I was in Chicago in February 2012 on the day that Whitney Houston died. I was struck and fascinated by the wall to wall coverage of this sudden death and must have heard her version of I Will Always Love You, one of the songs that made her famous, between fifteen and twenty times that night. So I went earlier this week to see the documentary about her life entitled simply Whitney that is being shown in
cinemas round the country at the moment. It’s a two hour documentary by Kevin Macdonald that traces her development from childhood through stardom to the decline resulting from drugs and perhaps other factors. About three quarters of the way through the film comes the allegation of sexual abuse in her childhood from a woman relative and, as a number of critics have suggested, this makes one understand more fully the problems that ruined her career and led to her death.
I found the documentary very moving, particularly the transformation of the young and charming young woman with a beautiful voice into the thin anxious woman who had lost that stunning voice.
On my return from Chicago in 2012, I read around about Whitney and was amazed to find out that she had recorded a track with Archie Shepp and Bill Laswell in the group Material, a jazz funk group that had recorded with Sonny Sharrock, Henry Threadgill and Billy Bang. The track was Memories, originally written by Hugh Hopper of Soft Machine and sung by Robert Wyatt. The recording was made in 1982 when Houston was just 19 and before her singing career really took off. It’s a wonderful track lasting just over four minutes. In it the vocals alternate with saxophone solos from Shepp and the movement between Houston’s beautiful rendition of the song and Shepp’s gruff tone and soulful statements on the tenor sax is very impressive. Houston’s singing is relatively restrained, but the beauty of the voice is there and the song builds up to a strong climax. Robert Christgau in the Village Voice described the track as ‘one of the most beautiful ballads you’ve ever heard’ (Village Voice, 1982).
You can listen to the track at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8xj4xGiXfW0.