There is a whole generation of modern divas who grew up worshipping at the altar of Whitney Houston. Everyone from Mariah Carey to Christina Aguilera, Kelly Clarkson, Rihanna and Beyoncé owes a huge debt to the legendary singer, who died at age 48 on Saturday on the eve of the 54th annual Grammy Awards.
But on an evening when many artists stopped to pay homage to the 1980s diva, whose gifts knew no bounds before her personal problems eroded a once-untouchable talent, it was Jennifer Hudson who reminded the gathered music-industry elite about how much had been lost.
Like Houston, Hudson came up as a church kid, singing at Pleasant Gift Missionary Baptist on Chicago’s rough South Side at age 7 before embarking on a path that would take her to the top of the charts and earn her an Oscar for her breakout first film role in “Dreamgirls.” (That part came nearly 15 years after Houston won accolades in her big-screen debut in “The Bodyguard.”) And, like Houston, Hudson was signed by Clive Davis, the legendary music man credited with making Whitney’s career; the two women were labelmates on his J Records imprint. As he tirelessly was for Houston — even in her declining years — Davis has been an outspoken and steady champion of Hudson ever since.
Much of Houston’s pain and drama came from a sometimes destructive relationship with her ex-husband, singer Bobby Brown, and a devastating spiral of drug and alcohol addiction that would eventually rob her of her precious voice, and, according to reports, her life . Hudson’s public pain had its sources elsewhere, from the rejection of “American Idol” to struggles with weight and, most tragically, the horrific 2008 murders of her mother, brother and nephew.
Sunday night’s last-minute request to sing a tribute to Houston was likely a mixed blessing for Hudson: an honor, a burden and a calling.
But when she took the stage alone in a spotlight to sing the first a cappella notes of Houston’s signature show-stopper, a remake of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” from the “Bodyguard” soundtrack, there was no mistaking the weight of the moment.
Poised and, most importantly, clearly determined to make the moment about Houston and not herself, Hudson brought a gospel edge to the soaring ballad, infusing it with emotion and reverence. Her slight inhale before the dip into the first chorus looked as much about Hudson catching her breath as it did about her collecting her strength to push through and make Whitney proud. Raising her hands and eyes to the ceiling, then clenching them shut to hit the big note near the end, Hudson genuinely appeared on the verge of tears as she nailed a performance for the ages. The swooping, operatic sustained highs were not about showing off her prowess, but felt like the best kind of eulogy Jennifer could offer to her idol: an homage to an effortless vocal power we may never hear the likes of again.
Dion Summers, the vice president of music programming at Sirius/XM satellite radio (which launched a Houston tribute channel over the weekend), said the choice of Hudson was spot-on. “It kind of reminded me of the time after Michael Jackson died when Chris Brown opened up the BET awards,” Summers said. “That was the heir apparent. Everyone’s emotions were still raw and in both situations the artist had just died and it felt right. … I’m sure the Grammy producers felt that.”
Aside from the Davis and church connections, Summers said Hudson’s addition of gospel runs and even the way she styled her hair was a clear attempt to channel Houston’s essence. “She opened up from [a dark stage] just like Whitney did in 1994 [at the Grammys] with ‘I Will Always Love You,’ and if you noticed, [Hudson] gave a very restrained, graceful performance. We know Jennifer to have big pipes and she didn’t try to out-Whitney Whitney. I thought it was very classy. I think Jennifer walked that balance between tribute and taking the song over and she was just right in the pocket.”