A Few Stolen Moments Is All We Shared

by Damon Percy

Whitney Houston’s music and legacy deserves a revisit and righteous re-listen. It feels like we need a nudge to remind us why she is the gold standard and why people are so reluctant to accept her accomplishments as they should. Whitney is one of the greatest vocalists of the Twentieth Century and is mentioned in that rare group of artists whose gifts give mystical existence in the world of pop culture and influence, but never without stain. Examining the decade after her death, we have only been treated to multiple explorations of the events leading to her downfall which have been strategically stuck on the last decade of her life, and not the decade preceding. The music industry and listeners find joy in diminishing the accomplishments of her storied career. There are also those who say they did not realize how special her gifts were until after she departed. What we have learned in all of this is she wanted to be loved and to sing. We also learned that the finger pointing, enabling, building up and tearing down does not serve her musical legacy well.

People still don’t give her PROPER credit, reducing her to insipid arguments on Twitter instead of focusing on the monumental impact of that bright, bouncy, and groundbreaking first decade of her recording output. You could not turn without hearing that voice or seeing her on TV and in magazines. Whitney was groomed by her legendary soul/gospel mother Cissy Houston, who set her up in her nightclub act and with background vocal work, as well as modeling and acting which led to the explosion of the young girl in the church dress on Merv Griffin singing “Home” which brought her to us. Early Whitney always sounded like Cissy, bright runs, soft growls, intentionality with phrasing and perfect diction.

More than the space she occupies in the industry, I am here to talk about the spaces she occupies in my musical heart and soul. Everyone has a singer who is the soundtrack of their life, she is mine. I had already been schooled on Miles, Coltrane, Aretha, Garland, disco, funk, and everything in between by the time Whitney officially hit the airwaves, but there was something special about her that made me take singular notice. Her voice was unlike anything I had heard, a deft instrument blessed with great power, equally great softness and sweetness, gospel grit and a clarity that resembled a tinkling cymbal over a crystal lake. All of this was presented, along with her presence and connection with the audience, with an effortlessness that made it even more ridiculous.

The first time I heard Whitney Houston sing was on a 30-minute video show that aired in the afternoons sandwiched between court shows and a cartoon that played “You Give Good Love.” She was dressed in a one piece black and pink leather catsuit—I declared her my wife and fell in love. The first time I saw her sing live was in the summer of 1986 as part of the New Year Centennial Celebration. Her voice rang out like a clarion call over the water and into the skies on “The Greatest Love of All” and I was transfixed.

Every significant love connection from my teenage years until now is tethered to a Whitney Houston song. “So Emotional” was the first that skipped my heart for my first love at 15 and the Whitney album played out my first relationship. That album is one of the best pop albums ever produced. Its balance of dance tracks, ballads, and a few covers made her the sound of 80’s pop at a time where you could hear every genre on the radio at any given moment.

It annoys me when people question my love for Whitney or scoff at my obsessive love for her as if their tastes gave them privilege to judge, but when The Bodyguard blew up everyone was on the Whitney train. One of the reasons I am so protective of my love for her is because I have always had to fight for it. Even if Clive had not gotten to her, she still would have been an exceptional recording artist, already having a disco track “Life’s A Party” under her belt, featured alongside the Weather Girls’ LGBT anthem “It’s Raining Men” with her own ballad “Eternal Love” on Paul Jabara and Friends before she was nineteen.

As a lover of ballads, Whitney was the soundtrack to emotional highs and lows and continues to be now. She came at a time when you had to be good to perform on award shows, when performers gave you their heart and soul. Whitney’s music was pop music, as was most of the best of the eighties; well-crafted catchy tunes, heartfelt sappy ballads and dance tunes that made for compelling displays of versatility. There is something special in her voice, an emotional undercurrent that is wrapped around the gospel grounding that rested in every corner of her voice. In concert she presented herself as an expert interpreter of lyric, slowing down and extending ballads to make you feel the heart and soul of them. Also, 80’s Whitney was the queen of precise extended notes and unexpected high trills.

“Didn’t We Almost Have It All” is the ultimate pop ballad. It has softness and yearning, lush orchestration and an octave shattering vocal. On the flip side, the live performance was so stellar it was released as the video, and it is a stripped-down masterpiece of vocal interpretation. “All The Man That I Need” is THEE adult Whitney love song for me. This is when she fell into the majesty of her instrument. As I grew in love and life, so did the breadth and width of her gift; More confident than the girl who recorded two chart smashing albums at 19 and 23; here was a woman in love, soaring and sailing, sharing that vibrancy with the world.

While The Bodyguard took her to an entirely new level of stardom, in the pre-Bodyguard era you could hear the utter JOY in her voice; early Whitney is where the buoyancy and beauty lived. Her stellar performances became so commonplace that we took them for granted and her talent as well. During her first tour, she performed a version of “I Am Changing” from Dreamgirls. The version in Jones Beach, CA in 1986 is a 10-minute vocal opus that displayed all the elements of Whitney Houston’s training and legacy coming together: her range, her ability to hold an audience, tell a story, sheer vocal power, and the joy she took in singing.

Whitney had already cemented her musical legacy BEFORE The Bodyguard, which took her into the stratosphere making her one of the most famous people on the planet with billions of people seeking her perfection nightly; but before that she was the singer the culture loved to hate, believing she was for white America and taken away from Black audiences. After The Bodyguard, she was indeed untouchable.

What Clive Davis contributed was taken for granted over time – and when Whitney started creating what she wanted – it was too real for the world. People really did not want to accept that so perfect a voice could exist in someone that looked like her. The standard was so high, I always believed that she was the source of her greatest pressure and competition. She had broken every record, created new ones, and, in the end, lost against the version of herself that the public did not want in the first place.

Whitney is indeed a great part of the history of Soul Music, the last from her most pedigreed lineage. How things ended and why they ended are not important when you hear the gift; a gift that was handled with parts of carelessness, caution and reverence. It looked so easy for her, but other artists find the sound hard to duplicate. While much of the Black community didn’t identify with much of what they considered to be the sugary songs she sang, she still created space for every Black artist (male and female) to follow and walk into mainstream doors that would have not been accessible otherwise. She was a singular artist, standing alongside Michael Jackson as the biggest artist of the 1980s and early nineties. It is significant that a Black man and woman created these moments of impact and presence that younger artists study and imitate them – but cannot replicate them. The constant examination of how she ended up leaving us so early takes away from her longer reign as the dominant presence in every corner of every household for so long as The Voice.