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Why We'll Always Love Whitney

Whitney Houston was the defining voice of the Eighties.   Now she is re-emerging as a superstar for the 21st Century.  By Nick Foulkes.

The blurb that accompanies her Greatest Hits album does not overstate it when it says, 'If you grew up in the Eighties, you grew up surrounded by the mystique and the star-power of Whitney.'  Think about it: 'Saving All My Love For You', 'Greatest Love Of All', 'How Will I Know', 'Didn't We Almost Have It All', 'Love Will Save The Day', 'I Wanna Dance With Somebody', winding up in 1990 with 'I'm Your Baby Tonight'.

The very names recall the days of yuppies, Porches, brat-pack movies, mobile phones the size of house bricks.  They make you want to reach for your Filofax and head for the nearest wine bar.  By the end of the Eighties Whitney Houston had made the decade hers.

By the early Nineties, though, her slick image had begun to seem dated.  Whitney became a sort of American Vera Lynn when, in January 1991, she sang 'The Star Spangled Banner' at the Superbowl during the Gulf War.

Then along came The Bodyguard - a seminal 1990s movie, a saccharine piece of wish-fulfilment film-making, with Kevin Costner as the bodyguard who falls for the great star.  It was a contemporary reworking of a classic theme, that of the knight in shining armour rescuing the damsel in distress.

It appealed to a female fantasy, evidently more common than women will admit, of being scooped up and rescued by a tall and powerful hunk, and as such it was a smash hit that propelled Whitney to film star status.

'Whose heart can't this movie touch?' asked Whitney rhetorically.  'We've been missing that level of "Oh, my God, I can lose myself in this movie!" That's the key element.  It's not offensive to anybody.'   It also probably  helped that she was playing herself.

After her second movie, Waiting To Exhale, she was paid 6 million to star opposite Denzel Washington in The Preacher's Wife, the sort of fee commanded by such seasoned movie stars as Sharon Stone.  Moreover, here was an African-American, starring in a film, playing a very sexy leading lady, opposite the lead man of the day.  It was a proper, fully fleshed role free from racial stereo-typing or quasi-comedy.

And one other thing: she could sing.

'I Will Always Love You', written by Dolly Parton, established Houston as the undisputed queen of what The Face magazine dubbed the 'power ballad formula' and defined as 'massive voice rips into wistful lyrics'.

The song has achieved the same sort of iconic status as 'White Christmas' and Sinatra's 'My Way' for previous generations.  It is almost embarrassingly successful, appearing with a rather woeful predictability at weddings and at funerals, including that of Ronnie Kray but then, you listen to it again on the Greatest Hits album and realise that it is, after all, still very, very good.

In the manner of all great love songs, it articulates the most tender, heartfelt emotions with less schmaltz and greater eloquence that most of us can hope to do by words alone.  The plainly enunciated lyrics are allowed to hang in mid-air, in all their crystal clarity, and Houston's gospel roots are fused with an almost operatic quality.  Beside this, the Canadian ballad-belter   Celine Dion of Titanic movie theme fame can sound very thin indeed.

It's not always easy being famous, and Whitney Houston, as it now seems, was born to fame in the summer of 1964*.  her mother, Emily 'Cissy' Houston had sung in the late fifties with the Drinkard sisters, a gospel ensemble.  She had gone on to work as a backing singer, who can be heard on many hits, supporting such stars as the Drifters, Wilson Pickett, and Whitney's cousin, Dionne Warwick.

Whitney sang with her aunt, Thelma Houston**, who had a Number One in 1977 with 'Don't Leave Me This Way' and with her godmother - Aretha Franklin, no less.  It was in the choir of the New Hope Baptist Church that young Whitney's five-octave voice first came to be heard, although a childhood incident with a coathanger - rammed down her throat by one of her brothers - nearly put paid to her career before it began.

She was in her teens when her parents divorced, and it was at about this time that she had her first taste of celebrity, as a model, making the covers of Seventeen and Glamour magazines.  (Her recent cover for Jane, and the cover of her Greatest Hits album, remind us that she's still, at 37, despite a baby, numerous mis-carriages and what one might politely call a hectic social schedule, a sensational-looking woman).

At the same time as she was modelling, she worked as a singer, backing Chaka Khan and Lou Rawls.  And, while performing in a Manhattan night-club, she caught the eye and ear of Clive Davis, a music industry mogul, who signed her for Arista, the record label he founded.

