A Whitney Houston Retrospective: ‘The Voice’ That Changed the Music Industry
Long before the reality show The Voice, there was Whitney “The Voice” Houston.
Throughout her decades-long career, Houston had her fair share of ups and downs, but one thing was for sure – she was blessed with a voice so powerful and rich, which seemed to come effortlessly whenever she took to the stage.
“God gave me a voice to sing with, and when you have that, what other gimmick is there?” she was known to have famously said.
In an interview with Vibe, singer-actress Faith Evans admitted that there was simply nobody like Houston.
“Whitney wasn’t just a singer with a beautiful voice. She was a true musician. Her voice was an instrument and she knew how to use it,” Evans said.
“From every run to every crescendo, she was in tune with what she could do with her voice, and it’s not something simple for a singer – even a very talented one – to achieve.”
Even from a young age, Houston was already making waves in the music industry, especially in the 1980s.
At a time when society was still taking baby steps in the direction of diversity, she became one of the few Black artistes to receive broadcast opportunities on MTV with the music video of “How Will I Know”, the third single from her self-titled debut album.
At the time, MTV had come under fire for favouring white acts, often giving far less attention to Black, Latino or minority artistes.
The upbeat, colourful music video, together with lyrics that seemed to speak the hearts of teenagers, attracted attention and airplay, going on to win “Best Female Video” at the 1986 MTV Video Music Awards.
Following its success, Houston became a regular presence on the channel.
MUSIC IS IN HER BLOOD
Singing was part of Houston’s DNA. Her mother Cissy Houston and cousin Dionne Warwick are also prominent gospel singers, while the Queen of Soul, the late Aretha Franklin, was her godmother.
Growing up, Houston spent a lot of time around Franklin, who was close to Houston’s mother Cissy.
Recognising Houston’s talent, Franklin played a part in encouraging the young singer to hone her talent and establish herself as an artiste. The two women even recorded a duet, “It Isn’t, It Wasn’t, It Ain’t Never Gonna Be”, which appeared on Franklin’s 1989 album Through The Storm.
Houston’s early days of singing began at church – she started singing in the choir at the age of five, and by age eleven, was already performing as a soloist for the junior gospel choir.
During an interview for the film The Preacher’s Wife (which stars Houston in the leading female role alongside Denzel Washington), Houston remarked, “My mother told me that if I could sing gospel, I would be able to sing whatever I wanted. All music comes from gospel music.”
Both mother and daughter would eventually go on to perform “I Know Him So Well” together, which was included in Houston’s second album, Whitney.
When she was 19, producer and founder of Arista Records, Clive Davis, discovered Houston’s talent and took her under his wing. The same night he saw her perform with her mother at a club, Davis offered Houston a record deal, and she made her debut on national television two weeks later.
Over the years, they would go on to work together extensively until her unexpected death in 2012.
NOT LETTING CRITICISMS DEFEAT HER
Despite achieving phenomenal success, Houston was faced with backlash from her fans, who complained that she “wasn’t Black enough”, calling her a sellout because her music was “too white”.
She was booed at the Soul Train Music Awards two years in a row during the nominee presentation for “Best R&B/Urban Contemporary Single” (1989) and “Best Music Video” (1988).
Kirk Whalum, Houston’s saxophonist, revealed that it was emotionally devastating for her, and that he didn’t think she ever recovered from it.
While her legendary singles “How Will I Know” and “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)” feature pop melodies that will have you itching to get up on your feet, elements of gospel and soul are also deeply ingrained in Houston’s singing style.
For The Preacher’s Wife, she returned to her first musical love and recorded six gospel tracks with the Georgia Mass Choir – “I Believe In You And Me” became a top 10 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.
Putting her haters to shame, Houston’s track record proved that she was unstoppable. In 1986, she won her first “Best Female Pop Vocal Performance” Grammy (for “Saving All My Love For You”), and again two years later for the same category with “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)”.
CHARTING A JOURNEY
Houston’s illustrious career definitely warrants a closer look. Considering the many highlights of her musical journey, here’s a retrospective ode and deserving roundup of the most memorable.
