string of huge selling albums.  Had to believe, but it was still an anomaly for a female singer to sell millions of albums with each release in huge quantities despite big album like Guilty (by Streisand), Tapestry (King) and Diana.


As well, despite the success of soul music, the majors were either not convinced or did not care to serve a larger audience who wanted more soul music or had no problem with African American artists or buying their music.  Pre-Thriller, it was embarrassing the lack of promotion, substandard quality of album covers and even eventually Music Videos, compounded by the fact that MTV had a “Rock-only” policy that was obviously at least semi-racist and discouraged the labels from backing videos for singles by those artists until Columbia/Epic Records threatened to pull all of their from MTV if they would not start playing Jackson’s Billie Jean.


Davis knew the time was right, he had the right singer, the right material and a record label he controlled which was at the peak of its power, now poised to be more powerful.  Like Thriller, the first single from the 1985 Whitney Houston album was a duet called Hold Me with Teddy Pendergrass, first recorded as a solo track recently before by no less than Diana Ross.  It missed the Top 40 Pop, but the richly soulful You Give Good Love was a hit and so began 7 #1 Pop hits in a row would follow spanning her first two albums, which set sales records and were so successful that it rubbed off on other female singer’s record sales.  Madonna Like A Virgin (1984) the year before had set new highs for female solo album sales and they, soon to be joined by Janet Jackson and Mariah Carey, would complete equity in the music business for women artists for good.


The result for Houston was in becoming a 1980s icon, a huge crossover success and a permanent all-time star in the music business, the kind the industry does not produce anymore since they do not wildly back single artists anymore and find their acts from TV contests instead of talented executives who love music finding talented artists.  She is also the kind of success that was rare in her time and pre-Internet would take off once connecting with the public.


Yet, there were still complaints.  Like Dionne Warwick before her, black audiences started to complain she was not “black” enough as her hits become increasingly pop oriented and often upbeat, forgetting the likes of You Give Good Love more quickly than you might think, plus she became part of a backlash against a lack of more realistic African American discourse in culture as the later years of the Reagan Era became deadening.  When she responded with Heartbreak Hotel, the opposite occurred with white audiences passing on it at the time feeling it was too soulful or not pop-oriented enough.  The biggest irony of all this is her success helped pave the way in American Culture for a Barack Obama Presidency to be possible.


Now, she is gone, though she still has a remake of the drama Sparkle (the non-musical variant of Dreamgirls) to be released in theaters and who knows what songs she cut that remain unreleased in the Arista/J Records/RCA/Sony music vaults.  Her personal decline is yet another painful and sad story of the entertainment industry losing another major talent long before it should have ever happened.  So I had to ask one last question.  When was the last time I felt I saw the original Whitney Houston in action at the peak of her vocal powers in total control of her persona and talent.


After some consideration, I would go to the My Love Is Your Love album (with Heartbreak Hotel) where she may have been going into a new kind of Soul/Pop direction that would have created a whole new era of fresh hit for her that never happened.  I was amused by Heartbreak Hotel (a triad with singers Faith Evans and Kelly Price that is better than it got credit for and a Music Video that was hilarious), but I would point to It’s Not Right But It’s Okay.  A classic, smooth soul record with a hugely underrated Music Video of its own showing Houston at her classy best, on top, totally in her element, on the cutting edge of fashion and style as well as a possible new wave of Soul Music noted.


Cleverly coy, she knows who she is, she knows the camera is there, she knows her audience is there and is as sexy as she ever was, at that point a veteran artist that knew she was finally an inarguable giant and was doing what she was doing because she loved it.  If she quit then, she would have been a legend and could have retired with no problem, but music was the legacy or her and her family.  It was something she loved and she tried to make all of her very well-produced songs (with some of the biggest and best talents in the business, Davis saw to this and everyone flocked to work with her soon afterwards) something distinctive, special and complete.


Whitney Houston even got lucky with hits in the filmmaking medium, but in music, she was totally at home and she knew it.  No matter her fall, she did have it all at one time and for that short but huge golden period, the world knew it.  She earned it, will always own it and that is ultimately the reason her loss is so horrible because if she had found a road to recovery, she could and would have returned again and now, we’ll never know what music only she would or could have delivered.  That is also why we should always treat the uglinesses in her personal life as secondary because she and we deserve better and that is her great legacy.


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