I first saw Whitney Houston perform when she was a mere teen, though she exuded the professionalism and power of someone three times her age.
In a Central Park concert, her mother, Cissy Houston — a great singer in her own right — brought Whitney out as a guest star to do a number.
It was “Home,” the weepy ballad from The Wiz.
“Oh no, she’s bringing out her daughter,” a lot of us were jadedly thinking.
And then Whitney blew it out of the park — literally.
I’ve never seen such self-possession, lung power, and musical ability, especially in someone so young and seemingly impressionable.
Not that long later, I saw Whitney do a number in an all-star revue at a glittery disco.
Again, she was breathtaking, destroying all the competition with her stunning ability to dive into a song and pump it out to its fullest effect.
I’m usually wrong when I predict stardom for people, but in this case I was right on target when I thought, “If the business doesn’t make this girl mega, they’re dumber than dirt!”
And they did.
Arista Records head Clive Davis smoothed out the edges and sculpted “Nippy” into a first-class pop/R&B diva, with alternately bouncy and melodramatic material that she could sink her chops into — and the videos were top-notch, too, showing off a radioactively appealing talent who could vamp, pout, and cut up like a seasoned performer.
I interviewed Whitney in 1985, when she first exploded, and found that she was not exactly overflowing with warmth and charm.
Far from the ingenue I’d imagined her to be, she seemed hard-edged, reticent, and a little tough.
Still, I cut her some slack. After all, she was still very young and must have been amazed at the machinery whirring around her. (And she had just come from the airport.)
And the machinery kept her career expanding with 1992’s The Bodyguard, whose smash soundtrack album included the impossible-to-avoid (or -resist) version of Dolly Parton‘s “I Will Always Love You.”
I loved her all-out yet textured and surprising renditions of songs like that, plus “Didn’t We Almost Have It All?” (American Idol stars should play it and learn) and “All the Man I Need” and the also-impossible-to-avoid “The Greatest Love of All,” which built and built until you thought the stage would explode.
The woman could sing, riff, modulate, jump an octave, drop down for a growl, and make it all seem effortless.
I was glad when she got a little edgier and incorporated a taste of hip-hop into her bounce.
And her “Star-Spangled Banner” — though lip-synched — is now so revered that I hear girl singers do it the way Whitney did it as if that’s the way it was written!
But the lifestyle! The hard drugs! The marriage — signed by the devil — to Bobby Brown!
The reality show in which they both exploited their incoherence!
And then the “comeback album” that tried to convince us she’d gotten through the hard times when in reality it sounded like a cry for help!
When YouTube clips got out of Whitney singing live in Europe and sounding like she’d just gargled on razor blades, she went from the greatest singer in the world to a punchline, and that must have hurt more than her vocal cords.
And poor Bobbi Kristina. I’ve felt for her ever since reading the tabloid reports of what she’s gone through, and even way before that. I mean, can you just imagine?
And now, Whitney has been found dead, and though it took longer than it did for Amy Winehouse, it’s every bit as sad.
It’s tragic when so much sheer talent gets sabotaged by so much self-lacerating behavior.
What a horrible loss.
Rest in peace, diva.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on February 11, 2012