Several years ago in Los Angeles, I walked out of a hotel in Westwood and saw a beautiful but slight woman step out of a limousine, stride past her bodyguards and head up the front steps. It took me several moments to say to myself, “Isn’t that Whitney Houston?” She wasn’t what I expected. She wasn’t of supermodel dimensions – even if she was one of the most beautiful women in the world. She didn’t say a word – even though her voice will echo forever in the soundtrack of the my life. She simply walked imperiously forward, not evincing the slightest curiosity at the riffraff around her – myself included. She looked as if she felt she was the most important person in the world at that moment. And she was, for everyone who saw her. It was a sight I will never forget. Yet, though her self-confidence radiated into that southern California evening, she looked uncannily frail, almost small.
Whitney Elizabeth Houston, 48, died on the eve of the Grammy Awards, the music industry’s annual celebration of itself. The cause of her death is yet unknown, but it is certain to plunge her colleagues, friends, rivals and disciples into the kind of introspective mourning reserved only for the artists who have achieved the greatest success and become the victims of their great good fortune. Her voice, combined with her looks, made her one of the biggest stars on the planet. She set sales record after sales record. Her first major foray into the movie industry in The Bodyguard (1992) became a milestone in the issue (or non-issue) of race in casting (who could quarrel with her being the star?) and produced – or, as some critics would say, inflicted – a version of “I Will Always Love You” on the cosmos that will reverberate until its sound waves make contact with extraterrestrial intelligence. It was the range and power of her natural gifts that produced at the 1991 Super Bowl – with the U.S. 10 days into the first Gulf War – one of the most astonishing renditions of the Star Spangled Banner ever heard. The U.S. Air Force flying overhead became a mere afterthought to her renewal of the vigor of a song written in 1814. She was the voice of America.
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The real-life Whitney Houston, however, was one of greater frailty than the superpower she manifested in her voice. She had been born to sing. Her mother was Cissy Houston, a soul and gospel performer who sang backup for Elvis Presley, Mahalia Jackson and Aretha Franklin. Whitney’s cousin was Dionne Warwick, one of the indelible voices of American pop. Whitney was herself singing in the choir in her hometown of Newark, N.J. at the age of 11. Her beauty led to an early modeling career but her vocal talents soon led to a contract with Arista Records and the producer Clive Davis, who would do more than anyone to shape her public image.
That image was of the gorgeous all-American girl who could belt ballads and dance tunes with equal ease. It was revolutionary in its way: that an African-American woman could embody that archetype as seamlessly as white women have in the past – at least in public. In the beginning, she was perfectly cast: glamorous and distant, with a voice that was warm even if the celebrity was unapproachable. She made you move; she made you want; she gave immediacy and voice to your instincts and emotions. But she was a goddess.
Beginning in 1985, that goddess would produce pop hit after pop hit at a time the record industry was at its height, in the years before iTunes: “You Give Good Love,” “Saving All My Love for You,” “How Will I Know,” “I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me),” “I’m Your Baby Tonight,” “My Love Is Your Love” and countless others. Her covers of previous hits like “I’m Every Woman” by Chaka Khan and “I Will Always Love You” by Dolly Parton virtually overshadowed the originals.
And yet the goddess would choose to marry and bear the child of one of the bad boys of the industry, Bobby Brown. That union, which lasted from 1992 to 2007, would be rocked by rumors of infidelity and drug use. She was arrested for marijuana possession in Hawaii in 2000, though the charges were dropped. Brown accused Houston of introducing him to cocaine in his 2009 autobiography. He admitted, however, that before coke, marijuana had been his drug of choice. In her last few years, Houston looked haggard and worn; her face both puffy and emaciated. More tragically, her voice was shattered, no longer able to soar. She would be unable to complete performances. She was booed at her rare appearances. Yet, her old recordings and their remixed versions would continue to be played around the world, in dance clubs, over YouTube and the latest iterations of media to astound fresh generations. But the goddess was definitely human – and no one was able to reach her to save her.
In the end, the private Whitney Houston was in a hell that perhaps no one will fully plumb. It may be of some comfort that her travails are over. What will never be forgotten is the glory of her voice, the ease with which she projected it into the universe and the way she made us want to sing along, carried by its optimism and its promise – no matter how illusory it turned out to be. Every great artist knows the magic of defying reality and frailty. At her peak, Whitney Houston was the greatest enchantress.