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For Whitney Houston, happiness was just out of reach

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whitney.JPGBarbra Streisand tweeted it best early Sunday morning: "She had everything, beauty, a magnificent voice. How sad her gifts could not bring her the same happiness they brought us."

Streisand's succinct eulogy for singer Whitney Houston -- who was found dead Saturday afternoon in her suite at a Beverly Hills, Calif., hotel -- rings true to the bell curve that was Houston's career.

Happiness is something not easy to ascribe to Houston. That's certainly easy to say about her personal life; younger people likely are aware of her as a tabloid train wreck far more than as a record-breaking, wildly popular diva. The majority of her headlines in the last decade have been non-musical: drug abuse and a marijuana bust, erratic behavior and that last-minute cancelation at the Oscars, her roller-coaster marriage and all its dirty laundry literally aired on the reality TV show "Being Bobby Brown."

But even when she was at the top of her game -- and the charts, and the world -- Houston never seemed completely happy.

Her biggest hits (chosen by her, not written by her) were not cheery songs. "Saving All My Love for You" details a hopeless longing for a married man. Dolly Parton's "I Will Always Love You" -- that's not sung to a loved one newly acquired, as a promise, it's delivered over the shoulder after leaving the object of desire. Likewise, "Didn't We Almost Have It All" is pure melancholy reverie. "How Will I Know" wonders about love but doesn't possess it, as does the musically upbeat "I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)," in which Houston sings, "Sooner or later the fever ends / and I wind up feeling down."

In the hands of a skilled interpreter like Houston, though, those songs soared. As one of the first black artists to enjoy worldwide success in Michael Jackson's wake, Houston's early career was unparalleled. Her self-titled debut in 1985 sold 13 million copies. Around her second album, 1987's "Whitney," she broke records by logging seven consecutive singles at No. 1. Later, her version of "I Will Always Love You" was, at the time, the biggest-selling single in pop history. Talk about great interpretation -- even her Super Bowl performance of "The Star-Spangled Banner" became a Top 20 single.

Think about it: The operatic word "diva" wasn't in widespread use (or at least branded by VH1's annual "Divas" concert) to describe pop singers until Houston's ascendance.

But despite all that happiness she brought to others via her transcendent performances, the fever ended sooner than expected. Always a singles artist more than a crafter of albums, Houston backed off in the '90s and mostly released songs via soundtracks to the movies she starred in. Her personal troubles began overtaking her professional accomplishments. By the 21st century, she was divorced, in rehab, spinning consistent fodder for late-night comics ("Crack is wack!" "Hell to the no!") and, even worse, starting to realize that her hard living had damaged the very instrument that earned her the nickname The Voice.

"I Look to You," her 2009 album and first since a disappointing set seven years earlier, was positioned commercially as a comeback. Her name was back in a few headlines, but not always in a happy way. The songs were strong, but her singing was not. I remember watching her hyped appearance that fall on "Good Morning America," a heart-breaking performance in which her once powerful voice cracked and struggled within a much narrower range. She spent as much time apologizing as singing. Imagine how she must have felt.

Ahead of Sunday's Grammys -- at which Chicago's Jennifer Hudson is now scheduled to sing a brief tribute to the late six-time Grammy winner -- Houston seemed poised for another comeback attempt. She'd increased her public appearances (her last was Thursday night at a pre-Grammy party, where she sang an impromptu "Yes, Jesus Loves Me" alongside singer Kelly Price) and had just finished work on a new film, a remake of "Sparkle," due in theaters Aug. 10.

Whatever happiness she couldn't find for herself, she at least provided for others. (I will not deny having sung "Saving All My Love for You" at the top of my sad lil' lungs, fortunately in the car with the windows up on lonely roads. As a teen, I once played it over the phone to someone who then finally agreed to go out with me.)

Fortunately, in music, that can keep going long after she's gone.



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Now i'm so sorry. This woman was among my beloved vocalists.

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Thomas Conner

Thomas Conner covers pop music for the Chicago Sun-Times. Contact him via e-mail.

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