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The term “diva” was not coined or derived for Whitney Houston. That being said, nobody’s ever been more worthy than her to don that honorific. Our best memories of Houston recall a performer with grace, humor, and a voice that could leave a crowd speechless with both its power and range. However, the images of Houston burned in our mind — in true diva fashion — don’t see her often sharing a stage. The hits that’ll go on long after we’re gone were mostly Houston on her own, and let’s face it: The artist known as “The Voice” didn’t need to be propped up, nor are there many singers in popular music history who could share that stage and not look totally outmatched.
But that’s hardly to say that Houston was opposed to sharing a spotlight. Her success came through years of collaborating with some of the great producers, songwriters, and set musicians of any era. And, though it’s a less-lauded part of her career, Houston was often at her most revealing when sharing a moment with another artist. As she famously sang, “I learned from the best,” and her long list of credits shows several fascinating moments when she either extended a hand to one of her teachers or to a younger generation that grew up dreaming of following in her vocal runs.
As we celebrate the 35th anniversary of Houston’s self-titled debut, an album that shifted both musical and pop-culture landscapes, we thought it’d be fun — or at least different — to see what we can learn about one of the great solo artists of all time by revisiting how she sang with others. Unlike her voice, the results weren’t always perfection, but more times than not, like any true diva, we see Houston lifting up those around her.
“Hold Me” with Teddy Pendergrass (1984)
You can’t talk the history of Philly soul or even R&B without devoting some time to Teddy Pendergrass. Between his 1977 self-titled debut and a car crash in 1982 that left him paralyzed from the chest down, Pendergrass had delivered five platinum albums in five years. And yet, it may have been the top-charting crooner who benefitted the most from this duet with the then-unknown singer. Houston sang alongside Pendergrass on the romantic duet “Hold Me” for his 1984 comeback album, Love Language, which went Gold on the strength of their single. “There’s something in your eyes I see,” Houston begins softly before revealing her powerhouse pipes later on, but, really, it was something in Houston that the public saw — or rather heard. Her performance was so complementary to Pendergrass’ smooth delivery that it was included a year later on her own self-titled debut. The fact that the duet with Pendergrass arguably cost her “Best New Artist” at the Grammys the following year hardly seems to matter.
“Take Good Care of My Heart” with Jermaine Jackson (1985)
Much of the earliest criticism of Houston came from those who thought she was wasting her once-in-a-generation voice on pop music. In our age of poptimism, it’s hard to imagine a gifted singer being belittled for choosing to keep things light as Houston does with Jermaine Jackson on “Take Good Care of My Heart”, but from the start of her career, Houston was adamant that she cared more about making “good music” than she did about labels. Alongside Jackson, by now a successful solo artist and producer in his own right, Houston elevates the lighthearted tune while simultaneously striking a blow for fellow artists who also wanted to be able to follow where their voices led them — whether that be the world of pop or more “respected” genres like R&B, soul, and gospel. The versatility of the “I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me)” star in this regard remains one of her great contributions to the music industry.
“I Know Him So Well” with Cissy Houston (1987)
If the voice God gifted her wasn’t enough, Houston’s family tree should have hinted that Whitney was born to be a singer. She could count Dionne Warwick, Dee Dee Warwick, and opera star Leontyne Price among her cousins and needed to look no further than her mother to see Grammy-winning singer Cissy Houston. It’s fitting then that Cissy represented the rest of the family on “I Know Him So Well”, the closing track to Houston’s juggernaut sophomore effort, Whitney. The two alternate verses and share the choruses, and Cissy’s finely aged voice gives the song the added heft of sounding like a mother relating to or offering advice to a daughter who sees her relationship ending. It’s a closing number that not only showcases a familial talent but also a special mother-daughter relationship.
“It Isn’t, It Wasn’t, It Ain’t Never Gonna Be” with Aretha Franklin (1989)
It’s a small and prestigious group of artists who can say they shared a stage or recording studio with the “original diva,” the late Aretha Franklin, and Whitney Houston forever belongs to that exclusive club. In hindsight, it might not have been the right song for Houston and Franklin to team up on. While Houston could “slum” in the world of danceable pop, the recording and subsequent video, likely intended to introduce Ms. Franklin to a younger audience, finds the Queen of Soul looking like she’s trying far too hard to shed a couple years and fit in. While neither diva would likely count the final product among the highlights of their regal careers, it remains a beautiful example of one of the world’s biggest stars collaborating with an artist who paved the way for others. And, despite the collaboration turning out less than auspicious, it can be seen as one diva passing the torch to the next great talent out there.
