Whitney Houston’s artistry and voice are unmistakable. At her vocal peak, she was an astounding singer, able to reach skyscraper heights and imbue even the most prosaic lyric with fervent, sacred urgency. After her tragic death in 2012, her legend grew. In her wake, younger wannabe Whitneys crowded the pop charts, aping her melisma-laden delivery and power-belting. Despite being perennially imitated, Houston was never duplicated.
She was, and always will be, an original.
As a recording artist, Houston was often saddled with wildly uneven material, commonly having to squander her fantastic voice on either mundanely middle-of-the-road balladry or assembly line dance-pop. In the 1980s, she distinguished herself from the other smooth-soul stars with her distinct and unique voice (even if the songs she was frequently given cliché-ridden ditties). Much of her work would be forgettable if not for her vocal charisma. As her star grew exponentially, she racked up an impressive string of hit singles while dominating MTV with her music videos. Although music critics were impressed with her obvious gifts, they grumbled that she was slumming with material so clearly beneath her.
A tremendous success story like Houston’s is also about the ongoing discussion of crossover and the definition of mainstream pop success. Whenever a Black artist is said to have “crossed over” to commercial prosperity, it’s usually understood that “mainstream” means “white” and that the crossover artists are typically accused of “selling out”. Despite Houston’s massive fan base, she wasn’t immune to this criticism, either—some naysayers directly suggested that she polished away her soulfulness to be palpable for pop (read: white) audiences. Her 1980s pop music was largely dismissed as trite, and there was a notion amongst critics that she was cramming her gospel-hewed vocals into cookie-cutter pop music.
As the 1980s drew to a close, Houston entered the 1990s seemingly impenetrable. While she essentially defined “pop diva music” during the prior decade, she grew as an artist during this time and found even greater success. Of course, her ambitions weren’t solely focused on music. In 1992, for instance, she parlayed her megawatt charm and supermodel looks into a credible film career, debuting in Mick Jackson’s musical drama: The Bodyguard. Even if Houston’s acting debut received mixed criticism, the film was a huge success. As successful as the film was, the accompanying soundtrack wasn’t merely a hit; it was an event.
Led by a record-breaking hit single—her soul-stirring cover of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You”—The Bodyguard soundtrack sold 45 million copies. Consequently, it became the greatest-selling soundtrack of all time (and Houston’s best-selling album). From there, Houston built a career overtly based on the 1970s successes of divas such as Diana Ross, Bette Midler, and Barbra Streisand. Like them, Houston linked her music and film careers. As a result, her studio albums became somewhat more sporadically released because she was releasing music to complement her cinema work instead. Her second movie (Forest Whitacker’s 1995 drama, Waiting to Exhale) included a soundtrack album that boasted another clutch of Houston hit singles.
Houston went back to the recording studio for Penny Marshall’s 1996 romantic comedy, The Preacher’s Wife (based on the 1947 Cary Grant/Loretta Young vehicle The Bishop’s Wife). This time, she wanted to make the kind of music her fans have been waiting for: gospel. Her link to the church is legendary and genetic (her mom was gospel great Cissy Houston, after all). Her live shows included sets devoted to gospel music, but her recorded work was primarily slick pop, so The Preacher’s Wife turned out to be a welcome addition to her discography.
Though the album was a remarkable departure from her usual sound, it’s worth noting that The Preacher’s Wife is not like Aretha Franklin’s triumphant return to the church (1972’s legendary Amazing Grace). The Preacher’s Wife contains some of Houston’s most religious music, yes, but it still carries the clean and polished pop sheen of the mid-1990s. It’s not a radical shift for the singer but more of a delightful adaptation of her pop instincts with her gospel background.
The Preacher’s Wife isn’t solely devoted to church music, and a lot of it sounds like a standard Whitney Houston album. Specifically, there are Broadway-style ballads with the gut-busting belting, glassy dance-pop, and silky-smooth soul. Peppered among the more traditional Houston fare is the invigorating gospel work for which Houston’s fans have been so hungry. Essentially, it’s the ideal Whitney Houston album, ticking off many sides of the diva’s talents while marrying her commercial side with her sacred roots.
