There are two tragedies in what will now be known as the short life of Whitney Houston. There is the obvious one, the numbingly familiar tale of a huge star with the world at her command, who somehow finds fame isn't enough, who falls into a downward spiral of drugs and erratic behavior, who tries for the Big Comeback that never quite happens, who is found dead in a hotel room, in this case at the depressingly young age of 48.
As sad as that story might be, there's another one that to me is even sadder: The story of a possibly major artist with an absolutely incredible talent, who let herself be led by industry professionals down a path that would strip her of any individuality, to a career of absolute inconsequence.
I first became aware of Houston as so many people did, with her debut album, cannily assembled by blanderizing industry pro Clive Davis. The first single, Saving All My Love For You, showed promise, especially in this performance on David Letterman's old show, assisted in no small part by the arrangement by band leader Paul Shaffer, much superior to the schlocky, overproduced version on the album.
She's incredible here, in full command of her multi-octave voice, and the vocal pyrotechnics are deployed well. Later, of course, she'd start melisma-ing all over the place, a profound and bad influence on so many singers who would follow her. The most obvious Whitney Wannabe, of course, was Mariah Carey, but ironically, Carey's recorded legacy is stronger than Houston's. Saving All My Love isn't a great song, but it's at least servicable as a showcase for Houston's vocals, and it stands out on an album full of pop piffle like How Will I Know? and overwrought ballads like The Greatest Love Of All.
Unfortunately, all of her albums followed the same carefully-engineered template, machine-tooled by Davis and his minions to maximize profits. Album, tour, album, tour, with numerous awards show appearances thrown in along the way--that became Houston's life as a musician. Artistic concerns never entered into the picture.
But what about the path not taken? Prior to superstardom, Houston was a working musician, which is what led her to work with the NYC collective Material, which produced this stunningly beautiful track, which showcases Houston, not even twenty, as the jazzy chanteuse she might have been, the artist she was.