The soul of Whitney

The diva's music lives beyond her ‘moment in time'

Updated - November 17, 2021 12:20 am IST

Published - February 13, 2012 06:23 pm IST

UNFETTERED Whitney Houston.

UNFETTERED Whitney Houston.

Waking up on Sunday morning to the news of Whitney Houston's passing away was uncannily similar to waking up on June 26, 2009 to the news of Michael Jackson's death. Apart from the fact that Jackson was the king of pop and Houston was the queen, there was this whole thing of growing up in the Eighties in India with Jackson, Houston, Madonna, A-Ha, Stevie Wonder, Lionel Ritchie and Cyndi Lauper among others providing the background score.

It was the time of “Hot Tracks” the half-hour western music show on Friday nights and the annual telecast of the Grammy Awards on DD. That was when we were blown away by Jackson's moonwalk, (and tried to imitate with the one who could replicate it being the total cat) Madonna's fashion (I still have a black lace glove in some dusty drawer) and stunned to silence by Houston's voice.

It was not for nothing that Houston was called the Voice. Those were the days of baby steps for music videos and while there were Madonna's shockers, Jackson's elaborately-produced mini features and artistes such as Dire Straits and Peter Gabriel pushing the technical envelope, Whitney Houston just stood in front of the mike and sang.

Majestic range

To untrained ears, she sounded at once powerful and pure, soaring and smooth, silky and sensuous, rich and spare. One was reminded of a brilliant bird skimming the surface of a crystal clear lake, once in a while plunging to the cool blue depths only to soar a minute later to the skies. The critics, who prophesise with their pens, said Houston (trained by her mother, soul singer Cissy and inspired by her cousins Dionne and Dee Dee Warwick, and her godmother Aretha Franklin) made gospel music accessible.

Watching her perform ‘Saving All My Love for You' at the 1991 Welcome Home Heroes Concert is to be carried away over a rainbow of sound on notes as smooth and rich as chocolate. You even forget the ghastly canary yellow peddle-pusher kind of outfit she has on thanks to that glorious voice.

Houston's self-titled debut album in 1985 featured ‘Saving All My Love' (never has an extra-marital affair sounded so hauntingly beautiful) and ‘Greatest Love of All', which along with ‘How Will I Know' formed a trio of number 1 singles.

The second album “Whitney” in 1987 yielded the eminently danceable ‘I Want to Dance with Somebody'. The video looked kind of studied with Houston doing a little self conscious jig and tossing this big mane of Eighties curls hither and thither. And again you can forgive her anything as long as liquid gold poured out of her lips. “Body Guard” in 1992 opposite Kevin Costner marked her Hollywood debut and featured the incredible cover of Dolly Parton's ‘I Will Always Love You'.

Cracks began to show in Houston's squeaky clean reputation as stories of drug abuse began to do the rounds. Her tumultuous marriage to fellow singer Bobby Brown didn't help matters. As Houston said in an interview to Diane Sawyer, “The biggest devil is me. I'm either my best friend or my worst enemy.”

Finding herself again

She divorced Brown in 2007 and after two stints in rehab seemed to be getting her life together — echoing Jackson who was also on a comeback tour. She was marking her comeback to the movies with the remake of the 1976 film “Sparkle”.

It seems like a fearful symmetry that the pop diva passed away on the eve of the Grammy's, the music industry's big night, the industry which recognised her with so many awards but also pushed her into the downward spiral of drug abuse.

Jennifer Hudson performing a tribute to Houston completes the circle as Whitney Houston's phenomenal success paved the way for countless female singers from Celine Dion and Mariah Carey to Pink and Lady Gaga.

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