It would be two years and require a reported 200,000 - 250,000 investment before Davis would launch the young woman, setting her on the path to destiny, proclaiming to a TV audience nationwide, in 1995, 'For the next generation, there's a singer who combines the fiery gospel of Aretha Franklin with the stunning elegance of and the beauty of lyric phrasing of Lena Horne, and she is Whitney Houston!'  Well, he would say that, wouldn't he?  It sounded like classic music business hype, and thereby  fails to convey the true significance of Whitney Houston's emergence, or adequately to foretell her impact on popular culture in the final 15 years of the 20th Century.

Her first two albums, 'Whitney Houston', and the equally imaginatively titled 1987 follow-up, 'Whitney', the first album by a female artist to enter the charts at Number One, gave birth to seven consecutive Number Ones - something that the Beatles, never achieved.  Also in 1987, she won a Grammy for 'Saving All My Love For You''***

Houston was at the very height of her fame when she stunned America by upping and marrying Bobby Brown, in a splashy blockbuster ceremony that might have been directed by Cecil B de Mille, with doves, swans and a gown that cost a fortune.  She was also, incidentally, pregnant.

Several years her junior and coarsely nicknamed 'sperm bank' for his capacity to father illegitimate offspring, Bobby Brown was, and is, a professional bad boy with a string of solo hits, including the characteristically egotistical 'My Prerogative'.  He has spent much of his adult life, which began at 13 as a member of ghetto boy-band New Edition, in and out of the music charts, the Betty Ford Clinic and the courts.

Bobby Brown is middle-America's nightmare writ large; a ghetto kid with attitude, money, libido, and - if his press is to be believed - a fondness for strong language, drink and drugs.

He is not the kind of boy you really want to take home to meet your dad and mum, for fear that he will fight him and seduce her.

But even people like Brown grow older.   At his most photogenic, in his police mugshots, these days with gap teeth and nerd spectacles, he looks not unlike Eddie Murphy (a former lover of Houston's) doing an impression of Bobby Brown.  In the past he has compared his lubricious stage gyrations to Elvis Presley's pelvic thrusts.  It might seem undignified now for a man in his fourth decade, a father and husband, to get on stage and wiggle his bottom.   And, these days, Brown's performance is more Bart Simpson than Presley.   Houston must indulge him like his mother.

When Bobby crashed his wife's Porsche, she is said to have quietly observed, 'Part of me wanted to turn Bobby over my knee and spank him like a naughty child.'  But there is an almost endearing frankness, not to say a well defined sense of style, about a man who says that, even as a child growing up in Boston housing projects, 'I could never wear dirty sneakers.  I'd just keep going and steal me a new pair.'

'You're supposed to be partying in your twenties,' Houston has said, explaining the attraction of her rascal husband.  'I was on tour and making records.  I sacrificed those years.  When Bobby came along, I started having a ball.  He taught me how to have fun.' And how!  But a funny kind of fun it has seemed to be at times.

Police were once called to break up a hotel-room brawl between the couple, and on a visit to Capri in 1997, the year she separated from Bobby for a month, she was photographed with a bandaged face after she 'hit a rock'.

Just the same, however much 'fun' of this kind she and Bobby may have, and however much they party, they both seem to be devoted to their daughter, Bobbi.  And even though it is tempting to view Whitney's recent hit, 'It's Not Right But It's Okay' - a sort of updated 'I Will Survive' - as a commentary on her tempestuous married life, they are still together.  Moreover, in the booklet that accompanies the Greatest Hits, she tops the list of her special thank-yous, a veritable Oscar roll-call with the words, 'To Bobby - my love, my friend, you are everything to me, your loving wife, Whitney.'

What is more, setting aside the highly public ups and downs of their married life - and the constant rumours about drugs - one must acknowledge that Brown has also had a great and positive impact on her professional life and her presentation, helping her to move on with the times when she was in danger of becoming just another has-been of the industry.

Forget ball gowns and ballads: millennial Houston is about Dolce & Gabbana, a touch of the ghetto fabulous, and street sounds of hip hop and R&B.  The debt to Lauryn Hill with the hit 'My Love Is Your Love', co-written and co-produced by Wyclef Jean, a former Fugee, is considerable, but then, Whitney manages to bring Hill's style to a new level.

Missy Elliot has also collaborated with Houston.  And on the Greatest Hits album there are duets with Deborah Cox and Latin heart-throb Enrique Iglesias.  There are also some remixes by a fairly hardcore dance music crowd, including the highly respected Hex Hector and Choo Choo Romero.

Could it be that, as well as finding out how to have 'fun' with Bobby Brown she has moved on, under his influence, from yuppie soul diva, through balladeer and film star, to become the female alter ego of Sean Puffy Coombs: a sort of prima donna of rap?


* Whitney was born in 1963
** Thelma Houston is not Whitney's aunt
*** Whitney's Grammy for Saving All My Love For You came in 1986

 

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