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The saddest part of Whitney Houston's death: she almost had it all

for Journal Register Newspapers

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Shortly before the release of her third album, "I'm Your Baby Tonight," in November of 1990, Whitney Houston took stock of what she'd accomplished to that point.

"What has happened to me, I didn't ask for," Houston, then 26, said from a Manhattan hotel room about her first two multi-platinum and record-setting albums, 1986's "Whitney Houston" -- then the best-selling debut album by a solo artist -- and 1987's "Whitney." "It just happened. It's a wonderful gift...a blessing from God. That's the only way to look at it.

Unfortunately, Houston's blessings and gifts ran out -- or were squandered -- which is the sad footnote to her death on Saturday, Feb. 11, at the age of 48.

In the immediate wake of Houston's passing we are, rightly, celebrating a singular voice, a talent that not only ran up a series of dazzling statistics -- 170 million records and videos sold worldwide, 11 No. 1 hits (including her ubiquitous cover of Dolly Parton's "I Will Always Love You"), six Grammy Awards and 22 American Music Awards -- but also represented a template for the modern pop diva, the a standard to which Beyonce, Mariah Carey, Adele and scores of "American Idol," "The Voice" and "X Factor Contestants" aspired.

Houston may not have asked for that role, but she came to it honestly. She was the daughter of gospel great Cissy Houston, the cousin of Dionne Warwick and the goddaughter of Aretha Franklin. She learned to sing in church and was schooled in the secular 80s pop world by uber-executive Clive Davis and some of the best producers and songwriters of the time. A Village Voice critic may have dubbed her "the most revolting pop singer in Christendom," but even at her most cloying and formulaic ("The Greatest Love of All," anyone?) there was a gutsy genius and bravado in Houston's performances that more than compensated for any weaknesses in the material.

And she had enough presence to make due in films such as "The Bodyguard" and "Waiting to Exhale."

Sadly, it didn't last.

Truth be told, we stopped caring -- really caring -- about Houston sometime around the mid-90s. An eight-year break between "I'm Your Baby Tonight" and 1998's "My Love is Your Love" opened the door for other performers to claim her turf and other music styles to claim her spotlight. Her turn from phenomenally talented, level-headed artist to bad girl -- the controversial 1992 marriage to Bobby Brown, the drugs, the erratic and unseemly public behavior -- wore down the faithful. In fact, many felt she was on death's door when she appeared, alarmingly thin, at a 2001 Michael Jackson tribute concert in New York, and a series of death rumors actually surfaced shortly afterwards. And She was a sad, whacked-out spectacle on the reality show "Being Bobby Brown."

When "Just Whitney" came out in 2002, we yawned. When her last album, "I Look to You," came out seven years later, we perked up a bit -- it debuted at No. 1 -- but ultimately gave up again after poor performances on TV and overseas led to the cancellation of a planned world tour.

The world has not been paralyzed by Houston's passing the way it was when Michael Jackson died in 2010, and that shouldn't be surprising. Jackson's footprint on popular culture was longer and deeper, and there was great immediate interest for a series of concerts he was about to stage in London. There was a real anticipation for renewal and comeback.

The same can't be said for Houston. There was certainly curiosity and goodwill for her upcoming remake of the film "Sparkle," which was partly filmed in Detroit, because it returned Houston to her gospel roots. But nobody was really counting down the days until its planned summer release -- which, in typical macabre fashion, will be enhanced by the death of its star. Billboard, meanwhile, is predicting a likely Top 10 return for her "Whitney: The Greatest Hits" album from 2000.

Back in 1990 interview, Houston also said that, "I can honestly tell you that I'm comfortable" with stardom and credited the "heavies who I consider to be real stars" -- her mother, her cousin, her godmother -- with keeping her level. "They deal with the ups, they deal with the downs, they deal with the criticisms...and somehow you try to remain one person, one whole person who has a foundation and a goal," Houston explained. "You don't get caught up in other things. You keep a focus and follow it."

Houston, unfortunately, didn't. Her legacy is six to, if you want to be charitable, 14 years of defining and trend-setting music, but she ultimately left us feeling that she came up short when she really could have had it all.

Send your thoughts and comments to Gary Graff


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