|As the world says goodbye to Whitney Houston, Harley Payette discusses her musical legacy and reminds us why she was one of the most important singers of the last 25 years.|
One night in the early 1990s I happened on one of the succession of talk shows hosted by the late Tom Snyder. The topic on this night was the recording industry. Snyder’s guest bemoaned how little talent it took to be a recording star at that time. The guest informed us that the normal procedure for most stars was to record their vocals in bits and pieces with all the splices then being cut together to make a single vocal. The shocked Snyder had one thought: “Not Whitney Houston!” His guest replied that he wasn’t sure exactly how Houston made her records, that his comment was only a general observation. The genially sincere Snyder’s genuine indignation at the possibility that Houston would resort to such studio chicanery was akin to what you’d see in a child whom you had just told that there was no Santa Claus. You just couldn’t have the goods on Houston. If there was one thing that was real in the fake world of pop music it was that force of nature of voice.
That’s the kind of esteem much of the world held for the volcanic talents of Whitney Houston who passed away on February 11 at the far too young age of 48. As the singer’s career and life spiraled downward in the past few years, that esteem seemed to disappear, lost in scandal and personal decline. The damage done was such that New Jersey Governor Chris Christie took a beating this week for his decision to fly his state’s flags at half-mast in honor of the singer’s memory. As we move further away in time, when we can discard the passions of the moment, Christie’s decision will seem like a no-brainer.
|Houston was arguably the most important American popular musician of the past 25 years. Certainly, she’s the most important singer. She’s the voice behind Mariah Carey, Christina Aguilera, Jennifer Hudson, and scores of other singers, many of whom might not even know it. Watch an episode of American Idol to see how the model for today’s singers and male and female is Whitney Houston.
That shows like American Idol or knockoffs like the Voice even exist is largely because of the impact that Houston had on popular music. Amateur talent shows, of course, have been a staple of television programming since the medium began. The modern aspect of shows like American Idol and the Voice is their single-minded focus on singing and voices, even the technical aspects of singing. “A little pitchy” goes one of the most famous and frequent of American Idol critiques.
Such a focus, while not exactly unthinkable, would have certainly been outré when Houston made her solo debut on the pop charts in 1985. (A duet with Teddy Pendergrass had reached the middle of the charts the prior year.) At that time, the art of great pop singing, particularly as done by singers with great voices, was at its lowest ebb.
Yes, there were still some great voices in the Top 40 like Michael Jackson, Daryl Hall, and, to a certain extent, Prince. Veterans like Dolly Parton and Aretha Franklin still made the upper regions of the charts on occasion. Still, the transformation of popular music in the wake of the rock ‘n’ roll revolution of the 1950s and 1960s was complete.
Rock ‘n’ roll and its heirs funk, punk, disco or club music, heavy metal and even the then nascent rap music, were rooted in rhythm and beats far more than melody. For a lot of then contemporary music, great voices were not necessary. Rap had disposed of melodic singing altogether. In heavy metal, the instrumentalists were often the stars. For disco and club, singers were often interchangeable as the backgrounds and beats were what sold the records. In punk, attitude was king, and competence in playing or singing was incidental at best. Many singer/songwriters only required that their lyrics be heard clearly. Producers and songwriters were the prestige figures.
|This is the environment in which Houston’s self-titled debut album appeared in 1985. On paper, it was an awkward fit in that market. Two of the key compositions, “Saving All My Love for You” and “The Greatest Love of All,” were nearly a decade old. Four producers, encompassing as many different production styles, worked on the LP’s 10 tracks. The only unifying thread was the amazing new singing voice on display.|
When Houston’s second solo single, the smooth R&B song “Saving All My Love For You,” hit the streets, critics and fans realized that they were in the presence of a major soul vocal talent.
“Saving All My Love For You” – Whitney Houston
It was on the fourth solo single, “The Greatest Love of All,” though, that the stakes were really revealed. A remake of a minor George Benson hit written in the mid-1970s by Michael Masser (who also produced Houston’s record) and the late Linda Creed, the song was one that Whitney brought herself to her initial sessions. She had been singing it for several years as part of her mother Cissy’s stage show and had included it on her audition tape to Clive Davis at Arista Records. Oddly, the label didn’t think much of it, slating it on the back of her initial solo single, “You Give Good Love,” a fine but cautious R&B number. Radio stations, though, started playing it from the album forcing a single release. It turned out to be the song that elevated Houston from a star to an instant icon.
