Original Pop Diva. Powerhouse. Train-wreck. Amongst these and other controversial titles eulogizing Whitney Houston upon her passing last week, let us add one more: Queen of Covers.
It’s true that Houston’s legacy shines bright with accolades that are all-Whitney. The diva received more than 400 industry awards in her lifetime, including six Grammys and 20 Billboard Awards; she scored an impressive string of seven number-one singles with “Saving All My Love For You,” “How Will I Know,” “Greatest Love of All,” “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me),” “Didn’t We Almost Have It All,” “So Emotional,” and “Where Do Broken Hearts Go;” her debut album, “Whitney Houston” was the best-selling female vocal record, ever, upon its release. And never mind the music career, the lady was also a critically acclaimed actor, model and producer. Oh yes, and a mom.
But when it comes to that kind of fame that reaches beyond the realm of the chart-watching pop music lover and record-collecting gospel fan, Houston was one thing: the voice that immortalized “I Will Always Love You.” Which is, though it’s often forgotten to be so, an original composition and original single from the unsinkable Dolly Parton. And as such it is a contender for most famous cover of the 20th Century and in itself a nomination for Houston’s royalty in the genre.
New York Times reviewer Stephen Holden lauded Houston’s version of “I Will Always Love You” for transforming Parton’s “plaintive country ballad” into a “towering pop-gospel assertion of lasting devotion.” Regardless of the cinematic merits of The Bodyguard, Houston achieved with its signature ballad what all the best covers do — express a new spirit, a new life, and a new meaning within an already great song.
And holy moley did the music-buying world buy into it. The song spent more than 10 weeks in the number one spot on charts around the world and sold more copies than there are residents of Los Angeles. Chances are, if you have a heart, “I Will Always Love You” has consoled you through at least one soul-crushing breakup. And this week it’s made a 21st Century comeback as fans digitally renewed their love of the song, shooting it to the top of the the iTunes Singles charts and placing it in the top ten of the Billboard Hot 100 again for the first time in 20 years.
And so as Houston’s family say their farewells at her memorial service in New Jersey today, let’s celebrate Whitney as candidate for the Queen of Cover Songs by sharing a few that remind us of the good times we enjoyed with her.
David Byrne – I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)
Talking Heads frontman Byrne performs Houston’s classic tune arranged for rock combo and energetic strings and his signature slightly off-tune wail at London’s Union Chapel. Still eminently danceable, here with the benefit of a conga drum backbone and the great acoustics of a small church venue. A fun yet musically thoughtful homage to Houston.
Jennifer Hudson – I Have Nothing
One of the most memorable tunes from Hudson’s breakout appearance on American Idol was with this Houston ballad from The Bodyguard. Houston was the one to hand Hudson her Grammy for Best R&B Album in 2009. And Hudson recently appeared in her own right on VH1 Divas — a style of stardom that many say Houston perfected. And so it was fitting when Hudson performed “I Will Always Love You” in tribute at the Grammy Awards just a day after Houston’s death. Here let’s remember the first pop culture hint of the torch passing to a diva for a new generation and enjoy this great celebration of a show-stopping tune.
Me First And The Gimme Gimmes – Where Do Broken Hearts Go
The story goes that Houston wasn’t a fan of this song when she first heard the bare bones of it. Label pressure and desire for another number one hit resulted in her recording the tune, and in releasing it, securing her seventh consecutive number one single. In this version, the punk rock super-group imbue the puffy lady ballad with a straightforward masculine energy and an aw-shucks teenage-style innocence.
Katy Perry – I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)
A fairly faithful (though, slightly more emotionally one-dimensional) cover of the Houston original. Except that it features a dance break with a giant purple cat. Which can be a great, fun, temporary antidote to the Whitney-mourning blues.
Aiden James – I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)
Bandcamp is flush with tributes in the wake of Houston’s death. And this simple, touching, stripped down ukulele-and-guy-singing version recorded live on WXPN FM in Philadelphia the day after her passing is one of many lovely salutes. In it, James brings a seriousness to the lyrics while still letting moments of hope and happiness shine through in his tone. A heartfelt homage to Houston and evidence that her songs will continue to live and grow throughout the genres… and sound great even on instruments that cost less than a pair of dancing shoes.