Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Whitney Houston - The Voice, The Tragedy, The Memories

One of my first memories of hearing Whitney Houston was when I was 5 or 6 in a mall. Back then, they used to play music videos in certain sections to keep kids entertained and this time, I heard a song that sounded pretty good. I didn't listen to much popular music so I liked this song and I kept watching to see who it was. Turns out it was Whitney singing "I'm Your Baby Tonight"

Another memory is always hearing "All the Man I Need" in my Dad's car whenever I'd go with him to run errands. It seems like that song always came on the radio every time and I don't know if he sang it, but it always would either put me to sleep or be in the background while I played my Game Boy.

Being a kid in the 90's meant hearing girls try to sing "I Will Always Love You" at talent shows or seeing people joke around with that long note Whitney sang near the end. One way or another, you knew that voice. She made Dolly Parton's classic even more powerful the same way Johnny Cash would do with Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt"

That's why losing Whitney Houston is such a big deal. It's another person gone that I grew up with. Another global icon dead just like perhaps the biggest male entertainer ever three years ago in Michael Jackson. It's someone that I've come to know and appreciate long before she became a poster child for addiction.

That voice of hers was a gift. Coming up in church, I know excellent singing when I heard it and Whitney not only had one of the biggest ever in terms of sound, but also had incredible control. Most singers will tend to oversing, but Whitney's voice was precise, pure and steady. Yet she was able to use it powerfully like a boxer who can throw jabs and uppercuts while dancing around the ring. Always focused, always in control and never afraid to show you exactly how strong they are.

Go back and listen to "I'm Your Baby Tonight." - the double-timed harmonies in the final verse are some of my favorite vocal acrobatics. "I Have Nothing" where she rises with the music and always appears in control.

It's why her version of "The Star Spangled Banner" resonated in 1991 and in 2001 when it came back for  the 9/11 aftermath. The power and conviction in it to soar with the music. Marvin Gaye's version was smooth and cool, Jimi Hendrix's version was raw and political. The Holy Grail of Nat'l Anthem Performances in my opinion.

Junior high, I saw Whitney in "The Preacher's Wife" with Denzel Washington and Courtney B. Vance. She was a convincing church wife which reminded me that was her roots. "I Believe in You and Me" was another song that hit me close.

In high school, I remember hearing Whitney updated for a new era. "It's Not Right, But It's Okay" was all over the pop radio while "Heartbreak Hotel" was on the R&B stations. Funky and smooth, it was a restrained Whitney but no less powerful. But there was nothing better than watching Prince of Egypt and hearing "When You Believe".

Her and Mariah coming together remains one of my favorite pop moments growing up because it was two divas of sound coming together. They sounded so perfect together, not fighting for attention on the track but meshing their harmonies/voices to elevate an inspirational song even higher. It also led to a memorable MTV VMA exchange where they both showed up wearing the same outfit but found a way to make it hilarious.

Sadly after 2000, that was the last of Whitney as we remember. I feel sorry that 90's babies missed out on hearing her in her prime and saw her addicted and consumed by her life. Even being an 80's baby, I missed out on being stunned on young Whitney in her early years selling records out the gate and shocking people with her ahead-of-her-time vocals.

I didn't realize what Whitney accomplished before 1990. Two #1 albums (including the biggest selling female debut ever), 7 straight No. 1's. She could've retired after that and gone down as one of the biggest female artists of all time. I didn't realize she went 8 years between albums (1990-1998) so I came of age knowing her off soundtracks.

But my last memory of her will be positive. Her last hit, "I Look To You" was an inspirational song that showed me that while her voice wasn't the same, she could still deliver a powerful message. Something a friend of mine showed as she danced to it in church. That's the Whitney I'll remember.

It's a tragedy that her demons began to take her away from us. But it's even more tragic that her life will be reduced to that by some who only see her as a fallen addict with no sympathy. As if she were Amy Winehouse instead of perhaps Billie Holiday. I'll choose to look at the full measure of her life and remember her good and bad.

I'll remember that she has a teenage daughter without a mother, a mother who lost her daughter, friends in the music industry who knew her as a precocious child singing backup to Chaka Khan's "I'm Every Woman." I'll remember her inspiring songs that will speak to us and try to forget how the very industry that raised her up didn't do more to save her.

Let's let our dear sister get the last word. One of my favorites, from the Waiting to Exhale soundtrack. Rest in eternal peace Ms. Houston and thank you for your gift, your music and the memories I won't forget.

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