What is so great about Whitney Houston?

Whitney Houston

February, 2012, saw the passing of Whitney Houston and along with the outpouring of sadness especially here in the Caribbean, there were numerous TV segments describing how great she was.

But how was Whitney Houston great?

This may seem like a pointless question, as you must be screaming because she could sing, but yeah she was great because she could sing, like REALLY sing.

Whitney’s greatness differs from other artists coming from the United States because unlike let us say a John Lennon or John Coltrane, Whitney Houston was not the pioneer of any musical genre, did not play an instrument (to performance standard that I have seen) and did not write any of her songs.  So what is it then?

Whitney was a stylist, a REALLY REALLY good stylist.  A friend of mine once said that artists can be either great innovators and/or great stylists. Innovators are easy to identify because they start stuff; stylists on the other hand are more difficult to work out.   In short, innovators are those that open the doors to new sounds, while stylists decorate the inside their own way; so while Whitney did not create R&B pop, NO ONE sounded like her singing it.

Whitney’s style is based on traditional African American gospel singing.  Her greatness lies in the way she makes musical choices within this style. So Shakespeare used English, which he did not come up with (I don’t think), but it was how he used English that made him great. Whitney did not come up with gospel singing, but to me she made some GREAT stylistic choices using the musical vocabulary.

The key element to Afro-American gospel singing is vocal improvisation; what the layman refers to as runs/riffs. An important part of this approach is that the melody is hardly done the same way twice. Of course the changes made between melodies are not random and are based on stock phrases. It is the performer’s use of these phrases that determine their mettle, along with, of course, singing in key. Check out a great example below by Dr H. Beecher Hicks Jr. of the Metropolitan Baptist Church.

Now here is Whitney singing the US anthem. 

One of Whitney’s other performances that show me her stylistic greatness, and this may come as a surprising choice, is her rendition of “Do You Hear What I Hear.”  I have chosen this because it displays Whitney’s complete command of the gospel tradition as she makes some highly creative changes to the melody, especially if we consider the original. To understand what I am saying, listen to the two versions below. The first is done by Bing Crosby and the second by Whitney.

Wow what a vocal performance!

Some may argue that others did this as well, others may even argue that some did it better, but hardly anyone would say Whitney did it badly!

To end, thanks for living Whitney and thanks for showing the world what stylistic GREATNESS really is.

For further discussion, leave a comment!

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Stefan Walcott is a Barbadian pianist and composer. Throughout his career, Stefan has been privileged to perform with and write for a wide cross-section of artists, both in England where he studied and in his native Barbados. Stefan has arranged for Nicholas Brancker, the Brazilian Sinfonica and created Handel’s Caribbean Messiah, a re-working of the classical work. Stefan currently is director of the 1688 Collective a production company and 1688 Dingolay Inc. a not-for-profit. Stefan currently has a PhD in cultural studies with interest in music of the English-speaking Caribbean.

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