Thoughts on Whitney Houston’s voice and life

As I heard about Whitney Houston”s death late this afternoon, I thought it had to be a hoax. I had breakfast yesterday with a friend from her record label at the Beverly Hilton and my friend brought up that she”d seen Houston the day before. She brought up Houston”s name in such reverential terms for good reason: regardless of all the tragic circumstances of the last several years surrounding Houston and the toll her addictions and lifestyle had taken on her voice, there was such an undeniable legacy of richness and wonder to draw upon.

Like Aretha Franklin, Houston grew up in the church and that gospel training influenced everything she sang. It was a voice that soared to the skies as if God handed it to her himself. In the early years of her stardom, with her voice still potent, it was a wonder to behold. Fully unleashed, it had a resonance, a pitch, and a power that was unmatched. There was nothing she couldn”t do, but, as a fan, it was her ballads that moved me the most. From the start, there was a pain that she summoned up even in her earliest heart breakers. Though she didn’t write many of her songs, she sung them as if she had lived every note.

I covered Houston throughout the ’90s at Billboard. Here are a few random thoughts:

*Clive Davis, who signed Houston and mentored her, was her biggest champion and there was something very sweet and paternal about his relationship with Houston. He also demanded that her music be treated with the utmost respect. He would hold listening parties for the press for her new albums, and, unlike other listening parties where you mill around and talk and drink while the album plays, Davis made everyone sit down as if attending a college lecture. He stood at a dais and explained each song and then bobbed his head as the song played. His support for her never wavered….Though I wasn’t at Davis’s legendary pre-Grammy party last year, when Houston’s performance was ragged and rough, I was at several Davis bashes in the late-’90s through the mid-2000s. Houston didn’t perform every year, but when she did, she closed the show. Plus, no matter who Davis was trying to introduce that year as the next big thing–even when it was Alicia Keys’ coming out party–it was always Houston who was the star of the evening, per Davis.

*I interviewed Houston twice. The first time was at an awards show, I believe the Billboard Music Awards, in the early ’90s. I was ushered into her dressing room. What struck me first was how stunning she was face to face. She was breathtakingly beautiful. She was dressed in a red lace pants suit. And she was friendly. We sat side-by-side on a sofa and she was open, sassy and funny. There was still a playfulness about her that soon disappeared.

*My second and last interview with her, also for Billboard, was in October 1998 for “My Love Is Your Love,” her first non-soundtrack album in eight years. She has already been through rough times and, as she candidly discussed, “I”m a lot more learned and a lot wiser about things. Being a wife and a mother kind of teaches you a little more about life and what you can endure — things that you didn”t think you could. I mean I”ve endured a lot, in relationships and just in life in the last 10 years. I know more today than I did yesterday, so I can sing about it.”  That was phone interview and what I remember the most is that the sweetness was gone and it had been replaced by a toughness and wariness. She answered my questions, but there was a wall up and when I asked her about touring, she frankly admitted she was tired of all the “traveling and running around.” Read the interview here.

From there, it started to spiral downward. Later in 1998, Houston was scheduled to perform “Heartbreak Hotel”  with Faith Evans and Kelly Price at the Billboard Music Awards. Her rehearsal time came and went and no Houston. We got word that she had missed her plane. Then she missed the next flight. Finally, a private plane was dispatched and she arrived just in time for dress rehearsal the morning of the live show. And she was flawless.

While there were glimmers of glory, the last 14 years had largely been all about watching Houston fall apart and rooting for her to get it back together.   By the time her last album, “I Look To You,” came out in 2009, there seemed to only be occasional glimpses of what had made Houston so transcendent in the ’80s and ’90s.  Last year, there was word of a return to rehab. (As I talked to someone from her label today and talked about how “I Look To You” didn”t do as well as hoped, this person reminded me that it sold 2 million copies worldwide. Additionally, it sold more than 300,000 copies in its first week).

Like all the artists who preceded her down this sad tragic path, it”s easy to focus right now on the tragedy of last several years, but all I have to do to be reminded of Houston”s otherworldly talent is simply put on those early albums and my heart soars. There was never a time that “How Will I Know” didn’t make me smile. Not only is it a perfect pop gem, but it captured a radiance and an innocence in Houston (the video makes me laugh now, it looks so dated, but she is so beautiful in it, despite the clown makeup). I, and all her fans, will always have that.

Follow Melinda Newman on Twitter @HitfixMelinda