The Legacy Of Whitney Houston
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.