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culture

“A Voice That Can Scale Mountains”

Audiences and critics were smitten with Whitney Houston during her first live Toronto appearances in the mid-1980s.

Source: the Toronto Sun, August 17, 1986.

“Whitney Houston a stunning singer who’s going places” read a headline on the front page of the Star’s entertainment section on April 24, 1985. The prediction proved true, even if some of the singer’s fans wished there were a few places Houston didn’t go—deep into drug addiction, for instance, before her death on Saturday. But long before erratic behaviour caused concern, Houston’s early live performances in Toronto left audiences and critics raving about her singing talent in ways akin to the recent New York Times appraisal of her gifts: “radiant, perspective altering, impossible to touch.”

In town for a 48-hour whirlwind of publicity interviews to promote her eponymous first album, Houston made her Toronto debut in front of music-industry reps and reporters at the Club Bluenote at 128 Pears Avenue. Backed by recorded tracks and dressed in a fringed pink gown, Houston performed a half-dozen songs that, according to the Star’s Greg Quill, showcased a singer “experienced beyond her years.” A headline in the Globe and Mail declared that Houston possessed “a voice that can scale mountains.”


Diet Coke commercial offering chance to see Whitney Houston in Toronto, 1986.

Houston returned to Toronto in August 1986 as part of a musical line-up at the CNE—one that also included Huey Lewis and the News, the Psychedelic Furs, Stevie Nicks, and Van Halen. As tickets sold out, fans entered contests, such as the Sun’s “Wild About Whitney,” to win seats. (Ten lucky winners saw the show.) When the Sun’s Bob Thompson asked Houston about the success of her first album, she said, “It’s very giddy and sometimes embarrassing to be famous. It’s to be expected, I guess, but I’m still not aware of the effect. I mean people tell me ‘You’ve started something,’ ‘People are looking like you’ and this and that. But I can’t imagine anyone wanting to look like me.” She indicated that she learned from her bad experiences, but when Thompson pressed her to specify, she responded, “I don’t know. I guess I haven’t had any.”

By contrast, the Star’s Peter Goddard was drawn to Houston’s beauty:

She has gorgeous features that aren’t idiosyncratic in any way and don’t “type” her. She can look great in almost any situation—even in a Coca Cola television commercial designed to have her out-stomp the greatest stomper going, Tina Turner. Houston has full lips, slightly hooded eyes and a yards-wide smile of blistering white teeth. Yet there’s an athleticism to this sensuality: her body is lithe, not lean. It’s a figure meant to be photographed.

Source: The Toronto Sun, August 10, 1986.

According to the newspaper reviews, the 25,000 people at the CNE Grandstand on August 22, 1986, witnessed a flawless performance. From the moment she walked onstage to the strains of “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” she captured the audience’s attention with, as the Sun’s Liz Braun noted, “an unmistakable generosity of spirit.… What Houston has is total appeal. What she does is perform sublimely, and she makes it all look as easy as buttering toast.” The Star’s Greg Quill found that her performance grew stronger as the night wore on, especially during the closing numbers “Didn’t We Almost Have it All” and “Greatest Love of All.” “What remained,” Quill wrote, “after the last, long note had rung out across the stadium, was the memory of one of the strongest, most pure and most assured voices in pop.”

Houston returned for another packed CNE show in 1987, but she cancelled the show scheduled for the 1991 edition of the fair due to a sore throat—or so it was claimed. Inside sources told the Star that ticket sales were sluggish in Toronto and other Canadian stops on her tour—only 11,000 seats were sold here—so the shows were dropped.

In light of the directions in which Houston’s career and life went, the most heartbreaking words we found came from Quill’s review of the 1986 show. “Houston is far from her greatest achievements. Imagining how great she’ll be 20 years from now is almost impossible, given the wisdom and grace she displayed last night.”

Additional material from the April 24, 1985, edition of the Globe and Mail; the April 24, 1985, August 21, 1986, August 23, 1986, and August 21, 1991, editions of the Toronto Star; and the August 10, 1986, August 17, 1986, and August 24, 1986, editions of the Toronto Sun.

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