It came out in late November, just in time for the Christmas holidays and a little bit before the film’s December 13th bow. It’s not a Christmas record, but its church qualities and the inclusion of a couple of Christmas carols make the record fit neatly into the season. (Naturally, Houston would eventually put out an entire Christmas LP, One Wish: The Holiday Album, in 2003.) To promote the film, she appeared on a Christmas episode of Saturday Night Live with Penny Marshall and the show’s host, Rosie O’Donnell. She was the musical guest of the evening, and she also popped up in a sketch with comedienne Molly Shannon, singing “Little Drummer Boy”. She also sang two numbers from the album: hit single “I Believe in You and Me” and gospel standard “I Go to the Rock” (on which the Georgia Mass Choir joined her).
A quick perusal of the credits on The Preacher’s Wife shows top talents in pop, gospel, and contemporary soul. Predictably, the grand, radio-ready ballad “I Believe in You and Me”—a Four Tops cover—is produced by Dave Foster, the undisputed king of Adult Contemporary. Elsewhere, Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds (a ubiquitous presence on pop radio in the 1990s) is paired with romance queen Diane Warren on “You Were Loved”. Contemporary gospel maestro Mervyn Warren took on production duties for the bulk of the album (particularly on the sacred material). The result is a uniformly pristine and cozy sound consistent with Houston’s oeuvre.
The record opens with a “film” version of the set’s signature hit, “I Believe in You and Me”. Jointly produced by Houston and Warren, the piece is introduced in the movie via Houston’s character singing in a nightclub. Somewhat reminiscent of Judy Garland’s “The Man That Got Away” from A Star Is Born, the song works as a way for audiences to see the melding of Whitney Houston, the actress with Whitney Houston the pop star. (The boundary between the film and the pop world is blurred further by Lionel Richie’s cameo as Britsloe.) The arrangement of “I Believe in You and Me” is meant to mimic an intimate nightclub setting, but the recording still sounds studio-clean.
The pop version of the tune—produced by Foster—sounds far more tech-heavy, though. It starts with swirling synths before the programmed percussion, and the pillowy synths envelope Houston’s warm vocals. Of the two, Foster’s version is the more familiar for Houston’s fans. As she did with Parton’s “I Will Always Love You”, she recasts an older tune and stakes claim to it.
Another cover represents Houston’s dance-pop talents: Annie Lennox’s B-side, “Step by Step”. The chugging number inspires listeners with motivating lyrics that fit into the religious tone of the LP. Again, Houston gives a knowingly wise performance. Like the best Houston dance song, “Step by Step” gives our diva a chance to do some choice belting and wailing on the tune’s euphoric crescendo.
It’s intriguing to listen to this song alongside an early Houston dance classic like “How Will I Know” to hear the difference in the quality of the vocals. It isn’t that the older Houston’s voice had aged or diminished. Far from it. In 1996, Houston was at her vocal best; yet, there’s an exuberance and youthful vitality in the 1985 hit that matches the bouncing synths and slamming keyboards. “Step by Step” is as reliant on studio technology as the older song, but Houston’s maturity has granted her a gravitas that allows the track to sound like an inspirational lecture. She’s a perceptive and thoughtful sage here, able to impart a sense of hard-won survival. And Houston’s club fans are gifted with a remix tacked on near the end of the album, courtesy of New Jack Swing legend Teddy Riley, who spikes the tune with some house-pop flair.
The other nod toward Houston’s classic sound comes when Babyface crafts the serene and soft “You Were Loved”. It seems so much like a Houston song written by Diane Warren that it tips slightly into self-parody. Again, she sings it with characteristic technical power; however, the rest of the composition feels as if it’s on autopilot. Babyface’s other contribution is the equally velvety “My Heart Is Calling”, which glides on a slightly funky beat. Honestly, both of Babyface’s contributions come across like outtakes from his work with Houston on Waiting to Exhale. It doesn’t sound stale or tired, but it is expected. Babyface’s method is highly identifiable with the 1990s, and he’s had so many hits. It’s as if the guy had already created top 40 pop radio darlings, so it stands to reason that his work with Houston has a similarly frozen-in-amber sound.
