Beaming and proud, dolled up in my pristine white dress and shiny black shoes, I walked along with my 6th grade class during our Northwest D.C. elementary school graduation ceremony back in 1986. Our entrance hymn, The Greatest Love of All, was a soul-stirring and emotional raspy-voiced rendition of a song first performed by George Benson in 1977 for the biopic about Muhammed Ali, The Greatest.
That was my first introduction to the late great Whitney Houston, who passed away yesterday.
To hear the tape recorder play Whitney singing the lyrics “I believe the children are our future” was a powerful thing for a little almond-skinned girl growing up in an urban, low-income neighborhood.
Back then, the 22-year old Clive Davis discovery had exploded on the pop music scene and was turning heads. She managed to catapult a so-so song into an iconic hit which went #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in May of that same year. And today, over 25 years later, millions of people like me are reminiscing and will be for the coming days, weeks and months, searching our memory banks for nostalgic moments in our lives that coincided with one or many of Houston’s many chart toppers.
By the time of her death, Houston had sold over 170 million albums, won numerous awards, and inspired thousands of artists on every level who claim her as an idol and role model.
And to think, less than 10 years later after transforming a sleeper hit into a chart topper, she would do the same thing again with an old Dolly Parton song. Her cover of Parton’s I Will Always Love You eclipsed the entire movie that was her acting debut, The Bodyguard co-starring Kevin Costner. The movie’s soundtrack won the Grammy for Album of the Year in 1994.
The success of that album was a testament to Houston’s powerful voice which had tremendous range , powerful enough to evoke all sorts of emotions — even patriotism. A lot of people gave the First Lady Michelle Obama heat for saying during a 2008 campaign event that it was the first time in her adult life that she was proud of her country.
However, to be honest there are and will always be people who feel so disenfranchised and disconnected from the rest of the country and do not feel some policies are in their best interest. Perhaps hampered by their own despair, or personal circumstances, they find a hard time embracing their native nation and all of its opportunities and because of that cannot find it within themselves to be patriotic.
But Whitney was able to change that.
Before the start of the 1991 Super Bowl, Whitney Houston belted out an inspiring, rousing and heart wrenching rendition of the Star Spangled Banner that was so powerful it brought tears to people’s eyes and raised hair on the back of others’ necks. For many who may never had been moved by the National Anthem before then, Whitney , a product of Gospel (her mom is Gospel great Cissy Houston) and R&B (Her aunt was 70s great Dionne Warwick) royalty, gave them pause to reconsider.
The power of her bravado and amazing pipes being used to open the start of America’s game moved many people from urban epicenters, to barrios in Oakland, and to those sitting on their couches in the heartland to connect with one another, subconsciously and to stand taller and prouder, even if for that brief moment.
There is little doubt that any other artist has been able to recreate the enchantment Houston conjured up for that great patriotic song.
It was indeed one moment in time, borrowing the line from another Houston hit. Houston’s super star presence, marred by a tumultuous marriage, drug abuse and revolving-door trips to rehab indeed precedes her greatness.
In the end, there will be those who say they saw it coming. After her last performance singing a few lines to Jesus Loves during the Kelly Price pre-Grammy Jam Session on Thursday night in Los Angeles photos of her looking a bit spent, slightly inebriated and perhaps exhausted circulated widely on the net. When I last saw her live at the 2008 BET Awards, it was noticeable that her voice didn’t have the same power and strength as it once did. The effects from years of substance abuse showed through. Nonetheless, the audience rose to its feet when she came on the stage because they all recognize that Ms. Houston is and was that large a figure. They can all reflect a time when her music played the soundtrack to their lives.
For those looking for a prolific and fitting farewell from Whitney, they may be able to find solace in the lyrics to one of the songs she is best known for:
If I should stay,
I would only be in your way.
So I’ll go, but I know, I’ll think of you every step of the way.
And I will always love you.
I will always love you.
You, my darling you. Hmm.
Bitter sweet memories,
that is all I’m taking with me.
So, goodbye. Please don’t cry….I will always love you
We will always love you, too.
Rest in Peace, Whitney.