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Whitney Houston, almost too good to be true

Whitney Houston performs at the pre-Grammy gala &

Whitney Houston performs at the pre-Grammy gala & salute to industry icons with Clive Davis honoring David Geffen in Beverly Hills, Calif. (Feb. 13, 2011) (Credit: AP)

Whitney Houston was almost too good to be true -- a near-impossible package of a singular, powerful voice, movie-star good looks and a self-assurance that only comes to those at the absolute top of their game.

She wasn't just a star. She was a superstar who spawned a constellation of stars who wanted to follow her example, from Mariah Carey and Christina Aguilera to Mary J. Blige and Alicia Keys.

With her particular set of gifts, there was only one person who could stop Whitney Houston and that was Whitney herself. And, unfortunately, she did.

Houston's death on Saturday evening on the fourth floor of the Beverly Hilton Hotel came just as the 48-year-old from New Jersey was planning the comeback that her fans had been waiting for.

She was expected to perform at her mentor Clive Davis' annual pre-Grammy gala that night. She had finished filming her role in the remake of the movie “Sparkle,” loosely based on the rise and fall of The Supremes. She was also hoping to become a mentor on “The X Factor,” a possibility the show's creator Simon Cowell told CNN he was set to discuss on Monday.

We will never know whether this comeback attempt would work for Houston after so many in recent years had failed. Although her 2009 album “I Look to You” did manage to go platinum, it did not meet Houston's previously high standards artistically or commercially and the worldwide tour she had planned never materialized.

“She had everything, beauty, a magnificent voice,” Barbra Streisand wrote on Twitter after hearing the news of Houston's death. “How sad her gifts could not bring her the same happiness they brought us.”

In an era when so many celebrities angle to be “just like us,” eager to dole out nearly every little piece of their personal lives on Twitter and Facebook, the appeal of Houston, like Streisand, was not in her normalcy, but that she was extraordinary. Her talent was still incomparable, even as the years of drug use had seemingly taken their toll on her amazing voice.

It's hard not to appreciate the sweetness of her early albums, especially her 1985 debut “Whitney Houston,” when she was still seemingly unaware of how unique and powerful her voice really was. She clearly underplayed “Saving All My Love For You,” even though simply mastering the song's wide vocal range would have exhausted the talents of most good singers. She kept the skill needed to deliver the playful “How Will I Know” mostly under wraps to accentuate the song's sense of lovestruck fun.

However, it was when Houston fully recognized the strength of her voice that she was at her peak. In 1991, her version of “The Star Spangled Banner” in the midst of the first Persian Gulf War was so powerful it served as a literal rallying cry and an inspiration to the home of the brave.

Of course, that was just a prelude to “The Bodyguard,” which established her as a movie star and as the Queen of Pop as it topped the charts for 20 weeks. Houston took a lovely little Dolly Parton song “I Will Always Love You” and turned it into an unquestionable declaration.

The thunderous climax where she repeats the chorus after a key change is one of the most memorable moments in pop music. In “I Have Nothing,” she played the role of someone vulnerable, but delivered those feelings with regal bearing. If you related to those lyrics of “I have nothing, nothing, nothing, if I don't have you,” Houston was going to still make you feel like a champion while you did it.

She gave a booming voice to the jilted and the lovelorn, as well as solace to those looking to move past their troubles. That bond is why millions of her fans stood behind Houston, even as her marriage to Bobby Brown became more tumultuous and her issues with drugs and alcohol became more evident.

As Houston's behavior became more erratic and was even chronicled in the reality series “Being Bobby Brown,” people found it easier to poke fun at her, even though it was clear that she was ill.

Maybe it was because she still seemed so defiant and powerful when she spoke. The most poignant part of her infamous 2002 interview with Diane Sawyer wasn't her flippant “Crack is wack” remark. It was the way she declared her toughness and her intentions to continue making music.

“I won't break,” Houston said, in an obviously raspy voice. “I'm not a person who wants to die.”

Maybe we shouldn't have believed her. Maybe it really was all too good to be true.

Nevertheless, Tony Bennett may have summed up a lot of fans' feelings Saturday night, when he dedicated “How Do You Keep the Music Playing” to Houston at Davis' gala, saying, “When I first heard her, I called Clive Davis and said, 'You finally found the greatest singer I've ever heard in my life'.”

Rest in peace, Whitney. We will always love you.


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