“Count on Me” with CeCe Winans (1996)
Whitney Houston was one of the few singers turned actresses who could hold her own in front of the camera as well as in the recording studio. It’s been a double-win, then, for films like The Bodyguard, Waiting to Exhale, and The Preacher’s Wife that were able to get Houston to both star in the film and provide some of the key soundtrack vocals. One of those boons came when then-up-and-coming gospel singer CeCe Winans joined Houston on ode to friendship “Count on Me” for the soundtrack to 1995’s Waiting to Exhale. Not only are the two convincing in their promise to be there for one another in the anthem for sisterhood, but Houston gracefully allows Winans to have her own moments in the spotlight. It’s a song about friendship that feels utterly authentic.
Click ahead for more memorable Whitney duets…
“When You Believe” with Mariah Carey (1998)
Mariah Carey was already a household name by the time she joined Houston for “When You Believe” in 1998 for Dreamworks’ The Prince of Egypt soundtrack. And while many critics balked at the results — despite the song winning an Academy Award for Best Original Song — it was a chance to see two of the most influential singers of all time share the same track and, subsequently, several stages. “When people talk about the great influential singers, they talk about Aretha, Whitney, and Mariah,” Stevie Wonder once commented. The song has remained one of Houston’s most popular, and the collaboration about miracles being right around the corner showed Whitney’s willingness to welcome other talents rather than view them as competition. Carey would later say, “None of us [singers] would sound the same if Aretha Franklin hadn’t put out an album, or Whitney Houston hadn’t.”
“In My Business” with Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott (1998)
It might look like a reach for relevance to invite arguably the hottest rapper in the world (gender be damned) for a feature on 1998’s My Love Is Your Love, but let’s not forget that Houston got her start by mixing genres on her debut 13 years prior — doing for R&B and pop what Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott would one day do for R&B and hip-hop. It should also be remembered, as Elliott bobs and weaves and backs Houston, that the diva is largely responsible for leading the push for black women getting more airtime on MTV, a major advancement that would one day allow Elliott to largely revolutionize the idea of the music video. “In My Business” may not be a song that gets lumped in with Houston’s finest, but the pairing with Elliott demonstrates that her influence extended far beyond a generation of pop singers.
“Could I Have This Kiss Forever” with Enrique Iglesias (2000)
Houston is often referred to as the Queen of Pop, so it was only fitting that she join international superstar Enrique Iglesias, largely regarded as the King of Latin Pop, at some point. Just as Houston broke down barriers in areas of genre, performance, media, and social issues, Iglesias is credited, among others, with bringing Latin music to the entire world, including popularizing the genre in the United States. Not only does the duo show that their restrained vocal styles and different takes on the pop genre could complement each other, but the track and video no doubt spread their talents to even wider international fan bases.
“Memories” with Siti Nurhaliza (2012)
Houston sadly passed away in 2012 after several years of personal struggles. When she died, she left a hole in the hearts of fans and artists around the world who admired her and, in the latter’s case, chose to follow in her incredibly daunting footsteps. In the above video, we see one of Houston’s great proteges, Malaysia’s Siti Nurhaliza — often referred to as “The Voice of Asia” — duet with the actual “Voice” in this “digital duet.” Using pre-recorded vocals by Houston and an actress in the accompanying video, Nurhaliza got to honor her hero and demonstrate that Houston was a world treasure.
“Higher Love” with Kygo (2019)
The troubled, all-too-human Whitney Houston has tragically passed on, but divas never really die. Like Aretha Franklin, Houston’s memory and voice will continue to live on, preserved in recordings and perpetuated by future projects taken on by those still touched by her tremendous talent. A perfect example came just last year when Norwegian DJ Kygo took Houston’s vocals from her 1990 cover of “Higher Love” and mixed them into a tropical house track. The song shot up to No. 1 on the dance charts more than seven years after the singer’s death. “I will always love you,” Houston famously sang, and Kygo’s posthumous duet with the singer only goes to prove that the world will always love her as well.