Whitney's legacy survives tragic waste of potential

By Andy Gill

In the immediate aftermath of her death, Whitney Houston's name was frequently invoked alongside those of two other recently departed powerhouse female singers, Amy Winehouse and Etta James.

Amy's father, Mitch, touchingly referred to them as "a great girl group in heaven", though in reality they were all too distinctive talents for that, too demanding of the spotlight to share it. None of them would have been able to blend their voices alongside others with the modesty required to make a great vocal group, and none of us would have wanted them to hide their lights that way.

But though united in death, the circumstances of their passing differ markedly. Winehouse was taken tragically young, still in the first flush of her talent; and James was the original soul survivor, a feisty spirit who outlived the shame of America's racist Jim Crow era to make the transfer from chitlin'-circuit performer to mainstream R&B legend. As recently as last year, she faced down leukaemia and dementia to record her final album, The Dreamer. Though faltering, she managed to bring a salty panache to her performance. She may be 73, it suggested, but she was capable.

Houston was becalmed between these two extremes: her early greatness was behind her, yet she appeared not to have the determination to tough it out like Etta, herself no shrinking violet when it came to the indulgences available to stardom.

For the last decade or more of her life, she was involved in one of showbusiness's more protracted crash-and-burns. For brief moments, she seemed to be steering clear of terminal impact - she would appear primped and preened on some chat-show, then hours later be snapped falling out of a nightclub bleary-eyed.

Quincy Jones, the king of black American showbiz, says he wrote Whitney a letter a few years ago, pleading with her to put the pipe aside, get clean and get her career back on track; her response, reportedly, was that she was rich enough not to care about her career any more. Which one imagines wasn't the point for Q, a man with a keen appreciation of black culture's, and black society's, need for worthy figureheads. To watch the greatest voice of her generation cast that talent aside must have been intensely frustrating.

Whitney, more than any other artist - Michael Jackson included - effectively mapped out the course of modern R&B, setting the bar for standards of soul vocalese, and creating the original template for what we now routinely refer to as the "soul diva". Jackson was a hugely talented icon, but he will be as well remembered (probably more so) for his presentational skills, his dazzling dance moves, as for his musical innovations. Whitney just sang, and the ripples from her voice continue to dominate the pop landscape.

There are few, if any, Jackson imitators on today's TV talent shows, but every other contestant is a Whitney wannabe, desperately attempting to emulate that wondrous combination of vocal effects - the flowing melisma, the soaring mezzo-soprano confidence, the tremulous fluttering that carried the ends of lines into realms of higher yearning. But while some young, energetic dancers may be able to effect first-rate impressions of Jackson's routines, barely any singers come close to the singular skills displayed by Whitney. Most seem like cartoons, darting up and down the scale in vain search of the right note, copying the lip-tremble that conquered the world in I Will Always Love You, as if that was where the secret lay.

Her achievements stand comparison with any in her field, right from that extraordinary debut album released on Valentine's Day 1985, with its embarrassment of riches dominating the singles chart for months, years afterwards. Reared in the soul and gospel heritage of the Houston dynasty - her mum, Cissy, was one of the most in-demand session singers of the 1960s and 1970s, while cousin Dionne Warwick served as Burt Bacharach's premier muse through his golden period - Whitney was foredoomed to sing, surely the most abundantly gifted beneficiary since Aretha Franklin of the great vocal schooling of the American gospel tradition.

To watch the YouTube clips of her croaking hoarsely towards the end of her career is to engage directly with showbiz tragedy at its most heartbreaking: not the tragedy of talent cut down in its prime, like Amy Winehouse, or the tragedy of a mighty oak finally submitting to the depredations of age and illness, like Etta James, but the deeper tragedy of a seemingly limitless talent thrown away for no good reason at all.Independent

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