Some critics have blamed Whitney Houston’s death on herself, saying it was “self administered”, talking of the “squandered talent of someone who had it all but threw it all away”.
But New York reporter-music critic Barry Michael Cooper’s tribute is far nearer the mark. He rightly says that Houston’s untimely death is our loss: “Whitney was an American Nightingale, because she sang with unmistakable beauty from a really dark place, a place where few other birds are singing. That's why we heard her euphonic voice loud and clear.”
As performers mourned her passing at the Grammy Awards ceremony last night where she had been due to appear, Cooper warned of the dangers of fame, describing the award as a “monster that whispers sweet nothings with the hot breath of cool lies”.
During her short lifetime, Whitney Houston became one of the best-selling artists of all time by the age of 29. The figures are staggering: over 170 million worldwide record sales and just about every award in the music industry.
The incredible success of her rendering of Dolly Parton’s song "I Will Always Love You" broke all musical records, making it became the best-selling single by a female artist in music history. She made her first film The Bodyguard in 1992, starring with Kevin Costner. When it was released, selling more than a million copies within a single week. She was the first musical act to achieve this.
Born into a musical royalty, with Aretha Franklin as her godmother, she began singing in church and was offered a contract at the age of 14, which her mother Cissy turned down so that Whitney could finish her schooling. But after that there was no looking back.
By the late 1980s, she was the first female artist in musical history to debut at number one in the Billboard 200 albums chart. She broke even the Beatles record sales with seven consecutive number ones. The songs included “Didn't We Almost Have It All", "So Emotional", and "Where Do Broken Hearts Go".
Of African-American descent, but with Native American, Dutch and Italian ancestors, Houston was strikingly beautiful.
It was her phenomenal gift of using her five-octave range that broke down barriers and opened the way for African-American as well as white female artists. She was the first black female artist to achieve success on MTV, hitherto dominated by white performers. The bravura and power of her voice became “the template for female vocal performances for the next 30 years”, as one critic has said.
Houston supported the campaign for the release of Nelson Mandela and as a young model refused to work with agencies linked to apartheid South Africa. She helped raise money for the United Negro College Fund and set up a children’s foundation.
But by 2000, Houston began showing signs of strain, suffering from drug abuse and weight loss. Her marriage to singer Bobby Brown was on the rocks. She admitted to taking cocaine and other drugs in two separate television interviews. She continued to record, tour and perform with some success – but also media brickbats – whilst fighting her drug habit.
After the runaway success of The Bodyguard, Houston honed her acting skills in Waiting to Exhale and The Preacher’s Wife, breaking new territory in roles that showed African-American women as talented professionals.
Houston captured the hearts of hundreds of millions of people around the world with her stunning vocal skills. As with the greatest performers, she was a vehicle for people’s greatest hopes, dreams, loves and fears. Her tragic passing, like those of Michael Jackson and Amy Winehouse – she was also honoured posthumously at the Grammy’s last night – is yet another warning that for some, the pressures of the system are too noxious to bear.
A World to Win secretary