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!

Tessanne Won, Great, Now What? – Musings on Tessanne Chin on The Voice

This article was published on http://www.cwn5.com in April.




tessane cartoon


“Tessanne won the Voice!” That was what my wife screamed to me as the results from Season 5 of the American reality show, The Voice were announced.  Tessanne Chin, the Jamaican reggae-rock fusion singer who produced the wonderful album In Between Worlds, had won. Wow! I thought to myself with an unmistakable uneasiness. Why worry? Well The Voice to me has proven to be, as we say in the Caribbean, a bit of a sweet talker and like most sweet talkers, their intentions are not always the best.

The Voice, for those (un) fortunate enough to avoid this particular reality offering,
is a televised, season-long music competition which involves singers blind auditioning for coaches. If the auditions go well then the contestants get to choose which of the coach’s teams they will join, in the hope of that coach helping them facilitate their dream of mesmerizing the viewing public and winning the competition.

The benefits of winning this competition are obvious and since conquering on Season 5, Tessanne’s public profile has exploded globally. She has performed at the White House, courtesy of an invitation from the Obamas no less, signed to talent firm ICM, which deals with artists as from Al Jarreau to Pamela Anderson, and headlined more Caribbean festivals in the past year since winning The Voice than Sizzla and Machel Montano combined. In addition, she has an album coming out on Universal Republic Records with contributions from hit writers Toby Gad and Dianne Warren.

Sounds good doesn’t it, especially for an artist who has been heavily involved in the pop music business for a number of years like Tessanne was. To me, not quite and while I am hopeful, being an early Tessanne fan, I am also very wary for the following reasons:

  1. The Voice does not have such a great track record

The past winners of The Voice, and they have been a few now, have not gone on to garner much mainstream success. Unlike, American Idol, no one from The Voice — winners or otherwise — has managed to crack the Billboard pop charts. As Dave Holmes, television host and reality-TV recapper told The Daily Beast, “It’s like people win The X Factor or The Voice and enter the Witness Relocation Program.” Funny and true and only the ardent pop culture buffs can actually name all the winners from The Voice.

  1. The Contract Sucks!!!

According to Helienne Lindvall, the Voice in its Scandavaian version, makes the contestants, not only the winners, sign contracts where the production team get 50% of all their earnings. This not only relates to future earnings but past earnings including royalties and publishing. It is a 360 deal worthy of the worst gangsters of the old music industry. According to Lindvall, this is not only on the Scandanavain show and various national versions, like the American one, make the contestants sign similar contracts.  What does this possibly mean for Tessanne? This means that The Voice production team will probably get:

  • future earnings every time Tessanne performs,
  • royalties and publishing from sales of her album “In Between Worlds,” which was recorded long before her appearing on the Voice.
  • a piece of all her non-musical earnings such as sponsorship deals and endorsements.

After reading this I hope that you understand my concern. Hopefully however, it will work out for her financially and artistically, especially given the fact that her sister, Tami Chin Mitchell, who apparently has experience with the label machinery is joint managing her. So as a fan from her In Between World days with its monster track Hideaway, I wish her all the best. I sincerely hope that on this new journey the industry pitfalls will not consume her and she can buck the trend and prove there is indeed a musical pot of gold at the end of the Voice rainbow.


This article was published on http://www.cwn5.com in April. Since then Tessanne has released her debut album on the Universal label to a very lukewarm reception. See link below.


This story continues to unfold.