Like many music fans, I was saddened by the loss of Whitney Houston yesterday. I used to play her 1986 self-titled debut LP all the time when it first came out and even had a poster on my wall for a time.
Unfortunately, I only got to see her once in concert, long after the big hit-making period. Still, it was a memorable one. Here's the review I did for the Riverside Press-Enterprise on 7/31/99...
DATELINE: UNIVERSAL CITY, CALIF.
"We're about to get real sexy here. Can you handle it?" asked Whitney Houston, shortly after the start of her dazzling sold-out show at the Universal Amphitheatre on Thursday night (she also did a sold- out benefit for the Magic Johnson Foundation the following evening).
Fans barely contained their glee at Houston's magnificent return to the stage after a five-year absence. Hardly the prima donna everyone makes her out to be, Houston continually joked with the crowd and even sang into one person's cell phone.
Unlike many entertainers, Houston has managed to successfully juggle several roles during the '90s and do them well.
She's a record-breaking music superstar who has a dozen No. 1 singles, a budding actress who's starred in three films and an all-around diva extraordinaire.
But more importantly, Houston, 35, is a devoted mother and patient wife. In fact, this brief tour was timed to coincide with her young daughter's summer vacation. That family connection (both immediate and extended) was strongly felt throughout the concert.
Illuminated by three rows of 50 miniature bright lights (imagine a children's Light Bright toy), the stage was an awesome sight and often blinding. In addition to three industrial-sized fans, members of Houston's 10-member backing band were strategically placed on a catwalk.
She opened the 20-song, two hour, 10-minute set with the frantic "Get It Back," the first of nine tunes from last year's hip and sophisticated "My Love is Your Love" disc.
Some scantily clad female dancers arrived onstage and played faux violins to whip up anticipation. Then Houston made her grand entrance at the top of the stairs in a sparkling cape and capri pants outfit by tour designer Dolce & Gabbana. The ladies quickly fell into formation and sashayed across the stage.
All the new songs sounded slick and had everyone's riveted attention - particularly the recent dance hit "Heartbreak Hotel" (not to be confused with the Elvis tune).
With back turned to the crowd, Houston freshened up for several minutes, then launched into a romantic medley of 1985's "You Give Good Love" and "Saving All My Love For You." The latter was highlighted by a spiffy new jazz arrangement and turned into an exercise for Houston's amazing vocal prowess.
She and husband Bobby Brown have long been tabloid fodder for their allegedly abusive relationship. Before the sultry "Oh Yes," Houston half-seriously addressed the matter: "Contrary to popular belief, we don't fight all the time. And no, I don't hit my husband."
Much like her film "Waiting to Exhale," where four good friends gather to shoot the breeze, Houston turned the soundtrack's "Exhale (Shoop Shoop)" into an extended gab and audience participation fest that lasted nearly 15 minutes.
She greeted and introduced friends in the audience and jokingly lured R&B singer Monica onstage for a duet.
The dark and dramatic "I Learned From the Best" found Houston's dynamic vocal range in fine form before she left the stage for a costume change. Brother Gary took over lead vocal reigns on a cover of Babyface & Eric Clapton's "Change the World."
When Houston returned, she was sporting a tight, silver mini-dress beneath a sheer flowered fabric fashioned into a long train.
Next, the concert really caught fire. On a dynamic "I'm Every Woman," Houston belted out the lyrics while the dancers engaged in well-choreographed moves straight out of a big budget music video. Houston's stepdaughter even made a brief appearance.
Keeping on the dance tip, a hi-NRG, remixed version of "I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)" breathed new life into the 1987 number. "How Will I Know" was also adeptly recast into a light and breezy shuffle.
"In My Business" was haunting hip-hop at its best, with Missy Elliott's sampled vocals and piano melody carrying Houston's pointed delivery and gestures. Keying into the lyric, the dancers and husband Brown both acted as paparazzi.
Houston went back to her roots for an uplifting gospel music section including "Go to the Rock." The lilting, reggae-fied "My Love is Your Love" was truly a family affair when Houston's 6-year-old daughter Bobbi Kristina joined mommy onstage to sing "everybody get up" and father Bobby even joined in on the action.
Yet his defensive remarks about being "to hell and back, but we're still together after seven years" deflated some momentum.
Finally it was time for "I Will Always Love You" (from "The Bodyguard" soundtrack) - the song many people came to hear. Perched on a seat, Houston sang the slow, gorgeous build-up with ease then nailed the earth-shattering vocal finale.
By the end, Whitney Houston proved time and time again why she's one of America's premiere female vocalists in any genre.