John Belushi. River Phoenix. Stevie
Ray Vaughan. Freddie Mercury. Jam Master Jay. Michael Jackson.
Sadly, we must add Whitney Houston
to this list. Houston passed away on February 11 of causes yet to be
reported (at the time of this writing). She was 48.
To ask the “What if ...” question
of Whitney Houston - Whitney Houston! - is difficult enough. What makes
the question more tragic, more difficult to ask, is that it isn’t the
first time we have asked it about her. Unlike the others whose names are
on that gone-too-soon list, those stars who were at various highs in
their careers when they left us, Houston’s star faded long ago, as she
had fallen victim to substance abuse. We asked it then: What if ...?
Most singers would go down to the
crossroads and fall down on their knees to have a career that included
the songs on Whitey Houston’s 1985 eponymous first album alone: “You
Give Good Love”; “Saving All My Love For You”; “How Will I Know”;
“Greatest Love of All.” These four tunes, along with duets “Nobody Loves
Me Like You Do” (with Jermaine Jackson) and “Hold Me” (with Teddy
Pendergrass) make up a freshman album for the ages. We were hooked, but
she wasn’t done.
Her sophomore effort, “Whitney”
(1987), was no less dazzling. It included the hits “I Wanna Dance With
Somebody (Who Loves Me)”; “Love Will Save the Day”; “Didn’t We Almost
Have It All”; “So Emotional”; “Where Do Broken Hearts Go”; and others.
Who wouldn’t go down to the
crossroads, who wouldn’t fall down on their knees, to sing these songs
over an entire lifetime, let alone on their first two albums?
It was at that point, at least in
my personal recollection, that she went from “Whitney Houston” to simply
“Whitney.” Sure, Madonna was a single-named star, but that was her stage
name. Whitney, like her godmother Aretha Franklin, earned her way to
being recognized by her first name only: Whitney.
The rest is history. Her marriage
to New Editions’s Bobby Brown and her admitted substance issues all led
to a sad, sad career demise.
To me, at least, she was once part
of the discussion of the greatest female pop voices of all time. Sadly,
she lost her seat at that table. Her early exit from superiority helped
contribute to that, because longevity is an important part of the
equation. Ask Barbra. And her loss of voice contributed to that too,
more so than her tabloid exploits, because a spectacular voice rises
above the tabloids. Ask Mariah. Ask Christina. Ask Celine.
And this is what makes asking the
“What if ...?” question about Whitney Houston and her sad passing more
difficult than asking it about any of the other names listed, or asking
it about any other names from any other eras (Marilyn Monroe, Buddy
Holly, Janis Joplin, Heath Ledger). Where they were taken in their
prime, Whitney was taken after hers, but not so far removed from it that
she might not have made it back.
We had hope for Whitney Houston. We
had hope that maybe, just maybe, like an athlete who overcomes physical
adversity to return to past glory, Whitney would somehow turn things
around and force her way back into the greatest-voices-of-all-time
discussion, with a cock of her head and a perfect note from that
We had hope that maybe, just maybe,
she had a little magic left in those pipes, that there might have been
one more hit single in there, or one more National Anthem performance
We had hope that, like the other
stars who left us before they should have, she would one day leave us
while closer to the top than closer to the bottom.
Rest in peace, Whitney Houston, and
know that we now know where broken hearts go; they go with you.