Looking for sparkle in Houston's live performances

Randy Lewis
Los Angeles Times

Clive Davis excused himself and stepped out of the room while hopscotching through video highlights of Whitney Houston's career during a recent playback session. At that moment, it was during Houston's characteristically ultra-emotional performance of Diane Warren's "I Didn't Know My Own Strength" on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" in 2009.

On the TV monitor, Winfrey blinked tears away as Houston — three years before her death — sang:

Survived my darkest hour, my faith kept me alive

I picked myself back up, held my head up high

I was not built to break

I didn't know my own strength

Returning to the room at the song's end, Davis hastened to reassure a visitor that his brief departure hadn't been prompted by overwhelming emotion, although that would have been an easy assumption of the man who discovered and then mentored Houston to the pinnacle of superstardom and on through a rugged personal decline that culminated with her 2012 death at 48 years old. Instead, he's simply needed to reschedule another meeting because the playback session was running long.

Nevertheless, Davis, 82, conceded, "It's bittersweet," of his efforts trolling through mounds of archival recordings of Houston in concert to compile the 16 audio tracks and 18 video clips that make up the new CD and DVD sets, "Whitney Houston Live: Her Greatest Performances." Due for release on Monday, the two collections follow Houston's career over a span of 26 years.

Both sets open with "Home," a song from "The Wiz" that a 19-year-old Houston sang in her national television debut on "The Merv Griffin Show" in 1983, just two weeks after Davis had signed her to his Arista Records label.

In that appearance, Davis compared her to classic voices of an earlier generation such as Lena Horne and Dionne Warwick, and told Griffin, "If the mantle is to pass to somebody who is 19, who is elegant, who is sensuous, who is innocent, who's got that incredible range of talent, but guts and soul at the same time, it will be Whitney Houston, in my opinion."

The aim of the new set is to show a different side of Houston's talent: beyond the vocal power, range and meticulous phrasing of her finely polished studio recordings, she also could be an exceptionally expressive song interpreter and a magnetic personality in concert.

It raises the question: Why hadn't a live album or video ever been released before?

"The distractions, I suppose," said Patricia Houston, Whitney's sister-in-law, who manages her estate and worked closely with Davis on the release of "Whitney Houston Live."

"Life happens to a lot of us, and sometimes it distracts us," she said. "It keeps us from doing some of the things we want to do, because we're busy trying to accommodate someone else. So these distractions came, and things moved a lot slower for her in the latter years. She was thinking of many projects she wanted to do before she passed. They just didn't happen."

Among those plans were one for a smaller-scale concert tour in which Houston would have been backed by a stripped-down band rather than the massive orchestral forces that often accompanied her during the peak of her fame in the '80s and '90s.

Neither Davis nor Patricia Houston referred directly to her tumultuous marriage to Bobby Brown, or the couple's struggles with substance abuse, the latter being cited as a contributing factor to Houston's drowning death on the night of Davis' annual pre-Grammy Awards party in Beverly Hills — in the same hotel where that party was scheduled to get under way.

In some respects, the tabloid side of Houston's personal life grew to overshadow her musical career, something that Davis and Patricia Houston are hoping to correct with these live recordings. Houston also is sometimes credited — or blamed — for creating the template of melismatic singing that's led to the often overly dramatic approach taken by many modern pop and R&B singers, especially those vying for fame on the myriad talent competitions that have sprung up since "American Idol" altered the landscape for pop music on television.

"Whitney Houston Live" includes her rendition of "You Give Good Love" on "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson" in 1985, her performance of "The Star-Spangled Banner" at Super Bowl XXV in 1991 and an expansive arrangement of her blockbuster reading of Dolly Parton's "I Will Always Love You" in 1994 in Johannesburg at the Concert for a New South Africa.

"It's very emotional," Davis said. "I think it's important to be reminded of her greatness. Aretha 1/8Franklin3/8 said in one of her interviews that Whitney was absolutely one of the finest singers ever to set foot on stage."

Added Patricia Houston: "There was so much going on in the last 10 to 12 years of Whitney's life, a lot of people forgot about the true essence of who Whitney Houston was. This 1/8project3/8 is really for her fans to reflect back on what Whitney's true purpose was, and it was her music. That's her legacy: her love of music.

"By listening to and watching her, you're looking at something that was extremely special, and we don't want that to be forgotten."