When I was a lad of 26, in the winter of 1985, I was a regular at Carol's Speakeasy and Paradise in Chicago, when I wasn't working on my master's degree at Northwestern. Of course, it was in the clubs that we heard Whitney Houston's 1985 dance hit "How Will I Know." But it was in the more private moments that often followed a night of dancing in those young days that Whitney's music soon became the preferred soundtrack of the after-hours.
Tunes like "You Give Good Love" and "All at Once," singles off the 1985 album Whitney Houston, set the right mood. That first album also set Whitney on her way to superstardom, selling 25 million copies worldwide, the best-selling debut album of all time by a solo artist.
By the late '80s, a new Whitney Houston song was an occasion. For a lot of us back then, Whitney's music -- and the dance clubs in general -- helped us blow off steam. And there was a lot of pent-up steam in those days, as our friends died from AIDS and we lived through the twilight zone of a deadly epidemic that our nation's leaders thought would go away if they ignored it long enough.
There's no question that Whitney's 1987 mega-hit "I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me)," off her second album Whitney, fixed her place in the pantheon of divas that gay men of my generation have adored since our 20s. The album solidified Houston's place as a major force in the music world. Whitney debuted at number one on the Billboard 200 chart, the first time an album by a woman had achieved the feat. It sold 20 million copies. Four number-one singles from the album -- "I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me)," "Didn't We Almost Have It All," "So Emotional," and "Where Do Broken Hearts Go" -- gave Houston an unprecedented seven number-one hits in a row.
When she wasn't wowing us with her vocal triple-axels, Whitney sang the heart and soul out of ballads. Dolly Parton and Whitney Houston fans will argue until the cows come home whose version of "I Will Always Love You" is best. Of course, it's a matter of taste. It's even possible to like both versions of the song that Dolly wrote and recorded but that Whitney hit out of the park with a record-breaking 14 weeks at number one on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1992.
At the end of the '90s, Whitney thrilled dance fans once again with "It's Not Right But It's Okay" and "My Love Is Your Love," off her first studio album in eight years, My Love Is Your Love. I would have sworn the roof of Provincetown's Boatslip was going to blow when it was "the" summer song of 1999.
As the 21st century melted into the new millennium, Whitney's career was tarnished by personal issues splattered over tabs and mags like poisonous Pollack paintings: Bobby Brown! Drugs! Abuse! After her triple-platinum Whitney: The Greatest Hits, in 2000, her next album Just Whitney, released in 2002, became her lowest-selling studio album, "only" attaining platinum (not multi-platinum) status.
Seven years later, Houston was back at the top with 2009's "I Look to You," her fourth number-one album on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. The gospel-and-God-infused ballad shows the heart of a woman who has lived to tell about it. For my money it's one of Whitney's most beautiful songs. She is radiant in a flowing white gown in the music video, which had already been viewed more than 8 million times on YouTube the last time I checked.
Having already become the top-selling R&B female artist of the 20th century, one of pop music's best-selling artists of all time -- more than 170 million albums, singles, and videos sold worldwide -- Whitney Houston will likely become a multi-platinum success once again, as fans buy her music to remember the striking lady with the stunning voice.
One of the greatest singers of our generation is gone, a lady whose bright smile and irrepressible music helped so many of us celebrate life in the midst of all the death and sorrow and rage that engulfed us in the '80s. A beauty whose personal struggles gave new depth to her music will be laid to rest on Saturday at the New Jersey church where she sang as a girl in the gospel choir.
In the end, even singers on loan to us from the angelic choir return to the heavenly fold. Fortunately for us, Whitney Houston leaves us with a musical legacy that will continue to inspire us in our earthly mission to live, laugh, love, and dance while we're alive.
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