HOUSTON—Ask anybody who was friends with Whitney Houston and they’ll tell you about her megawatt smile and her runway model beauty. But more than anything else, they’ll talk about that show stopping voice.
“What I looked at when I heard her and saw her perform was, ‘Man, that is so phenomenal,’” said Yolanda Adams. “Wow.”
Adams had plenty of opportunities to witness firsthand what Houston could do in a performance. The two future Grammy winners met each other as teenagers in New York.
Both of them had roots in gospel music. Both of them were statuesque models. But their paths diverged as their musical careers developed, with Adams finding her voice in gospel and Houston veering into the realm of popular music that would make her a global phenomenon.
“I was just in awe,” Adams remembers. “I was like, ‘Oh my God! She’s so wonderful! She’s so sweet! Oh man, we kind of look alike!’”
Adams recalled how Houston generously donated money to charity, causes like schools and programs to help battered women, and then insisted in writing that her gifts remain anonymous.
But more than anything else, Whitney Houston influenced a generation of American vocalist, even changing the way they interpreted the national anthem. As the world watched Whitney, other singers listened and learned.
“You know what it takes to get to that register that she had,” Adams says. “You know what it takes to, you know, take the breath so slightly before you approach a note. And it took a lot of discipline.”
As she listened to Houston’s vocal range, Adams began to compare her to other great female singers of the 20th century, from Barbra Streisand to Celine Dion. And she realized she and other vocalists could learn a lot listening to the choices Houston made as she performed.
“The normal person would descend,” Adams said “Instead, she kept rising and rising and rising vocally—and powerfully. The timbre and the tone of her voice were always so great. So those are the things you look at to say, ‘Hmm. How can I incorporate that in what I do?’”
As Hollywood incorporated Houston into cinema, she recorded the best-selling soundtrack in music history, “The Bodyguard.” She co-starred in the movie of the same name with Kevin Costner. Overnight, she became a movie star.
And yet, Adams remembers something else.
"I think of the music,” she said. “I think of her legacy. That’s what I think of when I think of Whitney.”
That’s what survives to this day—the ongoing influence of a spectacular American voice.