British Black Gospel, Part 7: Whitney Houston
Steve Alexander Smith is the writer of British Black Gospel, a book which traces the roots of Gospel in Britain. Exclusively for MOBO.com, Smith will be provding an overview of the world leading US Gospel market, and how it compares historically and economically to its British counterpart - taking us from the origins of British black gospel up to the present day. You can find out more about the British Black Gospel book on Amazon.
The late Whitney Houston and her musical achievements, songs and awards need no introduction in the final part of this seven-part gospel series. What will be a surprise to some readers is her inclusion within a genre of music that remains the exclusive domain of the likes of her female counterparts Yolanda Adams, Shirley Caesar and Ce Ce Winans. Whitney is one of a handful of secular artists that have earned respect amongst a highly critical and at times unforgiving gospel fan base. The chosen few include the inimitable Sam Cooke, Elvis, R. Kelly and Aretha Franklin.
On the 11th February 2012, the world lost one of the greatest female vocalists of her generation. The death of Whitney Elizabeth Houston was further impacted by the bizarre nature of this untimely event. Houston was found drowned in a hotel, submerged beneath her bath water. Judging by a consistent stream of media tabloid reports that followed, it seems that there was a determined effort to further submerge her reputation and legacy beneath a cesspit of sex, drugs and scandal.
Whitney Houston was singing live and performing traditional hymns and contemporary gospel and spiritual ‘hits’ in front of a packed city church every Sunday long before she was revealed to the outside world. In the emotionally charged atmosphere of the black American church, the congregation, choir and pastor witnessed the gestation period and birth of a legend. Singers of this calibre are viewed with such respect and reverence within the church that it is of no surprise that the gospel world would always welcome her back in the fold many years later despite her shortcomings and faults.
Houston was raised in a church where her vocal skills were shaped and nurtured, but her genetic family tree demonstrates that what she actually possessed was a gift that was embedded within her DNA. Her mother Cissy Houston was a member of the legendary Drinkard Singers, who incidentally were one of the first black gospel groups to sign a mainstream record deal - with giants of the time RCA Records, back in 1958. Mama Houston went on to form black female girl-group Sweet Inspirations, who provided compulsory backing for a very impressed Mr. Elvis Presley in the late 1960s.
Record company executive Clive Davis brought a young Whitney to Arista Records in 1983, and from there produced a polished diamond which resulted in multi-million global record sales as well as a record breaking chart topping hit.
On a commercial gospel level which is seldom documented in the popular press, Whitney Houston took sales to a new and unprecedented level. The album that was based on the soundtrack to the movie ’The Preachers Wife’, starring Denzil Washington, is the best selling gospel album of all time. Her collaborations with gospel artists are numerous and it is a lesser known fact that her god-mother is none other than Queen of Soul and a dynamo from within the US Gospel world, Aretha Franklin.
Houston strayed away from the world of gospel music in the eyes of many, but she never forgot her roots. Irrespective of the life and legacy, the fact remains that God gave her a special, beautiful and unique voice long before she was discovered and one that will remain in our memories long after her passing.
Gospel singers in Britain today will always look towards the voice of Whitney Houston not only for technique but more importantly, for inspiration.