That voice — The Voice. No adjective except the definite “the” could do Whitney Houston’s vocals justice. Whether she was exclaiming she wanted to dance with somebody or longingly proclaiming she will always love you, Houston's three-octave vocals could launch a song into the stratosphere. Despite over two decades in the business, her death at the age of 48 represents talent lost and potential squandered.
Houston began in her church's gospel choir before becoming a backup vocalist. Beginning what would become a life-long mentorship, record mogul Clive Davis discovered her in a New York nightclub and catapulted her to pop stardom by supervising her self-titled debut album and follow-up, Whitney. She showed an uncanny knack to meld her vocals across pop melodies with an edge here and there of her gospel past on songs like “I Wanna Dance (With Somebody)” and “The Greatest Love of All.”
However, it wasn't until the '90s that Houston went from pop singer to full-out diva in all the best ways. Her soaring rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Superbowl XXV became the definitive version of the song. In 1992, she made her first acting foray in “The Bodyguard,” whose soundtrack went on to become the best selling of all time. And that scene, where Kevin Costner searches to save Houston from the crowd, was merely a backdrop for Houston’s legendary hit, “I Will Always Love You,” which oddly enough was a Dolly Parton cover.
The song exemplified Houston's amazing skill, taking what was once a simple, plaintive country song and making it a defiant song of unbridled love — that drum hit in the last third of the song a mere warning shot before Houston launched her rockets of vocals: “And I-I-I-I will always love y-o-o-o-u!” Her voice was just so good, so full-bodied, so powerful.
She continued to act for most of the decade before returning to pop with My Love is Your Love.
Ironically enough, it was during this time when she reached the height of her fame, her personal life began its slow deterioration. In 1992, Houston married singer Bobby Brown in what would become a tumultuous relationship filled with domestic abuse allegations and drug use. In a 2009 interview with Oprah Winfrey, Houston said that she began using marijuana and cocaine frequently.
Her career stalled heading into the 2000's and became a jumbled list of fumbles: her frightening weight loss during a Michael Jackson tribute, National Enquirer photos of her bathroom loaded with drugs, a ridiculed interview with Diane Sawyer in which she proclaimed, “Crack is whack” and finally, her infamous appearances on the reality show “Being Bobby Brown.”
By the end of the decade, when Houston had tarnished any remnants of her formerly squeaky-clean image, she began laying the stage for a comeback with Davis. She had a tell-all interview with Winfrey and released I Look to You, her first album in seven years and an attempt to return to her soaring ballads that had inspired artists from Mariah Carey to Christina Aguilera. However, the comeback faltered as her live performances on tour and television appearances revealed shaky, scratched vocals, a far cry from the dominating vocals of years past.
And so that supposed comeback of the Whitney who could command a room with merely a melodic whisper never appeared, and now will never have a chance to. Although Houston's voice may be gone, The Voice will continue to live on.
Printed on Monday, February 13, 2012 as: Houston's death does not overshadow 'The Voice'