In fact, it could be argued that Houston’s vocal performance was, at times, a little too influential. Vocal coaches Carrie and David Grant, who worked with contestants on the British talent shows Pop Idol and Fame Academy, as well as with artists including Demi Lovato and the Spice Girls, say that Houston’s most famous songs became a gold standard that was rarely attainable. “Just about every singer we taught or auditioned for about five years wanted to master I Will Always Love You or The Greatest Love of All or I Have Nothing,” Carrie Grant tells BBC Culture. “Most of [them] should have tried something a little easier – many a singer has been wiped out in an attempt to do Whitney!”
David Grant believes that Houston’s influence “cannot be underestimated” because “for most female singers, she was the voice of her generation”. Though she became known mainly for singing pop, soul and R&B music, Grant points out that you could always hear her “gospel roots” in her delivery. The daughter of gospel singer Cissy Houston, a longtime backing vocalist for Aretha Houston as well as a Grammy-winning artist in her own right, Whitney honed her vocal skills in the gospel choir at the New Hope Baptist Church in Newark, New Jersey. “Even if they had the [vocal] riffs, many who followed her could not mirror this history,” Grant tells BBC Culture.
Bringing R&B to the mainstream
I Will Always Love You remains Houston’s best-selling single, but she had already enjoyed seven years of globe-conquering success by the time she released it. Between 1985 and 1987, she scored a record seven consecutive Billboard Hot 100 number ones with songs including Saving All My Love for You, I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me) and So Emotional. “Whitney was the standard bearer in a line of great R&B singers, from the ’60s with Dionne Warwick and Aretha Franklin, into the ’70s with Gladys Knight and Patti Labelle,” says David Grant. “But what she did was to take R&B to a market bigger than any of them had experienced. Without Whitney, there would arguably have been no mass market for Mariah Carey, Christina Aguilera, Beyoncé or Jennifer Hudson.”
Houston’s crossover success as an artist who could sing pop, soul, rock, R&B and dance music was unprecedented at the time, but not necessarily popular in all quarters. She was reportedly booed by audience members at the 1989 Soul Train Awards, a ceremony recognising the best in soul, R&B and hip-hop music. Houston addressed this incredibly awkward moment in a 1991 interview on The Arsenio Hall Show, saying: “I think that I’ve got a lot of flak about ‘I sing too white’ or ‘I sing… white’ or something like that.” She added defiantly: “I do sing the way God intended for me to sing and I’m using what he gave me and I’m using it to the best of my ability.”