Music Week:Great Talent, Pop Music & The Legacy of Whitney Houston

Great Talent, Pop Music & the Legacy of Whitney Houston


I want to share a long running debate I have had with some of my friends for years. The question is at what point if any, should an artist submit to or break from the mainstream of low musical expectations and plot an uncharted course of musical trailblazing?  By low expectations I merely mean making music that is simple and without much substance and yet may sell millions, based on the name, talent and credibility of the artist. 


When I look at the career of Whitney Houston for instance, I see a woman with the voice truly sent by God.  Her debut album is exceptionally classic.  It has a variety of cuts such as, “You Give Good Love,” Saving All My Love For You, and George Benson’s remake of “The Greatest Love of All.”  She also featured up tempo hits like, “Thinking About You,” and “How Will I Know.” There was no song you had to skip over.  What a way to shoot out of the cannon.  Houston became a household name based on that release.  She was the hottest thing smoking!  I thought she would have the musical significance of Aretha Franklin and Natalie Cole.  The problem I have with her now is that her first release is STILL her best… by far if you ask me.





The music from Houston after her debut has been mostly pop dance hits and watered down ballads that seem to be targeted towards white audiences.  Its not that I have a problem with white audiences either. Lord knows they buy and enjoy music too.  But the issue for me was that she started out soulful and audiences both white and black rallied around her music. It was R&B album with a touch of pop that was so good, IT crossed over and the mainstream came running.  It was the mid 80s so it was almost impossible not to have any elements of pop.  We know from the sounds of Motown as well as that of the jazz greats – and has such been proven with Hip Hop, that white and mainstream audiences will follow good music.  Houston brought something so exceptionally special to the table that she was totally embraced by the most sophisticated musical lovers as well as the simple.  She was one of only a few artists who could have done an R&B album, then turn around and do a pop record, then gospel or jazz, even country – and still her music would have been anticipated and celebrated.  That’s how good she was.  The last time we’ve had such a talent who had the courage to stretch himself like this was Ray Charles.  Check his catalog.  In addition to the be-bop and pop stuff he is well known for, he was also a top selling country performer.  He tried all kinds of music. Because he was a true artist who could master any genre. 






Houston dabbled with gospel on the soundtrack of, “The Preacher’s Wife,” as well as a few duos with her good friend CeCe Winans.  She never did jazz or country.  We did get a lot of dance hits from her, and she did some good work on the soundtrack of, “The Bodyguard.”  




Now the take I get from some of my friends is that she had to go for the money. Pop music sells and that’s the bottom line.  She simply gave the people what they wanted.  I say that’s fine…if she was Beyonce’.  Beyonce’ is a great performer, but hardly has the chops of Whitney.  Whitney brought them in with an R&B album. So even if her people felt she had to do a pop record to bring it all the way home, after that she had the stuff to write her own ticket.  After her album, “Whitney,” a very good pop record, this was the perfect opportunity to explore greater musical heights.  This is what Madonna did after doing popcorn bubblegum records like, “Holiday,” “Lucky Star,” and “Crazy For You.” Madonna didn’t bow down and become a slave to the mainstream, but became a trailblazer believing she had the stuff to stretch her audience.  And she did!  Cause she’s Madonna dammit!  And she still got the millions.  Whitney had the same juice but did no such thing.  I don’t know whether to blame her for not recognizing her own potential or her handlers for selling her out for a dollar. But as one who adores and appreciates the art form of great musical genius, I don’t care how much money she made or how many CDs she sold.  From the pure artistic perspective her musical career failed miserably.  Had she not taken the path of least resistance, she would be recognized as a musical icon – a diva beyond reproach.  Instead, she is thought of more to be a drug addict who had a crazy assed husband.  That’s my take – Whats yours?  Did Whitey give us the best of her musical potential?


