Last year I was in a shop changing room, and they were playing an Amy Winehouse song, and I almost tweeted “I’ve never really heard an Amy Winehouse song that I thought was all that great” or something along those lines. I decided that the world really did not need to hear my idle musings on the works of Amy Winehouse… thank God, because as I discovered very soon after, that tweet would have exactly coincided with the news of her death breaking on Twitter. And I’d have looked very mean indeed.
And last night I was watching Dionne Warwick perform “Walk on By” on the Jonathan Ross show, and musing on the talent that was Whitney Houston…. People would probably expect me to be dismissive, but actually I thought she was a huge talent. I didn’t like her records much, but the raw talent was exceptional: the power of her voice, the ability to convey genuine emotion, and the immaculate phrasing. Listen to the end of I’m Your Baby Tonight, when she starts scat-singing. The phrasing is as good as Dionne’s. Or the verses on “It’s Not Right but It’s OK”. In fact there are lots of great bits in her songs. It’s just the overall product that doesn’t do it for me.
I remember first seeing her first hit, “Saving All my Love For You”, when she looked absolutely great in the video and sang like a true soul diva. I was living at the time with someone who was the biggest musical snob ever, but he totally fell in love with that video, and not just because she was cute. She definitely had something special.
I just wish she’d been around in the Sixties, when the songwriters and the production would have done justice to her talent. No over-produced ballads, no bellowing, no holding one note for half an hour just because you can. Just pure soul. She needed a Burt Bacharach, a Smokey Robinson, a Holland-Dozier-Holland.
It wasn’t only the songs that didn’t do her justice. The moment in Best Little Whorehouse in Texas when Dolly Parton sings “I Will Always Love You” to Burt Reynolds with that little quiver in her voice is heart-breaking. It’s one of Ed Balls’ favourite songs; he’s a big softie really. But Whitney’s version replaced the tremor and hesitancy, the vulnerability, the choke in the voice, with just a great big bellow. That’s how things were in the Eighties and Nineties. Everything had to be big and bombastic.
I’d always hoped that one day Whitney would sort out her problems, and do a Rick Rubin/ Johnny Cash type project that showed what she was really capable of. Back to her gospel roots perhaps. Or covering some of those songs Dionne Warwick made famous. I suspect that the world she inhabited and the business interests around her would never have let her do that. It’s a real shame.
Here’s a Richard X track that takes the good bits of Whitney and adds it to some Kraftwerk. Enjoy.