Whitney Houston: Voice for the ages tarnished by addictions
The voice floats confidently but quietly in the first few lines of Whitney Houston's version of "I Will Always Love You," the song for which the superstar vocalist, who died Saturday of unknown causes at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, will always be remembered.
"If I should stay I only be in your way," sings Houston in those opening bars, minus any instrumentation, as if into an abyss of loneliness. "So I'll go, but I know I'll think of you every step of the way."
If you haven't heard it in a while, go back and listen, and wonder at Houston's pure tone, one that at its peak could not only hit a note and gracefully sustain it, but inject it with just enough flair and nuance to reinforce her control without pressing the point. She knew she had a voice.
She pauses, as if to muster the strength to say what's coming next.
It's two words -- the "I" at the beginning of the line, and the "you" at the end -- held for a few beats longer than most others could sustain but with ironclad control, that seals the deal, a single pair of syllables so convincing that it should have won her both an Oscar and a Grammy. She sings the words differently throughout; at first, it's with love, then with conviction, then with desperation, a drama that unfolds across four minutes. She shaped notes so that they sounded like floating hearts one minute, only to explode as the emotion turned from love to loneliness.
Fifty-five million records sold. A voice that carried not only Houston's spirit, but the genetic code of gospel-singing mother Cissy Houston and cousin Dionne Warwick, with godmother Aretha Franklin's influence. Hearing Whitney's phrasing -- the way in which she breathed the lyrics out -- you could hear both the church and the playground in her.
Though she may be remembered for her ballads -- "Saving All My Love for You," "Greatest Love of All," "Where Do Broken Hearts Go" -- she could bring the funk, too. In a landscape in which Michael Jackson and Prince were duking it out for America's affections and George Michael was offering romance, Whitney jumped in with a couple dance-floor bangers that not only brought a defiant confidence but pushed her voice in more gospel-oriented ways: "I'm Every Woman" not only jammed but preached, and "I Wanna Dance With Somebody" delivered her message loud and clear.
As Houston's fame grew beyond radio and onto the screen, where she delivered a blockbuster performance in "The Bodyguard" both as an actor and as the soundtrack's star, we started watching her closer, and as the '90s gave way to the '00s, it soon became evident that something was amiss -- that the delays between albums, her failed appearances and airport security run-ins were starting to affect her talent.
The rest is the train wreck part of her life, and the sad truth is that her memory will forever be tarnished by her addictions. The images that we carry of her are hard to reconcile with the voice. But that's where "I Will Always Love You" comes in. Put it on. Turn it up. Close your eyes. Whitney's voice, mere hours after her death, has already proved it can outlive her body. Even if her humanity couldn't handle that tone, posterity certainly can.
-- Randall Roberts
Photo: Whitney Houston strikes a pose during her performance at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, Monday, April 10, 2000, during taping of the "25 Years of #1 Hits: Arista Records' Anniversary Celebration." Credit: Mark J.Terrill / Associated Press