Sunday’s Grammy Awards opened with heads bowed in prayer for singer Whitney Houston, whose sudden death on Saturday at a Los Angeles hotel rocked the music world. “We had a death in the family.” intoned Grammy host LL Cool J.
It was a fitting tribute, given that Houston was a child of the African-American church long before she was a world-class superstar, says Crystal Lucky, a church pastor and director of the Africana Studies program at Villanova University in Philadelphia. The young singer’s mother, Cissy Houston, is a gospel singer, and the young Whitney was surrounded by female singing mentors who had also emerged from the church – such as her cousin, Dionne Warwick, and her godmother, Aretha Franklin.
These church connections are not unusual for many black entertainers, but what they say in the case of Whitney Houston in particular “is that she could sing, I mean really sing,” says Ms. Lucky. Back in the 1970s, when Houston was coming up, “most churches did not have complicated organs with large media-production boxes that could make anyone sound great. It was you and your voice,” she says. “You were really very vulnerable.” While the audiences were loving and supportive, nonetheless “they knew who could and could not sing," Lucky says.
Houston went on to be a trailblazer for young black female artists, such as Mariah Carey, Mary J. Blige, and Rihanna, says Rodric Bradford, a contributor to Soultrain.com, an online magazine devoted to the TV music program that showcased African-American musicians. “She really combined areas in a way that hadn’t been done before,” he notes, listing off recordings, movies, videos, and live performances that became pop culture moments, such as her rendition of "The Star Spangled Banner" sung at the 1991 Super Bowl. She was a crossover artist who brought her background in R & B, as well as gospel, into the pop mainstream, he adds.
Music companies have always understood how to market their artists – think of Elvis and the Beatles in movies and live shows. But “Houston was really the first black woman to combine all these forms successfully,” says John Covach, rock historian and professor at the University of Rochester in New York. With her powerful voice, she ushered in an era of what Professor Covach calls the pop virtuoso. “There is a long tradition in many musical forms of the virtuoso wowing audiences, from Mozart on up to Liszt and Paganini,” he says, “but Whitney was a popular singer and she made this amazing virtuosic style popular.”
Other singers such as Beyonce and Christina Aguillera were greatly influenced by this, he adds.
Drug addiction and marital troubles, however, began to overtake Houston's singing success, says pop culture blogger Jasmyne Cannick. The tendency is to eulogize Houston’s early years, but it is important not to whitewash the whole life, she says. “This was a vibrant, fantastic woman who is now dead at 48.... There is nothing natural about a woman dying at the age of 48. This needs to be part of the narrative.”
The facts surrounding Houston’s death were not fully known early Monday. Sunday’s autopsy was deemed inconclusive. Toxicology tests will not be complete for several weeks. Nonetheless, the decline in Houston’s health and voice is well documented over the past decade.
“Frankly, it doesn’t really matter what this final test says,” Mr. Bradford says, “because the drugs took away what should have been a powerful, much longer career.”
Music historians will remember Houston primarily for her once-in-a-generation singing talent, says Covach. “Sadly, she will simply go on that list of artists who paid a terrible price for the level of fame they achieved.”
Given the timing of her passing in the midst of the Grammy Awards, activists say there is a certain irony that they hope will not go unnoticed. At least two of the music styles that helped Whitney Houston achieve the fame she did – R & B and gospel – have been reduced this year as categories in the Grammy Awards, notes Robert Sax of GrammyWatch. “If Whitney Houston was coming up today,” he adds, “she would not have the kind of support she did when she began.”