Tonight’s Grammy Awards will bear the distinction of taking place 24 hours after a great loss for the music industry: the death of Whitney Houston, a woman who sold in excess of 55 million albums and created the template for what many music listeners, “American Idol” viewers and record business executives consider the height of female pop vocal skill. She died at age 48 at the Beverly Hilton, a traditional gathering point for pre-Grammy celebrations, where she was scheduled to perform at a tribute to her greatest advocate, former Arista head Clive Davis.
“Joe, Matt and I are saddened by the loss of Whitney Houston,” said Edmond singer-songwriter Mark Alan Stansberry, who is attending the Grammy Awards with sons Matt and Joe Stansberry. “We stood right behind Whitney and her daughter at the Beverly Hills hotel on Thursday (at the hotel desk) where we were staying. We saw her and her family last year at the same hotel where she has been a regular performer at the annual Clive Davis/Grammy Event. She appeared upbeat and friendly on the occasions we saw her.”
The early stages of Whitney Houston’s career were so radically different from what is experienced in the modern music industry that the decisions that were made for a young woman with an extraordinary voice seem almost quaint. Houston was uncommonly connected: her mother was Cissy Houston, a highly regarded gospel singer, her cousin was Dionne Warwick, and her godmother was Aretha Franklin. And yet, after she made her debut singing backup on Chaka Khan’s 1978 single “I’m Every Woman,” a song she would later cover, and the record labels came to court the 15-year-old Houston, the decision was made for Houston to hold off, pursue her modeling career, and wait until a proper musical strategy could be developed.
Davis signed Houston to Arista in 1983, and spent the next two years cultivating the singer’s repertoire and executive producing her debut album, 1985′s “Whitney Houston.” The first single, “Someone For Me,” made little impact, but the second single and the opening track from the album, “You Give Good Love,” can be seen as the point where a mature R&B sensibility reasserted itself after being sidelined or absorbed into electro-funk and new wave. I still consider it her exemplary single, the song that displayed the elasticity of Houston’s vocals without creating an environment for the bombast and showy vocals that would later take over and, for better or worse, create that modern “American Idol” standard for vocal “perfection.” That album generated three more huge hits — “Saving All My Love For You,” “How Will I Know?” and “The Greatest Love of All” — and if Michael Jackson was the quintessential mainstream superstar of the first part of the 1980s, then Whitney Houston essentially took over for the balance of the decade.
Houston continued her commercial winning streak with 1987′s “Whitney,” which in terms of style and content was essentially a sequel to her debut, and 1990′s “I’m Your Baby Tonight,” a successful album marred by a significant dropoff in the quality of material. By 1992, Houston was so successful that she could be relied on to co-star in a major film with the biggest male star of the time, Kevin Costner, in Lawrence Kasdan’s “The Bodyguard.” The film achieved solid success, but the soundtrack was unstoppable, powered mainly by the ubiquity of Houston’s cover of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You.” That single, a feat of vocal gymnastics that was roundly loved for its display of vocal dexterity and equally despised for its excesses, pushed sales of the soundtrack beyond the 16 million mark.
That same year, Houston married Bobby Brown, the former New Edition singer who enjoyed a chart-dominance period of his own in the late-1980s and early 1990s. At the time, Brown’s follow-up to the 1988 multiplatinum success of “Don’t Be Cruel,” titled “Bobby,” delivered well below expectations, and the marriage was considered something of a lopsided proposition: Brown was not a talent of Houston’s caliber, and his frequent legal problems seemed a stark contrast to the carefully cultivated regal stature of his wife.
Houston continued to make films during the 1990s rather than concentrating on album work: consequently, her chart and pop cultural presence was diminished as an emphasis on youth came to dominate the charts and Houston was increasingly a performer associated with adult-contemporary music. But by the early 2000s, Houston’s veneer of perfection was peeling away thanks to a marijuana bust in Hawaii, reports of harder drug use and a firing from an Academy Awards performance due to unprofessional behavior. A 2002 album, “Just Whitney,” suffered from weak material and even weaker performances — Houston’s voice sounded ravaged. Two years later, Houston appeared in the Bravo reality series “Being Bobby Brown,” which depicted the husband and wife as sadly addled, foul shadows of their former selves.
Houston seemed to be on the mend with 2009′s “I Look to You,” which gave the singer her first No. 1 album since the “Bodyguard” soundtrack. She was expected to appear later in 2012 in a remake of the cult classic “Sparkle,” co-staring with Jordin Sparks.
Just a cursory look at the mainstream pop landscape displays Houston’s impact. Without Houston, there would certainly be no Mariah Carey, possibly no Beyonce, and tryouts for “X Factor,” “The Voice” and “American Idol” would undeniably take a wildly different tack. Although her passing calls to mind the recent loss of Amy Winehouse, an artist who also struggled with substance abuse, its closer analog is the death of Michael Jackson, an artist whose early skill ultimately became eclipsed by the wreckage of his later life.
Tonight’s Grammy Awards will feature a tribute performance by Jennifer Hudson and Chaka Khan, but prepare for the evening to be lengthy remembrance of Houston’s life and work. Regardless of the TMZ-baiting details of her personal life, Whitney Houston’s recording legacy is what will take center stage tonight. I will be live-blogging the event throughout the evening.