Remembering Whitney Houston

Watching the late singer's public fall from grace was painful, but her talent transcended all.

Getty Images
Getty Images

Twenty-six years ago this month, Whitney Houston won her first Grammy for best female pop vocal performance for the classic “Saving All My Love for You.” The newcomer at the time beat out other divas like Madonna, Tina Turner and Pat Benatar.

This 1986 Grammy win would begin a streak of 415 career awards, from the American Music Awards to the Guinness World Records. On Feb. 11, 2012, the day before the 54th Annual Grammy Awards, Whitney Houston was reported dead at age 48.

Her exact cause of death has not been confirmed. But sadly, the public deterioration of the six-time Grammy winner has played out relentlessly in the media since the 1990s. Nonetheless, it’s shocking to be eulogizing the late, great Whitney Houston.

It’s rare for the public to so ferociously root for someone to beat addiction. We cheered for her on every comeback, hoped she’d regain her golden voice and prayed that she would let go of whatever demons were haunting her. In 2009 the world tuned in to The Oprah Winfrey Show and heard Houston say she was “back” — the drugs were behind her. But then a series of bad performances followed, and as recently as Thursday, she was photographed looking extremely unhealthy.

But then there is the legacy of Whitney. The Newark, N.J., native created the sound track for a generation with pop and R&B classics like “You Give Good Love,” “Greatest Love of All,” “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” and, of course, “I Will Always Love You.” With the exception of Diana Ross, no black female artist before her transcended race and musical genres like Houston.

If you think Beyoncé or Adele rules the charts now, Houston in the 1980s was record-breaking: She’s the only artist to have seven consecutive No. 1 Billboard Hot 100 hits, and her 1985 debut album was the best-selling album by a female artist.

And then there was the voice. Her vocal cords seemed to be touched by God, Buddha, Allah and Shango. The notes were at perfect pitch, her riffs were effortless but not overdone and she offered a unique hybrid of pop and R&B. She was the black Barbie — America’s sweetheart.

Even when she was coined a sellout, booed at the Soul Train Awards and said to be part of the “Rhythmless Nation” on In Living Color, her talent was clearly unmatched. Houston was the voice and the standard that every American Idol, X Factor and any other reality-show competitor aspires to be.

What is perhaps most upsetting about her death is her very public fall from grace. Watching the people who were part of the fiber of your musical memory falter so profoundly and publicly is shocking; it’s like watching a family member struggle — you feel you know the person.