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.

Arts and Entertainment
Word master: Self holds up a copy of his novel ‘Umbrella’
books
Arts and Entertainment
Hare’s a riddle: Kit Williams with the treasure linked to Masquerade
books
Arts and Entertainment
The man with the golden run: Daniel Craig as James Bond in 'Skyfall'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Waving Seal' by Luke Wilkinson was Highly Commended in the Portraits category

photography
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Art
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard, nicknamed by the press as 'Dirty Diana'

Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
The X Factor 2014 judges: Simon Cowell, Cheryl Cole, Mel B and Louis Walsh

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace was caught by a camera van driving 32mph over the speed limit

TV
Arts and Entertainment
books
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Outlaw Pete is based on an eight-minute ballad from Springsteen’s 2009 Working on a Dream album

books
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012

film
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

    US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
    Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
    Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
    Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

    Neil Lawson Baker interview

    ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering