SILVER SPRING, February 12, 2012―With the untimely and sudden passing of pop icon Whitney Houston, the music industry lost a legend. The news devastated her close family: Her daughter was rushed to Cedars Mount Sinai Hospital this morning after breaking down over the death. Ex-husband Bobby Brown was reported to have ‘fallen apart’ shortly before performing while on tour last night.
Their grief is joined by millions of others.
Today, and for many days to come, we will all remember moments in our lives that were punctuated by one of Houston’s many chart toppers.
Many of us will be able to recount the various ways that Whitney’s music formed the soundtrack of our lives. I was introduced to her at 11-years old.
Beaming and proud, dolled up in my pristine white dress and shiny black shoes, I walked along with my 6th-grade class during our Northwest D.C. elementary school graduation ceremony back in 1986. Our entrance hymn, The Greatest Love of All, was a soul-stirring and emotional raspy-voiced rendition of a song first performed by George Benson in 1977 for the biopic about Muhammed Ali, The Greatest.
To hear the recording of Whitney singing “I believe the children are our future” was a powerful thing for a little almond-skinned girl growing up in an urban, low-income neighborhood.
Back then, the 22-year old Clive Davis discovery had exploded on the pop music scene and was turning heads. She managed to catapult a so-so song into an iconic hit which went #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in May of that same year.
By the time of her death, Houston had sold over 170 million albums, won numerous awards, and inspired thousands of artists on every level who claim her as an idol and role model.
Less than ten years after transforming that sleeper hit into a chart topper, she would do the same thing again with an old Dolly Parton song. Her cover of Parton’s I Will Always Love You eclipsed the entire movie that was her acting debut, The Bodyguard, co-starring Kevin Costner. The movie’s soundtrack won the Grammy for Album of the Year in 1994.
The success of that album was a testament to Houston’s powerful voice, which had tremendous range and could evoke a gamut of emotions — even patriotism.
There have always been people who feel so disenfranchised and so disconnected from the rest of the country that love of country has no hold on them. They won’t embrace their native land and all of its opportunities and cannot find it within themselves to be patriotic.
Whitney was able to change that.
Before the start of the 1991 Super Bowl, Whitney Houston belted out an inspiring, rousing and heart-wrenching rendition of the “Star Spangled Banner” that was so powerful it brought tears to people’s eyes and raised hair on the backs of their necks.
For many who may never had been moved by the national anthem before, Whitney, a product of Gospel (her mom is Gospel great Cissy Houston) and R&B (her aunt was 70s great Dionne Warwick) royalty, gave them pause to reconsider.
The power of her bravado and amazing pipes as she opened America’s Game moved many people, from urban epicenters to barrios in Oakland to those sitting on their couches in the heartland, to connect with one another and to stand taller and prouder, if just for that brief moment.
No other artist has been able to recreate the enchantment Houston conjured up for that great patriotic song, which was later recorded as a “charity-single.” Ms. Houston donated her proceeds from the single to the families of service people in the Persian Gulf War.
It was indeed one moment in time, borrowing the line from another Houston hit. Houston’s super star presence, undimmed by a tumultuous marriage, drug abuse and revolving-door trips to rehab, preceded her greatness.
There will be those who say they saw the end coming. After her last performance, singing a few lines to Jesus Loves during the Kelly Price pre-Grammy Jam Session in Los Angeles on Thursday night, photos of Houston looking a bit spent, slightly inebriated and exhausted circulated widely on the net. When I last saw her live at the 2008 BET Awards, her voice didn’t have its former power and strength.
The effects from years of substance abuse showed through. Nonetheless, the audience rose to its feet when she came on the stage because they all recognize that Ms. Houston is and was that large a figure.
Tonight, millions will be tuned into the Grammy Awards celebration eagerly waiting a fitting tribute to salute the great performer that Whitney was. Reports indicate that Jennifer Hudson and Chaka Khan and others have been tapped to do the honors. Hudson, Christina Aguilera, Mariah Carey and countless others power houses credit Whitney for being the inspiration behind their own careers.
But we can only have a tribute; there will never be another Whitney.
Blessed with her presence for 48 years, we are left with the magic that was and a complete and amazing anthology to rock on to.
More than just her music, she was a unifying figure, even if she did not realize it. For that, we are all grateful.
Rest in peace, Whitney.