A Heaven-Sent Voice Returns Home

Give me one moment in time, when I’m more than I thought I would be

When all of my dreams are a heartbeat away, and the answers are all up to me

About a year ago, I steered our family station wagon through the narrow hoary streets of East Orange, consulting a scrap of paper with directions to a health food store. I drove past a rambling red brick building marked with a monumental sign on the threadbare front lawn: the Whitney E. Houston Academy of Performing Arts. The building was set far back from the street, and the lawn was framed with what I thought was skimpy landscaping. I wondered about that place of learning: Was it a district, charter, magnet or private school? Was it well supported by its namesake and benefactors? If so, couldn’t the supporters have done more to spruce it up, especially since the namesake has such a polished public image?

An uncomfortable feeling followed the first thought: By 2011, Whitney Houston had fallen from grace. Years of drug use, to which she publicly admitted and a hard-to-break cigarette habit, seemed responsible for damaging her uniquely glorious voice. Her public struggles to leave a wacky marriage and overcome substance abuse had taken apart the persona of a charming, articulate, poised and intelligent young woman with the world at her feet.

Yet Whitney was not, at heart, the coarse-talking riff raff that mean-spirited detractors say she “really was.” Her real, actual history was of a mesmerizingly cute impish girl, in middle-class East Orange, NJ.  The music world has its nobility and peerage, and she hailed from the House of Drinkard-Houston, LOL. Look them up, including her mother, aunts and cousins, and it becomes easier to process how someone could be that gifted vocally. Whitney was the gift that kept on giving. She was also a ground-breaking and highly sought after teen fashion model, with a thriving career that was translating nicely into television roles. She appeared on Gimme A Break, SilverSpoons and was offered the part of Sandra Huxtable on The Cosby Show.  By the time her music career had taken off, she had already traveled the world with her mother and Dionne Warwick, met and worked with the likes of Chaka Khan and Luther Vandross, and developed a work ethic that made her very appealing to music and casting directors who needed reliable, talented people to complete projects. One way or another, Whitney was destined for stardom. So all this talk about her “fake” public image is pure nonsense from cruel, hardened cynics.

Yet there was no doubt that years of being hounded by an inhumane press, lashings from an ungrateful and vulgar public, all compounded by marital betrayal worsened a natural proclivity to abuse substances. Whitney seemed as lost emotionally as I was geographically at that moment. She was working on reclaiming her former glory, directions in hand, her destination in view. Looking at the school, I silently prayed that the woman would continue her comeback, finally conquer her problems and enjoy a natural, long life. As much as I was aware of her problems, I couldn’t bash her and write her off: Her voice, clear, strong beautifully honed as European leaded crystal, had brightened many of my dark and moody adolescent days. It ministered to me, and I couldn’t drag her like some of these other sickos were doing.

To say that last week’s word of Whitney’s death shocked me is an understatement. She had too much in common with me, my cousins and contemporaries for any of us to filter this news out as yet another troubled, brilliant singer who could not save herself from ruin. Like us, she was black, talented, grew up in church, nestled amidst a family of talented, resourceful and driven women. She came from hardscrabble inner city surroundings in northern New Jersey and achieved—here is where she was quite special—phenomenal and unrivaled success at her craft. Yet she maintained a presence in the state and always owned a home here. It is safe to say that all Jersey girls are loyal, and no amount of fame or success will make her pull up roots from the state completely. She always leaves a piece of her heart here, and comes back to visit every now and then.

I couldn’t have abandoned Whitney then, and cannot now. The public still does not know exactly what caused her death last week, although it has been widely reported that she was found underwater in the bathtub of her hotel room. Part of me is still hoping that it was all an accident, and that her vices did not play a part in her demise.  There is also a temptation to blame her tempestuous marriage for keeping her mired in drug use, even if that relationship wasn’t responsible for introducing her to cocaine or whatever else she might have used to self-medicate. Some might say that had she devoted that singular voice to gospel music, she would have avoided the risky behaviors that attends the popular and R&B music scenes so often, and she might still be alive and thriving. But gospel is a well-trod hunting ground for R&B talent, and with her connections and obvious talent, Whitney would have faced unrelenting pressure to change genres. No, she was destined for the musical career that she had. And there is no guarantee that had she overcome addictions, her personal relationships would have fared as well. She was known to be stubborn, and those personalities can be hard to live with. And yet, I am still in her corner as much as I can be, hoping that she finds eternal peace.

I remember watching a video of Whitney Houston belting out the Star-Spangled Banner months ago and thinking: Is such a phenomenon really gone forever? Other singers have a higher range, but few had the crystal purity, exquisite refinement, sweetness and fire, and of course resilient strength of Whitney’s vocals in its heyday. And her heyday was a very long period.  The signature song “I Look to You,” from her comeback album, went gold, even though her vocals had been clearly diminished. She displayed a level and quality of singing that is still out of reach for a lot of people. Had she found the inner strength to save herself, to preserve her gift, there is no doubt in anyone’s mind that her second career act would have been unassailably awesome.

I can accept that tragic untimely deaths happen all the time, and to much younger people. It is upsetting that Whitney did not seem to overcome her demons, worse that her voice seemed tarnished forever and that she might have had to live to see her glory fade, and regret it bitterly. Now all of that pining has to come to an end. Whitney’s funeral gets underway Saturday, and everyone will have to begin letting go of their hopes and dreams for her at that point. Yet it feels unnecessary and cruel that someone who had the support of mentors, protégés, family and fans, and who was pressing her way toward perfection again would be kept back from it. It just seems wrong that a singer whose voice embodied the American ethos of striving and moving forward should have slipped under the surface of the water for good.


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