When I heard that Whitney Houston died, I burst into tears.
Maybe you did, too. She had that kind of effect on people.
Gifted with a mezzo-soprano voice of striking range and astonishing power, Houston blended a classical use of line, shading and phrasing with the gospel and R & B inflections of her youth to create a distinctive pop style that influenced a generation of singers and spawned countless imitators. That style was never more evident than in her signature song, “I Will Always Love You,” from “The Bodyguard.” What Houston did with “I Will Always Love You” – with an assist from composer-arranger David Foster, who is perhaps better-known today as Andrea Bocelli’s arranger – was to stretch and tease out the lyrics, particularly the title chorus, building what appears to be a breakup number into an anthem of heartache, endurance, generosity and finally, quiet acceptance. It is a stunning operatic performance.
Much has already been written about “I Will Always Love You” – how it was actually a country song penned by Dolly Parton; how it wasn’t supposed to be in a movie that had been originally intended for Steve McQueen and Diana Ross; how “Bodyguard” co-star Kevin Costner, who fought for the song and for Houston to be in the film, suggested she sing the now-famous opening a cappella. But it bears dwelling here a bit more on the number, because it is not what it appears to be and because it turns out to have been key to Houston in ways we couldn’t have imagined at the time.
Parton – whose rendition of her own song is fine in a whole other way – has spoken poignantly about how she wrote “I Will Always Love You” to explain to country star Porter Wagoner why she wanted to end their professional relationship and go out on her own. So “I Will Always Love You” is really a song about the end of a work relationship, which is fitting for “The Bodyguard,” since it is the story of two people whose career trajectories set them on a collision course for a time and then ultimately force them to part. Romance may enter into “The Bodyguard.” Yet neither romance nor the fact that the movie’s main characters are black and white is the source of the underlying tension that drives the story.
Yet whom are we kidding here? In his insightful eulogy at Houston’s funeral – one of the most honest, humorous and moving that I’ve ever heard and one that reaffirms my faith in the written and spoken word – Costner talked about how Houston’s blackness worried Warner Bros., the studio behind “The Bodyguard.” That and her newness to films required her to take a screen test. And the test dredged up Houston’s insecurities, which had long been fed by her position as a black singer in a white world who nonetheless didn’t want to lose touch with her roots.
Despite being the biggest pop star in the world and as beautiful as any woman, Costner said, Whitney Houston never thought she was good enough.
“It was,” he added chillingly, “the burden that made her great and the part that caused her to stumble in the end.”
By the time Costner concluded his remarks to a standing ovation, you had a greater understanding of what made Houston a tragic heroine worthy of Sophocles. And by the time the funeral service concluded, “I Will Always Love You” – which Costner’s Bodyguard describes in the movie as “one of those someone’s always leaving somebody songs” — had been transformed once again, into a goddess’ parting gift.