To perform the gospel standard “Somebody Bigger Than You and I”, Houston joins a cavalcade of ’90s urban-pop stars, such as Faith Evans, Johnny Gill, Monica, Ralph Tresvant, and Houston’s then-husband, R&B superstar Bobby Brown. It’s given an upbeat, grinding beat to make it sound comfortable on mid-90s urban radio. Such a massive overhaul could come off as cynical if not for the sincerity and joy in the performances. The congregation is full of fantastic singers, and while Houston is the biggest star of all, she doesn’t sound isolated from her peers. In other words, there’s genuine camaraderie amongst the performers.
For those who want to seek out the more sanctified Houston, the rest of the record indulges in her deep love for gospel music. She found a kindred musical spirit in Warren, who places his muse in a gospel setting—even if it’s slick contemporary gospel. His collaborations with her seem to have freed Houston from the assembly line confines of radio-pop. On “Joy”, for example, Houston trades verses with the heavenly Georgia Mass Choir. Then, “Hold On, Help Is on the Way” sees her sounding positively filled with the joy of the holy spirit.
Because of Houston’s star power, she can get high-profile guest stars to appear on her albums, and The Preacher’s Wife is no exception. Contemporary gospel greats join the singer, and Houston seems invigorated and inspired by their presence. In particular, “He’s All Over Me” finds gospel icon Shirley Caesar offering her gritty growl as a solid contrast to Houston’s smooth croon. Next, Cissy Houston gets a solo number, “The Lord Is My Shepherd”.
The high point of The Preacher’s Wife is the aforementioned “I Go to the Rock”. A joyful and rousing number, Houston transports her listeners back to her church. One can imagine the diva robed and electrifying pews of congregants. When singing pop, Houston uses her vocal acrobatics to impress, essentially shamelessly showboating—and there’s nothing wrong with that. However, Houston’s vocal pyrotechnics feel as if they are channeling her faith and devotion on the sacred material. She sounds filled by the holy spirit and is never more heavenly or lovely than when she’s testifying her love for God. Clearly, she connects with the music on a spiritual and visceral level.
Listening to The Preacher’s Wife in 2021 is poignant given how difficult Houston’s life and career turned out to be. Though she maintained her magnetism and charisma, that stunningly peerless voice started to change and become weathered as Houston’s health worsened. By the time of her last recordings (a pair of songs she recorded for the soundtrack to her final film, 2012’s musical drama Sparkle), the ethereal boom of a voice had changed into a grittier, more guttural instrument. She still possessed that inimitable magic, but her incredible range had narrowed, and her smooth-as-glass timbre was coarsened with fuzz and grit.
For Sparkle, she recorded on the powerful “His Eye Is on the Sparrow”, and her work has an astounding—if devastating —majesty. She was no longer capable of scaling those dizzying vocal heights, and her range had tightened considerably. Even so, “His Eye on the Sparrow” proves that she’s earned a ravaged gravity, her voice irrevocably and sadly altered by her hard life. That singular voice is dominant, while the arrangement is simple and unadorned. It consists only of Houston, a piano, an organ, and a sympathetic gospel choir complementing her near the end. Her performance is pained but powerful. Sure, her voice cannot erupt in that glass-shattering way it once could, but her impassionedly hobbled work on “His Eye Is on the Sparrow” points to what could have been an exciting and profound new phase of her gospel recording career. Having the ingenue pop polish burnished off left Houston with an incredibly expressive and unique voice.
The Preacher’s Wife is the album that Whitney Houston was always meant to record. It is the seemingly perfect Whitney Houston album—one that suits her talents and audiences. It complemented the minor tension evident in her performances when at her peak, she continued to search for that sweet spot that intersects between pop and gospel.