As the news of Whitney Houston’s death spreads across the Internet on the eve of the 54th Annual Grammy Awards, an evening intended to celebrate excellence will now most likely become a memorial to a singer who defined it.
Houston’s influence on the past 25 years of popular music can’t be overstated. Her dazzling vocal abilities changed the way we think about singing. It’s nearly impossible to imagine what Mariah Carey, Christina Aguilera, Boyz II Men, Mary J. Blige, Beyonce — let alone “American Idol” — would sound like without Houston’s imprint. Singing the national anthem at Super Bowl XXV in 1991, Houston set the standard by which all other “Star Spangled Banner”s have been judged.
She’ll be remembered for her exhilarating crescendos, but Houston’s ability to finesse a delicate opening verse was every bit as impressive. Try to bring fresh ears — if you can — to her career-defining single, “I Will Always Love You,” an indelible ballad that anchored the 1993 soundtrack to “The Bodyguard.” The album remains the highest-selling soundtrack of all time and it cemented Houston as a music industry superpower who would reach millions of fans and influence countless artists.
She would never eclipse those heights. Throughout the ’90s and ’00s, Houston’s descent into drug use made it difficult to listen to many of her early and most-ecstatic singles — “I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me)” and “How Will I Know” among them.
Few singers have ever sounded more alive.
Read Robin Givhan’s 1996 Washington Post profile of Houston as she discusses her marriage to singer Bobby Brown, her then-budding film career and her faith.
Houston, All Systems Go; Whitney Sings the Praises of Her Bad-Boy Husband, Her New Film and Her Faith
By Robin Givhan, Washington Post Staff Writer
December 12, 1996
NEW YORK — The emerald-cut diamond on Whitney Houston's ring finger is as big as an ice cube. Eleven carats and some change. She says she can't remember exactly. The stone is so heavy that as Houston gestures and mimes the ring tilts under its weight and slides around her finger. Because she is dressed in a trouser suit and mesh turtleneck that are the color of midnight, the rock stands out even more. It should come with its own bodyguards.
If such a ring is an expression of the love felt by the man who slipped it on her finger, then Houston has indeed been shown a whole lot of lovin' by her husband, the perpetually embattled singer Bobby Brown. Or at least he's willing to spend a fortune to give that impression.
Folks have seen fit to offer Houston advice on what she should or shouldn't be doing with what they see as a knucklehead husband who attracts trouble and police sirens the way refuse lures rats. But after five years of marriage, Houston is the only one who can assess Brown as a husband and father.
And this is what she says: "I have a great guy who loves me and I know he loves me. I can lay down at night with him and curl up and go to sleep."
Brown, she recalls fondly, was up during the wee hours of last Christmas morning struggling to assemble toys for their daughter, Bobbi. The man cooks. The couple are expecting their second baby in July, and they are hoping for a boy.
Running 40 minutes behind her day's schedule, Houston looks unhurried. Matte foundation has given her face the soft-focus veneer of an 8-by-10 head shot; smoky brown powder tastefully shadows her eyelids, and creamy mocha lipstick finishes off the pretty face of a girl who looks more like a Jack and Jill debutante than a Hollywood diva.
Houston, 33, is sporting a chestnut brown coif of springy curls highlighted in gold that seems impervious to the day's daunting rain and mist. Lesser hair would frizz and droop. You want to ask where this hair comes from, but that would be rude. Her navy loafers are by Gucci. She says she does not know who made her single-breasted pantsuit, and there are no adornments, no designer signatures, to solve the mystery.
The singer has thrown herself into the promotion mill to help publicize "The Preacher's Wife," opening tomorrow, in which she stars with Denzel Washington and Courtney B. Vance. It is based on the 1947 film "The Bishop's Wife," which featured Loretta Young, Cary Grant and David Niven.
Houston plays the gospel-singing wife; Vance is the stoic preacher whose faith is waning. Washington plays an angel named Dudley who comes to the couple's aid.
The movie, with its sweet sentiment and Bible-thumping gospel soundtrack, unfolds like a Hallmark card. And it's just about as subtle.