THE GREATEST AMERICAN NATIONAL ANTHEM PERFORMANCE
In 1991, Houston performed “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the 25th Super Bowl.
Barely ten days into the Persian Gulf War, it was a tense time for many, and her performance worked as a balm to soothe frazzled nerves, bringing the country together through a grand gesture of optimism and patriotism.
“We were a nation on edge, and one voice united us all,” ABC News so succinctly put it.
When preparing for her rendition of the American national anthem, Houston was deeply impressed by Marvin Gaye’s impromptu performance at the 1983 NBA All-Star Game.
Talking to Rickey Minor, her longtime musical director, she asked, “I really loved how he was able to take his time. Can we do something like that, where we let the words kind of linger?”
In the end, they added a beat to each bar, allowing Houston to belt out the unrestricted rhythm of her gospel and soul roots while comfortably clad in a Le Coq Sportif tracksuit, hair pushed back with a white headband.
In fact, Houston wasn’t even supposed to be wearing that now-iconic outfit. The initial plan was for her to don a black cocktail dress for her performance.
However, the weather had gotten too chilly, and her creative director Robyn Crawford suggested that she wear the tracksuit instead.
Houston’s performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” was released as a single, with profits donated to a charity connected with the war efforts.
After the September 11 attacks in 2001, Arista Records re-released the single, which peaked at #6 on the Billboard Hot 100 and went platinum, making Houston the first artiste to take the American national anthem to reach the “Top 10 Billboard” benchmark.
Once again, she donated her share of royalties to the firefighters and victims of the terrorist attacks.
THE HIT SONG THAT ALMOST GOT CUT
Released in 1992, The Bodyguard starred Houston in her acting debut, together with Kevin Costner playing an agent-turned-bodyguard.
Even though the film was criticised for its screenplay and acting, its soundtrack was well-received, producing what would become one of Houston’s greatest hits: “I Will Always Love You”.
The Bodyguard: Original Soundtrack Album became the best-selling soundtrack of all time, selling over 45 million copies worldwide, a mean feat in a pre-streaming era.
“Run To You” and “Queen Of The Night”, also performed by Houston, even received Oscar nominations.
Originally written and recorded by Dolly Parton as a farewell to her mentor Porter Wagoner, “I Will Always Love You” touched the hearts of many hopeless romantics when Houston put her own trademark flair to the song.
Now a soul ballad, it took the #1 spot on the “Billboard Hot 100” for 14 weeks and sold over 20 million copies worldwide, becoming the best-selling single of all time by a female solo artiste.
In 1994, Houston won the Grammy Award for “Record of the Year”.
The success of The Bodyguard’s soundtrack also indirectly enabled Houston to become the first international artiste to perform on stage in South Africa after the end of the apartheid following Nelson Mandela’s election as the country’s president.
Initially, “I Will Always Love You” wasn’t even in the running to become the film’s title track.
Costner, who was also one of the film’s producers, picked out the song and suggested it to Houston, asking her to sing the opening a cappella as how he’d heard it in Linda Ronstadt’s 1975 cover, paying no heed to the record company’s objections that the song wouldn’t get any airplay.
“I needed it to be a cappella because it shows a measure of how much she digs this guy – that she sings without music. This is a very important song in the movie, I don’t care if it was ever on the radio,” insisted Costner.
WELCOMING A NEW ERA WITH A NEW SOUND
The 1990s saw Houston focusing a bulk of her career on acting, but in 1998, she finally released her long-awaited fourth studio album, My Love Is Your Love.
Recorded and mixed in only six weeks, this new album featured talents like Rodney Jerkins, Wyclef Jean and Missy Elliott, injecting a new flavour into Houston’s music, which had previously consisted of mainly ballads or dance numbers.
With its funkier, edgier sound, Houston proved that she, too, was capable of commanding other genres like urban dance, hip-hop, R&B, and reggae.
Focusing on bright, penetrating timbres not heard in Houston’s repertoire, My Love Is Your Love gave rise to numerous hits like “Heartbreak Hotel”, “I Learned From The Best”, “It’s Not Right But It’s Okay”, as well as one of the most stunning duets ever performed, “When You Believe”.