Houston’s personal investment in the song is evident in the forceful conviction with which she gives to the rather banal lyric. (Wow, are the children really our future?) Listen to the growl she gives to her reading of the line “They can’t take away my dig-ni-ty!” almost singing the last word through clenched teeth. Digesting her astonishingly varied vocal which takes her beautiful mezzo soprano through the gentlest strokes to booming shouts, it becomes increasingly evident that the tale of self-discovery is reflected in the young singer’s performance. She just seems to be discovering her own possibilities. When she hits a gorgeous almost endless final note on the word “love” you feel almost transformed, as if Houston’s discovery of her own potential gives you a hint of your own.
“The Greatest Love of All” – Whitney Houston
So convincing was this momentous performance that many people began to believe “The Greatest Love of All” was some sort of great composition. Every Karaoke wannabe, every barfly, all the remaining lounge singers felt compelled to take a crack at it, inadvertently revealing with every performance just how great Houston’s performance was. I remember visiting a shopping mall in the early 1990s and they were having a karaoke contest. In the 60 minutes or so I was shopping, at least three people took a crack at this number. If I maintained any doubts that it was the singer not the song, that day erased them.
After “The Greatest Love of All,” Houston became synonymous with vocal virtuosity. Many, including myself, occasionally had reservations about her style. Sometimes she seemed overwrought as “Didn’t We Almost Have it All,” and sometimes as on her remake of the Four Tops’ “I Believe in You and Me” she muscled material that needed a caress.
There were more serious concerns about the quality of her material. Much of it had a cookie cutter quality to it. Some of it was inappropriate. Should a 23-year-old have been saddled with a song of middle-age regret like “Didn’t We Almost Have it All”?
Still, everyone knew her voice was a national treasure and she had earned the right to be at least heard, if not liked, on everything she did. For a while, she was one of a kind. In 1990, though, Mariah Carey made her debut on the pop charts. In nearly every way from her melisma heavy vocal style, to her material, to her multi-octave range, she was a Houston knockoff. Her success demonstrated that if Houston couldn’t exactly be duplicated, she could be imitated.
That there would one day be a Whitney Houston lite was inevitable. As the cliché says, “success breeds imitation.” When Carey hit, though, it was impossible to gauge actually how much imitation there would be. Slowly, over the course of the next decade, imitator after imitator would step up to the plate. It turned out there were literally dozens of would be vocal virtuosos out there, all more than willing to show off their chops with the most elaborately intricate vocals you could imagine. And there was a huge audience out there ready to soak up these sounds, to revel in the power and dexterity of the human voice. Nobody knew either group was there until Whitney Houston.
She had presided over a complete inversion of where pop music had stood when she arrived on the scene. From complete neglect, now the singer was once again at or near the center of it all, certainly the center of the non hip hop music world. It was an influence though with a double-edged sword. Houston had revived a respect for the voice and the ability of a musician to express him/herself through the use of it in the mainstream. Inspired by Houston herself who did things many had seldom heard in a pop single, pop singing often degenerated into a mere show of pyrotechnics, unrelated to any mood, emotion or even lyric. Subtlety became a debit. The entire concept of over the top was redefined upwards. As thrilling as Houston could be in her most inspired moments- that debut album, “I Will Always Love You,” “My Love is Your Love”- listening to one of her semi-talented heirs ramble through an endless nasal vocal curlicue, taking almost as long to get through a single verse as it once took to get through an entire song, could almost make you wish she’d never existed.
Well, at least until you remembered one of those moments when Houston made it clear why we need great voices to sing great songs. The greatest of these was her remake of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” in late 1992. Houston had recorded the song as part of the soundtrack to her film debut in “The Bodyguard”. The movie was a nice hit, but Houston’s recording was something else, one of the great mass pop moments of the late 20th century.
“I Will Always Love You” – Whitney Houston
The recording stayed at #1 for 14 weeks and was certified as selling four million copies, the most of any record since 1956. “The Bodyguard” soundtrack sold many millions more. But, the numbers only tell part of the story. A few months before Boyz II Men had a similar run at number one (due to a change in chart methodology) and an MTV report on the street found few people who could identify the song. No such report could have been done on “I Will Always Love You.” Except for maybe infants, elderly patients suffering from dementia, and the Amish, everyone knew the record. And almost everyone had an opinion on it, a strong opinion. Many hated it. Many more loved it. But everyone was talking about it and listening to it (whether they chose to or not) in that winter of 1992/1993. It was parodied by comedians. It was referenced on talk shows and sitcoms. It was just as natural a part of daily life as the cold air.