Though Houston puts on the face of the happy interviewee, she fidgets and twists and yanks on the sleeves of her turtleneck. Showing calm, genuineness and intuitiveness in the face of scrutiny is not an easy feat, as evidenced by Houston's on-screen performances. In "The Bodyguard," she tended to rely on lowering her eyelids to half-mast to show brooding sexuality. In "Waiting to Exhale" -- an extravaganza of makeup, hairstyling and lighting -- all that good grooming and flattering chiaroscuro were more useful in helping Houston sparkle than were her acting abilities.
In "The Preacher's Wife," Houston's eyes are wide open. Her character does not have to brood, and she only has to allude to sexuality. Her challenge in this movie is to rise above a stupendously ill-fitting wig that in some scenes pooches out in back like a ducktail and in others looks to have landed accidentally and haphazardly on her noggin. The thing has a life of its own. She tries valiantly to upstage that rug by emoting with wrinkled brow, rolling her eyes and singing with a voice that could blow the roof off St. Matthew's Baptist Church, the fictional site of this Christmas tale.
Houston is at her most relaxed on screen when she is belting out church songs with the backing of the Georgia Mass Choir. In real life, she is at her most eloquent -- or at least her most articulate -- when she's talking about spirituality. Houston grew up going to her hometown Baptist church five nights a week. She sang in the choir, went to Sunday school, performed in church productions. And like the diamond on her finger, her religion -- which she wears on her sleeve -- is almost as mesmerizing and distracting.
When Houston talks about God, she closes her eyes and sways almost imperceptibly, as if she's getting lost in a rapture and is reluctantly pulling herself back to the secular business of promoting her film. Each time the conversation shifts toward some personal topic, her eyes shut tight as if she's willing the Spirit to give her strength, maybe even speak for her. The intensity is a bit much.
Houston evokes Scripture almost immediately as a way of describing her personal interpretation of the new film (and her life philosophy): "Weeping may endure for a night," she says, "but joy will come in the morning."
She later repeats the same verse when asked to talk about the times that have caused her grief. She has endured false accounts that she overdosed on diet pills, had an affair with her female assistant, and that her marriage was a publicity stunt -- along with true reports of marital troubles and Brown's run-ins with the law.
"I've just kind of prepared myself for what's to be expected" from the media, she says. "It still bothers me to hear rumors, but now I'm taking it in stride. It angers me at times, but I've decided to have a Christian-like attitude. Being angry destroys the soul. . . . It still [hurts]. Everybody wants good press. No one wants lies.
"Fame is a very curious game," she continues. "Perfect strangers call you by name. I don't know what transpires from making a record to 'I know you.' "
What sparks the whispering is, of course, the public's fascination with celebrity, the breadth of Houston's fame and the fact that there are few African American stars of her immense stature to share in and diffuse the scrutiny. Many of the rumors and criticisms have been spawned in and nurtured by the black community.
"For a while, I was the only one out there. I was cast as the princess," she says. "I was born and raised in Newark, in the projects. Some stuff don't leave you."
Almost since her 1985 debut album, when she was just 22, Houston has been harangued for the music that has made her an international star.
"For a long time people said I sing 'white.' I knew what they meant. But I know how to make records. You can have attitude and flava, but if you want a career you have to sell to all kinds of people. I sell records in China, Japan, South Africa. I don't sing just for one group," says Houston, her star muscles getting limber. "I can go in and record a hit record right off the bat because I know how to make records.
"Rappers have a different thing," she says. "They're supposed to talk about where they're from, what they deal with politically. It's not nice out there."
Rappers have their own dialect. Houston sings in the universal language: thunderous, octave-surfing emotionalism.Faith on Film
There were generous helpings of personal experience poured into the making of "The Preacher's Wife." In addition to Houston's background in the Baptist church, Washington's father was a Pentecostal minister for 40 years, and Vance researched his role by going to church every week and listening to the cadence and style of preachers. Director Penny Marshall toured churches, not only in search of just the right ones to use in the film (there were two) but also to get a sense of a church's impact on community life.
