Whitney Houston's death this weekend reminded me of a Houston show I saw at the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City in 1998. It was pretty disastrous, and hard to look away from, as I recall. Here's the review, which ran in the Inquirer on November 18, 1998, in its entirety. It natters on for a while about her then-new album, My Love Is Your Love, but gets to the part about the troubled diva falling apart on stage towards the bottom.
The sticker on Whitney Houston's My Love Is Your Love, which arrived in stores this week, shouts out the news: "Whitney, like you've never heard her before!"
And there is some truth to the hype about My Love, which - if you don't count the soundtracks to The Bodyguard (1992), Waiting to Exhale (1995) and The Preacher's Wife (1996) - really is the singer's "first studio album in eight years!"
The collection updates Houston's sound while attempting to hold onto the enormous audience she has built with hits such as "I Will Always Love You" and "Exhale (Shoop Shoop)." There is bombast from songwriter Diane Warren and producer David Foster, plus several credits for "Waiting" auteur Babyface, including "When You Believe," an earth-shaking duet with Mariah Carey from the DreamWorks animated feature "The Prince of Egypt."
But My Love isn't all believe-in-your-dreams anthems. Intended to be a more personal look at the singer, it takes on themes of heartache and domestic strife. And it achieves hip-hop currency with contributions from Fugees Wyclef Jean and Lauryn Hill, rapper Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliott, and rising hitmaker Rodney Jerkins.
To spread the word about My Love, Houston performed Friday and Saturday at the Trump Taj Mahal's Etess Arena in Atlantic City. And on opening night, she made good on the "like you've never heard her before" pledge, though certainly not in the style hoped for by the 5,000 or so high-rollers and adoring fans - some of whom coughed up $100 a ticket - who failed to fill the hall to capacity.
Concert-goers have gotten used to seamless superstar productions. And that kind of professionalism could surely be expected of Houston, whose every career move has been charmed, from her chart-topping 1985 debut album to her role as the Fairy Godmother in last year's ABC telemovie "Rodgers & Hammerstein's Cinderella."
Although its 13 songs were recorded in just six weeks, My Love (Arista **) has that polish. The album owes its existence to DreamWorks exec Jeffrey Katzenberg's suggestion that Houston and Carey get together on the lightweight "Believe," a gospel-choir-backed secular hymn that was also released this week on one of "The Prince of Egypt's" three sound tracks and on Carey's hits collection, #1's.
Hoping to capitalize on that inevitable hit, Arista president Clive Davis hustled Houston, 35, into the studio for an album intended to show that anything Mariah, Brandy or Monica can do, she can do just as well.
The two My Love cuts written and produced by Elliott seem to address strife in Houston's six-year marriage to singer Bobby Brown, who last month served five days in a Florida jail on a DUI charge and has subsequently checked himself into rehab. On "In My Business," which tells busybodies to mind their own, a sassy vocal rides atop tricky, percolating beats. And "Oh Yes" is meant to be a hot-and-heavy slow jam. But the former works too hard (an Elliott rap asks "Tell me why those hoes don't even like me?") and the latter strains for erotic effect, with Houston awkwardly groaning "You was so masculine."
"I Learned From the Best," the first of three swelling Warren showcases, creates the desired older-and-wiser effect. But Warren's back-to-back "I Bow Out" and "I'll Stand Alone" wear out the listener with grandiose emotionalism. And the Hill- produced remake of Stevie Wonder's "I Was Made to Love Her" gets a hip-hop soul treatment that adds little to the original.
But if My Love runs long and fails to rivet attention, many of its wrinkles pay off. The biggest success is the spiritually-inclined title track, written and produced by Jean and his partner, Jerry "Wonder" Duplessis. The song has a Caribbean lilt, lyrics that ponder the apocalypse, and a relaxed, sing-along chorus that gently lifts off.
The contributions from Jerkins, the 21-year-old May's Landing wunderkind behind Brandy and Monica's "The Boy Is Mine," aren't quite so arresting. But "It's Not Right But It's Okay," "If I Told You That," and especially the adult romance "Get It Back" support Houston's creamy, agile vocals with catchy hooks.
If My Love is seamless, however, Houston's performance at the Taj on Friday was anything but. In fact, it was marked by a lack of professionalism shocking in a star of Houston's magnitude.
From the start of the show - her first this year - it was clear that Houston was unprepared. Wearing a sequined, red stretch-lace unitard and sporting a new blond 'do, she began with "Queen of the Night" and Chaka Khan's "I'm Every Woman." Her honeyed voice sounded great in its mid-range, but she was out of breath, and had to rest to regain her composure. The explanation that her weariness was a result of working so hard on "My Love" initially drew a sympathetic response, but the crowd grew restless after repeated complaints.
"What, am I supposed to feel sorry for her?" a guy in the front row wondered aloud. "Sing!"
The Newark native reminded everyone that she was a Jersey girl and how good it was to be home, but that didn't make her any more comfortable singing her own material. Without her four back-up singers _ particularly Sharlotte Gibson, who helped her save face several times _ Houston couldn't have made it through "You Give Good Love" or "Saving All My Love for You."
More than once, the show teetered near disaster. At one point, Houston left to change clothes while her brother Gary sang "Change the World." When the intro to "If I Told You That" began, she was a no-show, leaving the sax player to do a two-minute solo vamp before she finally materialized. Later, during introductions, Houston had to ask one of her back-up singers her name.
She performed only three songs from My Love, including the title track, which was marked by an appearance by Bobbi Kristina Brown, her 5-year-old daughter. At several junctures, Houston had to ask what song was next. On "I Was Made to Love Him," she read from a TelePrompTer for the entire song.
The strangest part of the whole, strangely riveting evening was that nothing fazed Houston, who has been fending off rumors of drug use since canceling a recent appearance on "The Rosie O'Donnell Show." (If she "were" on drugs, Houston says in the current Newsweek, you'd know it: "It would show in the performances and in the work.")
When Gibson hit a high note the star couldn't come close to reaching, Houston giggled and said, "It's nice when you have somebody who can sing the same notes as you." "The diva works hard!" she announced at another point.
Her voice was as attractive as ever, and at times she improvised brilliantly, but rarely did Houston connect emotionally. The one exception was "I Love the Lord," the gospel shout from The Preacher's Wife, in which her church-choir raising suddenly brought her back to earth. It was a hopping-up-and-down, testifying tour de force.
But just as quickly, Houston lost it again. "I Will Always Love You," the intended showstopper, provided the night's biggest embarrassment. As the music dropped out to allow Houston her a cappella triumph, her voice strained and fell, leaving Gibson to throw out the life preserver again.
Luckily for Houston, most of the millions who will flock to buy My Love Is Your Love were spared her Friday night failure. And since she has no plans to tour, the pressure is off for now. But any fan who saw her at the Taj has to worry over the state of the diva's career.