Written by Stephen Schwartz with additional music and lyrics contributed by Babyface, “When You Believe” brought together two vocal powerhouses: Houston and Mariah Carey.
Speaking about their collaboration to Ebony amid rumours of rivalry between the two women, Houston said, “Mariah and I got along very great. We had never talked and never sang together before.
“We just had a chance for camaraderie, singer-to-singer, artiste-to-artiste, that kind of thing. We just laughed and talked and laughed and talked and sang in between that... It's good to know that two ladies of soul can still be friends.”
“When You Believe” went on to win an Academy Award and a Critics’ Choice Awards for “Best Song” in 1999. The following year, it was also nominated for the Golden Globes and Grammy Awards.
POSTHUMOUS COLLABORATIONS WITH TODAY’S TOP ARTISTES
Even though many lament Houston’s early passing at the age of 48, her legacy lives on through tributes from artistes like Jessie J, Chvrches, Sam Smith, and Brandy (who acted together with Houston in Cinderella).
They have performed their own versions of Houston’s top hits like “I Have Nothing”, “It’s Not Right But It’s Okay”, “How Will I Know”, and “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)”.
Just like how Elton John paid homage to Marilyn Monroe’s tragic life with “Candle In The Wind” (which he also rewrote and performed at Princess Diana’s funeral), James Blunt, wrote “Miss America” in Houston’s memory.
“Does another voice sing in Heaven's choir tonight. To fill the silence left behind?” goes the lyrics by Blunt.
“And I don't know what goes on in your mind. I'm sure it's enough to make my cry. Someday we'll find you lived forever.”
Thanks to modern technology, today’s top artistes have managed to work out a way to collaborate posthumously with Houston, bringing her music to younger audiences.
Norwegian DJ Kygo reworked Houston’s cover of Steve Winwood’s “Higher Love” into a tropical house track in 2019, which hit #1 on Billboard’s “Dance Club Songs” chart.
Having previously created a remix of Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing”, he expressed, “You have to be very respectful. I remember when I remixed ‘Sexual Healing’, I was very skeptical about actually doing it.”
He added that Houston’s “Higher Love” is perfect the way it is. He believed no one should try to fix perfection.
To Kygo, the classic song has also connected deeply with so many people.
Yet, he revealed that as a lot of his fans requested for a remix, one day, he just decided to do it.
“So with ‘Higher Love’, I wanted to be respectful of the original song while still adding my touches and letting her vocals shine. She has those ad-libs that she does that no one else does, so I wanted to get that in there.”
British electronic music trio Clean Bandit, which consistently puts out chart-toppers like “Symphony”, “Rockabye” and “Rather Be”, has also adapted Houston’s “How Will I Know” to fit the current music listener’s palate.
He stayed true to the song’s 1980s essence with additional violin and saxophone riffs.
After spending decades touching the hearts of music lovers around the world with her incomparable voice, Houston was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2020 by Alicia Keys.
Finally, the six-time Grammy winner and Guinness World Record holder of the most-awarded female artiste of all time has finally realised her dream of having her achievements immortalised in the famed museum.
Houston’s mother, Cissy, shared, “I’m so very, very proud that Whitney’s being inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. She wanted to be something, not anything. She worked hard at it too.”
Now, you can relive the magic of Whitney Houston’s meteoric rise to fame in the new biographical musical, Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody.
Produced by Houston’s mentor Clive Davis, this film focuses more on the music.
Starring newcomer Naomi Ackie as Houston and Stanley Tucci as Davis, I Wanna Dance With Somebody gives you a look into the glorious rise of Houston’s career, from obscurity to international stardom.
Enjoy Sound of Life’s curated Whitney Houston playlist below:
Cover: picjumbo.com/Pexels, John Mathew Smith/Wikimedia Commons, PH2 Mark Kettenhofen/Wikimedia Commons, Asterio Tecson/Wikimedia Commons
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Writer | Michelle Tan
Having spent the past decade turning her passion into profession, Michelle is a freelance writer/translator based in Malaysia. Her lifelong dream is to become an urban hermit.
February 14 2023