Whitney Houston's talent took her far too fast

A local newspaper is on sale at a newspaper stand with the main title reading "American Queen of Pop Whitney Houston died" in Shanghai, China on Monday, Feb. 13, 2012. Houston died Saturday, Feb. 11, 2012, she was 48. (AP Photo)
A local newspaper is on sale at a newspaper stand with the main title reading "American Queen of Pop Whitney Houston died" in Shanghai, China on Monday, Feb. 13, 2012. Houston died Saturday, Feb. 11, 2012, she was 48. (AP Photo) (AP)
Posted: February 13, 2012

When pop stars die too young it's always tragic, and often not all that surprising.

Whitney Houston, who died at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Los Angeles on Saturday at age 48, had the particular misfortune to have the swift and spectacular success of her early career followed by years spent living a deeply troubled public life under the watchful eye of a tabloid culture.

If anybody ever seemed destined for success, it was Whitney Houston. Her mother was the vocalist Cissy Houston, her cousin was Dionne Warwick, her godmother was Aretha Franklin. Philadelphia soul legends Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff issued a statement recalling that they worked with Cissy Houston in 1969, when Whitney was 6: "Cissy used to always talk about her daughter . . . and what a great talent she was going to be."

There was more to that boasting than just a mother's pride in Houston, who was remembered in prayer as the Grammy Awards telecast opened Sunday night and was to be honored later in the program by Jennifer Hudson.

When Houston, who was born in Newark, N.J., was just 15, she sang backup vocals on Chaka Khan's hit "I'm Every Woman," and she was a successful teenage fashion model before her music career took off.

Her first hit was a duet with Philadelphia soul man Teddy Pendergrass, "Hold Me," in 1984. By the next year, she had signed up with her mentor, record executive Clive Davis, and her self-titled debut album yielded three No. 1 singles: "Saving All My Love For You," "How Will I Know," and "Greatest Love of All."

In the years to come, Houston's only real competition as a dominant hit maker specializing in slickly modern African American pop was Michael Jackson. Her music was more conservative, and she was sometimes criticized for leaving the grittiness of traditional black music behind in pursuit of success, to the point where she was booed at the Soul Train Awards in 1989, where she also met her future husband, Bobby Brown.

While Houston lacked Jackson's inventive genius, her music was equally ubiquitous. Her mark of seven straight No. 1 hits - the other four being "I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)," "Didn't We Almost Have It All," "So Emotional," and "Where Do Broken Hearts Go" - is a streak unequaled in pop music history.

And that, of course, doesn't include the real big kahuna, the cover of Dolly Parton's "I Will Always Love You" that recasts the country song as a soul ballad enormous enough to match Houston's big-as-all-creation voice. That 1992 hit was from The Bodyguard, in which she co-starred with Kevin Costner and which also turned Houston, briefly, into a movie star. It topped the charts for 14 straight weeks, and was every bit the massive success around the world as it was in America. (After Houston's death Saturday, Parton said: "Mine is one of the millions of hearts broken over the death of Whitney Houston. I will always be grateful and in awe of the wonderful performance she did on my song.")

Somewhere around that time, though, the fairy tale came to an end. She continued to have hits - in 1995, she starred as part of an ensemble cast in Terry McMillan's Waiting to Exhale, and on the Babyface-produced sound track, she sang with restraint, particularly on "Exhale (Shoop Shoop)," the single that did what Whitney Houston songs always did: Went straight to No. 1.

But Houston's triumphs seemed to wear on her. In a 1993 interview with Rolling Stone, when she was 29, she said: "You know how I feel? I feel old. For the most part, from the time I was 11 years old, I've been working. . . . It's not as much fun as it used to be. When I first started, I was having fun. But it ain't fun no more."

Houston continued to make music in the '90s and '00s, but she became much better known for off-stage troubles. In 2000, marijuana was found in her and Brown's luggage at an airport in Hawaii. Later that year, she failed to show up to perform as scheduled when Davis was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

In a 2002 interview with Diane Sawyer, she admitted to using cocaine, while serving up a career debilitating sound bite by saying that she and Brown didn't smoke crack because "crack is whack." She made frequent appearances on Brown's reality TV show, Being Bobby Brown, confirming the impression that the once great singer had been reduced to a role as a supporting player in her husband's circus sideshow.

The long, painful crumbling of Houston's career was interjected with various comeback albums - My Love Is Your Love (1998), Just Whitney (2002), and I Look To You (2009). But as far back as 1998, she appeared to be personally and professionally in dire straits. That year, I reviewed a disastrously scattershot concert at the Trump Taj Mahal Casino in Atlantic City during which her backup singers repeatedly had to cover for her when her voice fell out, even during the intended "I Will Always Love You" showstopper.

In a Newsweek interview at the time, she denied that she was taking drugs, saying that if she were, "it would show in the performances and in the work."

Death has a way of wiping bad memories clean, or at least bringing back memories of less troubled times. And in the Twitter age, Houston's death brought instant tributes from her contemporaries, her elders, and young artists her music made an impact on.

Tony Bennett said: "It's a tragedy. Whitney Houston was the greatest singer I've ever heard and she will be truly missed." Rihanna tweeted: "No words! Just tears #DearWhitney." Justin Bieber wrote, "Just heard the news. so crazy. One of the GREATEST VOICES EVER just passed."

Legendary producer Quincy Jones put it this way: "I am absolutely heartbroken at the news of Whitney's passing. Ashford & Simpson first made me aware of Whitney when she was just sixteen, and I regretted not having had the opportunity to work with her. She was a true original and a talent beyond compare. I will miss her terribly."

Contact music critic Dan DeLuca at 215-854-5628, deluca@phillynews.com, or @delucadan on Twitter.

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