P.S. – If you think I’m crazy look at the career of Marvin Gaye.  He started off in the Motown assembly line of being a pop crooner.  He decided that his music was not significant enough and did, “Whats Going On.”  This is where his career took off.  He’s not known for, “Heard It Through The Grapevine,” or “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” with Tami Terrell.  Berry Gordy was totally against What’s Going On the single.  Said it sounded too jazzy.  Marvin had it released without Gordy’s knowledge.  Though initially infuriated, once he saw the first week sales he acquiesced and demanded that Marvin complete the album. Gaye said yes under one condition… “I have to do it the way I want it done with no interference.” Gordy again has to roll with it.   The rest is history. 


Tomorrow we celebrate the great composers and producers.

Albums That Helped Shape My Life

Music is wonderful.  I consider myself a scholar in the area.  You have your one hit wonders, as well as the genuises that laste and laste.  I won’t get into the artist as much.  That would take too long.  But some albums are everlating in my heart.  Meaning they will always have significance.  Here are my top ten… subject to change upon memory of albums that have helped shape and make a big difference in my life. (In no particular order)

1. What’s Goin OnMarvin Gaye * Music and lyrics just as relevant today as they have ever been!  An album too honest for the times and still underappreciated fully for the substance it contains. 

What's Going on

2. Thats The Way of the WorldEarth Wind & Fire * A mixture of grooves such as Shining Star and Happy Feelings.  The title track along with Reasons are timeless classics.  This album is music that covers our afro traditional roots along with complicated relational and interpersonal issues.

That's the Way of the World 

3. The Isley BrothersThe Heat Is On * I mean forget Fight The Power – I don’t have to even go there.  But it has the Big Three on side 2: For The Love of You, Sensuality, & Make Me Say It Again Girl!  I used to listen to these over and over again even as a little kid.  Lots of black folk were conceived on that side of the album.

The Heat Is On

4.  JourneyEscape * The first Rock and Roll album I bought.  Journey introduced me to other groups like REO Speedwagon, Pat Benatar, Rush, Genesis, Teg Nuggent, Led Zepplin etc.  Don’t Stop Believing is still being played in bars all over the country.  It may be sappy, but after a couple pops, your singing along too! “Strangers – waiting – Up and down the boulevard – their shadows searching in the niiiiight!”


5.  Earl KlughHeart String *The first jazz album I bought.  I credit Jeff M. an old friend I used to bus tables with for hipping me to this wonderful guitarist.  We used to smoke the hippie lettuce while sitting in his car jamming this.  I have this CD in my car right now as a matter of fact. 

Heart String

6. Michael Jackson – Off The Wall * I know for a lot of people it’s all about Thriller.  Thats a great album and the sales records prove it.  But without Off The Wall and it’s success at the hands of Quincy Jones, there would be no Thriller.  The record exeutives didn’t think a jazz man could produce a pop album.  Michael said he wouldn’t do the record unless “Q” was the man to produce it.  Well when Mike spoke it was like EF Hutton.  The rest is history!

Michael Jackson Off the Wall

7. Prince1999 * During the height of the competition of who was the King – be it Michael or Prince.  Prince changed the game with this one.  A double album with crazy stuff like D.M.S.R. and Lady Cab Driver.  The bass line on Lady Cab Driver is one of the funkiest of all time.


 8. Stevie WonderSongs In The Key of Life * Still his best and most complete work in my opinion.  Cut for cut this is a musical kaleidescope of rhythms and lyrics.  A must have for any music fan. 

Songs in the Key of Life

9. Teena MarieIt Must Be Magie * Actually my second Teena Marie album.  Irons In The Fire was the first.  But with jams like Yes Indeed, (brilliant piano by Patrice Rushen) 365, Square Biz and Portugese Love… it was a wrap!  A great album from a great artist.  Go ahead Lady T!

It Must Be Magic

10. Fred Hammond and Radical for Christ – The Inner Court * At first I didn’t get the excitement others felt for this former member of the gospel group Commissioned.  His voice sort of irritated me.  But the more I listened, the more I understood this brilliant artist who literally worships God through his music.  Listening to this album is much more of an experience than anything related to normal entertainment.  And when I sing along I find myself worshipping as well.

The Inner Court

 What are your favorites?