In the days since Whitney Houston passed away, I have struggled to gather my thoughts about the situation. When the news hit us, I was angry. I was sad. Quite frankly, I was nearly speechless. We grew up with Whitney, and for all of the times we shook our heads at the tumult that marked much of her life, we never stopped rooting for her. At least I know I didn’t. While her tragic end wasn’t totally surprising it was still shocking, the kind of twisted finale reserved for the celluloid universe – or, on a more realistic level, fallen screen sirens and belters of a bygone era.
We didn’t want this kind of ending for Whitney. It just doesn’t seem right.
Amid all of the tears, tributes and speculation from talking heads, I decided to do the one thing that would bring me a bit of comfort: I turned my attention to the music. Between 1985 and 2009, Whitney issued just seven full-length studio albums – a relatively small canon when you consider the strength of her decades-long chart history and overall impact. More often than not she is filtered through popular culture in a statistical vacuum, and given her status as the most awarded female artist in history that makes sense. However, in my mind the numbers are secondary to the organic connection the Whitney phenomenon made with those of us raised during the earliest, pre-Bodyguard years of her heyday. In the moments after my mother called my sister Stephanie and I to tell us Whitney had left us, I was immediately taken back to that space in my life. I think my heart has been floating there ever since.
While America pushed Whitney’s towering rendition of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” from the blockbuster The Bodyguard back into Billboard’s top 10, I pulled out what for me remains her most joyous, unfettered musical document: Whitney Houston. Much like Michael Jackson’s epic masterpiece Thriller, this long-player was equal parts song cycle and cultural statement. Remember, this was the post-disco era of Reagan and the Huxtables. Artists like Michael, Lionel Richie and Diana Ross had polished black pop to an almost blinding sheen and redefined modern-day blackness in the process. Whitney, with her model good looks and well-documented musical pedigree, fit right into the mold. Looking back on it, the Seventeen-meets-Essence album cover packaging and 45 picture sleeves say it all. At once regal and youthful, Whitney looked like that older, fashion-forward cousin who stepped out of the box and made good. She was elegant but totally likable, a girl you wanted to see make it. She was a snapshot of the dream – OUR dream.
On the musical front, soul purists hammer the album as pap that squandered a beautiful instrument, but to dismiss it as such is shortsighted. This wasn’t an album that was intended to be Caught Up or Young, Gifted and Black, and anyone expecting the down-to-the-bone soul of Millie Jackson or Whitney’s godmother Aretha Franklin was sure to be disappointed. As far as debuts go very few are better, as it is one of the best examples of melodic versatility caught on record. A master interpreter, Whitney could do it all – and with Narada Michael Walden, Michael Masser, Jermaine Jackson and Kashif at the helm, the album collated her pop, soul and gospel sensibilities better than much of what would emerge in later years.
People praise “I Will Always Love You” endlessly, but “You Give Good Love” will forever and always – at least in my opinion – be the definitive Whitney love song. There was innocence to it, a sexiness and vulnerability that rarely came across in the bombast of the big ballads that eventually became her calling card. Produced by label mate Kashif, the single flirted with hints of the chic New York-based Hush Productions sound immortalized by Melba Moore, Lillo Thomas, Freddie Jackson and Kashif himself. As journalist Steven Ivory noted in the Unsung installment on Freddie, it was an approach that wasn’t concerned with crossing over – it crossed over because it was good. It’s one of the few purely urban contemporary moments from the early days, a song elevated by Whitney’s knack for sensitive, emotive phrasing. Other slow cuts moved us: “Saving All My Love for You,” a song recorded years earlier by one-time Fifth Dimension leaders Billy Davis Jr. and Marilyn McCoo, earned Whitney her first Grammy and remains an adult contemporary staple (buoyed by a lovely saxophone solo by Tom Scott), while the showy “All At Once” surely did diva Diana proud. The charming “Nobody Loves Me Like You Do” and “Take Good Care of My Heart” paired the singer with Jermaine – another Arista signee – and it’s somewhat clear that our Nippy was holding back a little bit in an effort to compliment her duet partner. Teddy Pendergrass proved a more suitable vocal foil on “Hold Me,” a tender duet that appeared earlier on the crooner’s 1984 comeback LP Love Language.
Given her persona as a purveyor of dramatic showstoppers, it’s funny to think of Whitney as a dance diva. But to this day, club kids are as loyal to her as pop and R&B fans. “How Will I Know,” a dance floor burner on par with anything issued at the time by the likes of Madonna or Shannon, was the beginning of this clubland love affair and the children STILL go wild if a jock dusts it off. The video remains one of the most enduring images of the songbird, an explosion of teased hair, body paint, bright makeup and those comical off-kilter dance moves we often mocked but also loved and appreciated. The isolated vocal track that surfaced in the wake of her death only highlighted the performance’s power, proving that even the most fluffy, feel-good up-tempo cut can be moving when it lands in capable hands. Other synth-heavy ditties like “Someone for Me” and the R&B hit “Thinking About You” feel like filler next to “How Will I Know,” but they still shine as bright, if dated, toe-tappers.
Still, it was “Greatest Love of All” – popularized by George Benson – that truly endeared Whitney to millions across the board and set the blueprint for the slow-building power ballads that would lift her to one-name status. Whitney did with it what Aretha did with Otis Redding’s “Respect,” transforming the song from a solid R&B outing to an American standard and reference point for female vocal performance. Its simple sentiments seem bittersweet in light of what is unraveling before our eyes, and it is hard to not feel a bit sad when you think of the beautiful girl in the white gown who urged us all to find our strength in love. We could speculate for days about whether or not that Whitney was the real Whitney. None of that really matters, as it’s the Whitney we came to adore, the Whitney we fiercely defend, and ultimately the Whitney we carry in our hearts.
At the end of the day, Whitney Houston may not be the great soul album of the twentieth century, but it was never supposed to be. The sum of its parts marked a new beginning in many ways, not only for a young artist but for a burgeoning generation of black kids like me who were growing up in an era marked by a series of social and political changes. As was the case with Michael, Whitney’s wide success was and is something of an inspiration to many of us, a moment in time that let us know there really were no limits to what we as blacks could accomplish. With that in mind, Whitney’s debut is just as relevant in the lexicon of black music as anything by her contemporaries and is deserving of the praise and commercial success that fans hold dear 27 years later. Maybe it was not “soul” in the textbook sense, but it touched people in a way that transcends some of the genre’s more lauded albums of years past.
As I said on my Facebook page, Whitney was not just a singer. She was an icon. She was a cultural signpost. Above all else, she was human. Embrace the legacy and the music.
We love you, and we miss you.