Whitney Houston, the greatest voice of her generation

Wannabes are rife, yet she was a singular talent, says Andy Gill

In the immediate aftermath of her death, Whitney Houston's name was frequently invoked alongside those of two other recently departed powerhouse female singers, Amy Winehouse and Etta James. Amy's father, Mitch, touchingly referred to them as "a great girl group in heaven", though in reality they were all too distinctive individual talents for that, too demanding of the solo spotlight to share it. None of them would have been able to blend their voices alongside others with the modesty required to make a great vocal group, and let's be honest, none of us would have wanted them to hide their lights that way.

But though united in death, the circumstances of their passing differ markedly. Winehouse was taken tragically young, still in the first flush of her talent; and James was the original soul survivor, a feisty spirit who outlived the shame of America's racist Jim Crow era to make the transfer from chitlin'-circuit performer to mainstream R&B legend. As recently as last year, she faced down leukaemia and dementia to record her final album, The Dreamer. Though understandably faltering, she managed to bring a salty panache to her performance. She may be 73, it seemed to suggest, but she was capable.

Houston was becalmed between these two extremes: her early greatness was behind her, yet she appeared not to have the determination to tough it out like Etta, herself no shrinking violet when it came to the indulgences available to stardom. For the last decade or more of her life, she was involved in one of showbusiness's more protracted crash-and-burns, extended for year after year. For brief moments, she seemed to be steering clear of terminal impact – she would appear primped and preened on some chat-show or other, but then hours later be snapped falling out of a nightclub bleary-eyed.

Quincy Jones, the king of black American showbiz, says he wrote Whitney a letter a few years ago, pleading with her to put the pipe aside, get clean and get her career back on track; her response, reportedly, was that she was rich enough not to care about her career any more. Which one imagines wasn't the point for Q, a man with a keen appreciation of black culture's, and black society's, need for worthy figureheads. To watch the greatest voice of her generation cast that talent aside must have been intensely frustrating.

Because Whitney, more than any other single artist – Michael Jackson included – effectively mapped out the course of modern R&B, setting the bar for standards of soul vocalese, and creating the original template for what we now routinely refer to as the "soul diva". Jackson was a hugely talented icon, certainly, but he will be as well remembered (probably more so) for his presentational skills, his dazzling dance moves, as for his musical innovations. Whitney, on the other hand, just sang, and the ripples from her voice continue to dominate the pop landscape.

There are few, if any, Jackson imitators on today's TV talent shows, but every other contestant is a Whitney wannabe, desperately attempting to emulate that wondrous combination of vocal effects – the flowing melisma, the soaring mezzo-soprano confidence, the tremulous fluttering that carried the ends of lines into realms of higher yearning. But while some young, energetic dancers may be able to effect first-rate impressions of Jackson's routines, how many of the singers come close to the singular skills displayed by Whitney? Barely any. Most seem like cartoons, darting up and down the scale in vain search of the right note, while copying the lip-tremble that conquered the world in "I Will Always Love You", as if that was where the secret lay.

 

Not that we should blame Houston for the egregious effect that incompetent soul-diva stylings have had on the art of singing: that would be like blaming Elvis for Fabian, or Dylan for Barry McGuire. Her own achievements stand comparison with any in her field, right from that extraordinary debut album released on Valentine's Day 1985, with its embarrassment of riches dominating the singles chart for months, years afterwards. Reared in the soul and gospel heritage of the Houston dynasty – her mom, Cissy, was one of the most in-demand session singers of the 1960s and 1970s, while cousin Dionne Warwick served as Burt Bacharach's premier muse through his golden period – Whitney was, so to speak, foredoomed to sing, surely the most abundantly gifted beneficiary since Aretha Franklin of the great vocal schooling provided by the American gospel tradition.

Spotted singing in a New York nightclub, she was signed in 1983 by music-biz svengali Clive Davis, who spent two years grooming her for success and ensuring her debut album would be a pop milestone. Four producers – Kashif, Jermaine Jackson, Michael Masser and Narada Michael Walden – were drafted in to ensure all aspects of her repertoire were operating at peak power, an innovation that has trickled down through the R&B industry, where it is now acceptable to have each track on a singer's album headed by a different producer. The 11 tracks of Whitney's final album, 2009's mediocre I Look to You, required the attentions of eight different production teams.

For her second album, Narada Michael Walden shouldered most of the duties, resulting in a more homogeneous collection whose lead single, "I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me)", became a dance-pop landmark of the decade, its effervescence perfectly suited to Houston's characteristics of understated sophistication sweetened with perky vivacity. As with all great performances, it summons up an era in the musical equivalent of a Proustian rush. Much the same can be said for the other main pillar of her career, the cover of Dolly Parton's "I Will Always Love You" from The Bodyguard, which became such a fixture on the charts – 10 weeks at the top – that it seemed as though the winter of 1992/3 had been co-opted in her honour, with endless screenings of the video ensuring her lip-trembling delivery became a much-imitated meme of R&B style.

But though she would continue to have isolated successes thereafter – her soundtrack to The Preacher's Wife became the biggest-selling gospel album of all time – her style began to slip out of favour as the core black American fanbase turned more to hip-hop in the 1990s. Whitney's last truly impressive album was 1998's My Love Is Your Love, on which she, particularly when allied with the producer Rodney Jerkins, brought innovatory sounds and beats to R&B on singles such as "If I Told You That" and "It's Not Right But It's Okay".

Sadly, the latter song hinted at the problems that had begun to taint her marriage to Bobby Brown. An alliance that slipped into drug co-dependency, it became on occasion abusive, and by the time of her 2002 album, Just Whitney – a title that signified her clear future course – it was obvious their relationship had become untenable, a soap opera spiralling out of control. Produced by Bobby, the single "Whatchulookinat" was a chippy rejoinder to excessive public interest in their travails, and thus guaranteed to increase that interest; other tracks such as "On My Own" offered wistful contemplation of a future flying solo. But behind the dazzling showbiz veneer, the music lacked the character of previous successes. Reviews were mixed, and chart placings severely reduced.

The rest of the decade was spent in the haze of freebase/crack cocaine that so sabotaged Houston's voice she couldn't perform live with any degree of self-respect. To watch the YouTube clips of her croaking hoarsely is to engage directly with showbiz tragedy at its most heartbreaking: not the tragedy of talent cut down in its prime, like Amy Winehouse, or the tragedy of a mighty oak finally submitting to the depredations of age and illness, like Etta James, but the deeper tragedy of a seemingly limitless talent thrown away for no good reason at all.

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