It was Washington's interest in the role of the angel that got the project off the ground. Marshall signed on next. And then came Houston.
"She was right for the part," Marshall says. "I mean, not a million people come to mind."
Marshall, wearing violet velvet lounging pajamas and white sneakers, is stretched out on a sofa in her hotel suite. A black enamel Victorian mourning locket hangs around her neck -- a good friend recently died. In between chain-smoking Marlboros, Marshall talks in that nasal, clenched-teeth, Laverne-Kmart pitchwoman voice. Bits and pieces of words are swallowed up with each puff. She sounds like a caricature of herself.
She set out to make a fable -- "When you've got an angel, you've sort of got a fable." And along the way, she had what she calls "Jesus moments."
"There'd be these big scenes showing the entire congregation, Whitney and the choir and everyone would get going and it was like, 'Jesus is in the building.' There was no yelling cut," she says.
"It went on for 30 minutes," she says. "It was quite thrilling."
Gospel singer BeBe Winans stopped by the set one day, and Marshall invited him to sing along with Houston. "We kept the cameras rolling. It's not in the movie, but it was good for the spirit."
Having worked with Madonna in "A League of Their Own," Marshall was used to directing singers who aspire to act but aren't yet proficient at it.
Houston "was very directable. You ask her to do something and she does it," Marshall says. "With Whitney there were certain things she couldn't do, like with Madonna, but she was very eager. Because they're larger than life, people are afraid to tell them to do things. People are afraid to say to them, 'It's not so good.' They're not intimidating; people are afraid of them."
"Here's a girl who's a business, a conglomerate," Marshall says. "I had to make her more passive."
A bit of docility was required not only to take direction but also to accurately portray the wife of a minister.
"I grew up in the church. . . . I knew the elements," Houston says. "I saw the preachers' wives. I don't know firsthand what it takes, but I truly believe that just being a woman you have to submit to certain things. As a preacher's wife, one of the rules is to be submissive.
"I have been that in real life. Although I couldn't be that submissive," she says. "The role of wife, it takes . . .," she pauses, "diplomacy."On a Mission
It has become something of a Houston tradition that her films make a discernible step forward in the way that African Americans are portrayed on screen. The crossover singer has also been a crossover actress.
In "The Bodyguard," she had an interracial fling with co-star Kevin Costner in which the racial dynamics were a non-issue.
"Waiting to Exhale" broke ground by putting the stories of middle-class black women on the screen in a way that acknowledged their race but didn't turn it into an obsession.
"The Preacher's Wife" is a film with a black cast that takes place in the black church. It shows that African Americans can be part of a picture-postcard fable.
"I don't think it has a color line, but if it does," Marshall says, "then it's about time [African Americans] had their own holiday movie and don't have to watch 'Miracle on 34th Street.' "
Co-star Washington has said that he's "an actor, not a politician. I don't represent a race. I don't represent any group. I just represent the character I'm playing at the time." But both he and Houston realized that "The Preacher's Wife" would be breaking ground.
Houston says both she and Washington knew that it was important to do this kind of movie with an African American cast and a big budget. "We could create the fairy-tale pictures," she says. "It was like it was supposed to be done, if you were working with an all-white cast. You knew you'd get quality.
"It was being done with taste and class," she adds, "which made it even mo' better."
Activists cry out for films -- with casts of any color -- that are uplifting and family-oriented. This one aims to answer the call. Houston envisions "The Preacher's Wife" as a battle between secular despair and spiritual hope.
"People need to see this action," she says. "There's a battle going on that doesn't take cursing and doesn't take guns."
And if every film choice offers a bit of insight into the personality of the actor doing the choosing, Houston hopes this one lets folks know that "I'm not what [the press] makes me out to be. . . . I'm not Hollywood. I'm not industry. I don't have dinner with them. People I've known for years I'm still friends with," she says. "I like to be with the people I know."
The strangers, she says, "are probably going to write something [bad] about me tomorrow."
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