Few pop singers have been gifted with a voice as glorious as Whitney Houston’s, and even fewer have treated their talent with the frustrating indifference she did toward the end of her life. She sold more records and received more awards than almost any other female pop star of the 20th century, but spent most of her last years mired in a drug addiction that sapped her will to sing and left her in a shambolic state, said The Guardian’s obituary.
Convinced that she had what it took to be a blockbusting star, Arista’s influential president, Clive Davis, personally oversaw the recording of her first album. He also turned up with her in 1983 on the Merv Griffin chat show, where she was introduced to the American public. The singer was found unresponsive at the Beverly Hilton Hotel hours before Clive Davis’ annual pre-Grammy Awards party.
Houston was gospel-trained, but her voice also lent itself to R&B, pop and ballads, and she was adept at each style. Her total record sales topped 170 million, putting her in an élite group of female superstars that included Mariah Carey and Celine Dion, both of whom were heavily influenced by her emotional, vibrato-laden style.
Commercially, her most barnstorming project was the 1992 film The Bodyguard. Kevin Costner played the titular guard, and Houston played a film star and sang on the soundtrack. Her acting won her a Razzie award for worst actress (which didn’t deter her from making several more films, and getting better reviews), but the soundtrack became the biggest album of her career, selling 44m copies and spawning I Will Always Love You. The song was inescapable, spending 14 weeks at No 1 in the US and roosting at the top of nearly every other pop chart in the world.
The same year, she married ex-boy band member Bobby Brown, who came to be widely blamed for her downward spiral. “First of all, I want to tell you that I love you all. Second, I would like to say, I love you Whitney. The hardest thing for me to do is to come on this stage.” said Brown opening a concert yesterday.
Even in a decade in which celebrities regularly suffered humiliating falls from grace, Houston’s was shocking. Narcotics and her toxic relationship with Brown ravaged her looks and robbed her voice of its ability to soar through concerts.
Her mother forced her into rehab in 2006, and Houston subsequently divorced Brown and began work on her last album, I Look to You, which came out in 2009 to generally positive reviews. Her name still retained enough star-power to sell out most of the gigs on the tour promoting I Look to You, but many fans complained that her voice was no longer up to the rigours of touring. Her death, after so many wasted years, is a sad contrast to her gilded years as America’s sweetheart.
Whitney Elizabeth Houston: born 9 August 1963; died February 11, 2012.