And this stir was entirely caused by Houston’s singing. The song itself was kind of familiar. Dolly Parton had a huge country and mid-sized pop hit with the song in 1974. She had even featured it in her 1982 movie The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. Houston made it seem like a new song though. More than that, it seemed like something no one had quite experienced before. The sound of her voice was the event.
At the time, I preferred Dolly Parton’s more intimate original, although I respected what Houston had done on her record. As time went by, though, Houston’s record became richer with every listen. It soon became clear to me that my original position was based in mere contrariness. I’m still fond of Parton’s original, but Whitney Houston’s record is one of the most elevated examples of the vocal art ever captured on tape.
No mere show of vocal muscle, this is an exquisitely crafted performance. Houston opens slowly and quietly. Sans backing instrumentation, her tone is almost conversational. Save for a few well chosen extended words, her phrasing is almost halting and plain. Then she slips easily into the first chorus. The instruments fall in behind her and she caresses the title phrase as gently and as intimately as Dolly ever did. You realize just how gorgeous and graceful her instrument is, as she sways with the words.
|The meditative tone is continued as Houston repeats “my darling you” almost to herself in the transition to the second verse. She continues her conversational approach, but with just a hair more aggression on this verse. Those who write off Houston as a mere technician, a vocal stuntwoman are exposed by her singing on this verse where she proves herself a consummate interpreter. She allows herself just the vaguest hint of a falsetto on the word “please” before regaining her composure on the words “don’t cry.” When she tells the subject of the song that “I’m not what you need” there is a lovely catch in her voice on the word “you” that gives the impression that we’re eavesdropping on an intimate conversation rather than listening to a record.|
Then she hits us with “IIIIIIIIIIII eee I” that most iconic signature of the record where she infinitely extends the first word of the title line. It’s far deeper and more resonate than her first reading. It almost sounds like an updated Johnnie Ray as we notice how close the word sounds to the word “cry” and how much Whitney’s voice sounds like the devastated bellow that sometimes comes with our most profound tears.
It’s all over sooner than we’d expect and we’re into a rather mundane sax solo, but that can’t stop Whitney Houston’s train. Her moment has arrived.
She glides through Parton’s slightly awkward final verse, building intensity, boldly projecting on the word “joy.” Then she reaches the climax of the verse, the music stops for a dramatic pause of about five seconds. It’s very hard to describe in the written word the impact of what happens next. What we got on the second chorus wasn’t a preview for what happens here. We get that explosive reading of the first word again but even louder and longer this time, but it’s followed by a succession of similar notes on the rest of the chorus with Houston seldom taking a breath. “Will” and “Always” almost sound like one word. Her placement of them together gives dignity to the cry of her opening word. She can compose herself. And that this all is directed at one person is evident in the beautiful graceful sweep upward she hits on the word “you” at the end of the line. This goes on for something like 50 seconds. Finally, it’s back to the quiet of the beginning as Whitney once again delivers a soft, almost conversational take of the title line with a showy, but purposeful melisma on the word “love.” It’s as if she can’t quite let the moment go. It’s a show of a skill in service of an idea.
That I think is why this record meant and continues to mean so much to so many people. Because this is a song of goodbye, and because Houston’s vocal so perfectly emulates a massive cry, the record is a representation of all the profound feelings people have inside at moments of great loss and personal separation, but are impotent to express. It doesn’t quite matter if it’s the loss of a romantic partner as indicated by, but not specified in, the song lyric, the death of a loved one, or the loss of a friend that’s moved on, the humanity in Houston’s vocal captures that depth of feeling that most people just can’t express even in their most articulate moments. The larger than life quality she projects here is not over the top, but exactly the way we feel. And it’s something that can’t really be communicated in words. It’s an expression of pure visceral, physical feeling that only the best singers can touch through the quality of their voices.
That’s what made Whitney, at her best, so special. Her use of her voice gave others theirs and not just musically. She sang for everyone who couldn’t.
Tags: Harley Payette, Whitney Houston, Whitney Houston death, Whitney Houston I Will Always Love You, Whitney Houston Saving All My Love For You, Whitney Houston The Greatest Love of All
Posted in Obituaries, Soul |