“Hold Me” with Teddy Pendergrass (1984)
You can’t talk the history of Philly soul or even R&B without devoting some time to Teddy Pendergrass. Between his 1977 self-titled debut and a car crash in 1982 that left him paralyzed from the chest down, Pendergrass had delivered five platinum albums in five years. And yet, it may have been the top-charting crooner who benefitted the most from this duet with the then-unknown singer. Houston sang alongside Pendergrass on the romantic duet “Hold Me” for his 1984 comeback album, Love Language, which went Gold on the strength of their single. “There’s something in your eyes I see,” Houston begins softly before revealing her powerhouse pipes later on, but, really, it was something in Houston that the public saw — or rather heard. Her performance was so complementary to Pendergrass’ smooth delivery that it was included a year later on her own self-titled debut. The fact that the duet with Pendergrass arguably cost her “Best New Artist” at the Grammys the following year hardly seems to matter.
“Take Good Care of My Heart” with Jermaine Jackson (1985)
Much of the earliest criticism of Houston came from those who thought she was wasting her once-in-a-generation voice on pop music. In our age of poptimism, it’s hard to imagine a gifted singer being belittled for choosing to keep things light as Houston does with Jermaine Jackson on “Take Good Care of My Heart”, but from the start of her career, Houston was adamant that she cared more about making “good music” than she did about labels. Alongside Jackson, by now a successful solo artist and producer in his own right, Houston elevates the lighthearted tune while simultaneously striking a blow for fellow artists who also wanted to be able to follow where their voices led them — whether that be the world of pop or more “respected” genres like R&B, soul, and gospel. The versatility of the “I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me)” star in this regard remains one of her great contributions to the music industry.
“I Know Him So Well” with Cissy Houston (1987)
If the voice God gifted her wasn’t enough, Houston’s family tree should have hinted that Whitney was born to be a singer. She could count Dionne Warwick, Dee Dee Warwick, and opera star Leontyne Price among her cousins and needed to look no further than her mother to see Grammy-winning singer Cissy Houston. It’s fitting then that Cissy represented the rest of the family on “I Know Him So Well”, the closing track to Houston’s juggernaut sophomore effort, Whitney. The two alternate verses and share the choruses, and Cissy’s finely aged voice gives the song the added heft of sounding like a mother relating to or offering advice to a daughter who sees her relationship ending. It’s a closing number that not only showcases a familial talent but also a special mother-daughter relationship.
“It Isn’t, It Wasn’t, It Ain’t Never Gonna Be” with Aretha Franklin (1989)
It’s a small and prestigious group of artists who can say they shared a stage or recording studio with the “original diva,” the late Aretha Franklin, and Whitney Houston forever belongs to that exclusive club. In hindsight, it might not have been the right song for Houston and Franklin to team up on. While Houston could “slum” in the world of danceable pop, the recording and subsequent video, likely intended to introduce Ms. Franklin to a younger audience, finds the Queen of Soul looking like she’s trying far too hard to shed a couple years and fit in. While neither diva would likely count the final product among the highlights of their regal careers, it remains a beautiful example of one of the world’s biggest stars collaborating with an artist who paved the way for others. And, despite the collaboration turning out less than auspicious, it can be seen as one diva passing the torch to the next great talent out there.
“Count on Me” with CeCe Winans (1996)
Whitney Houston was one of the few singers turned actresses who could hold her own in front of the camera as well as in the recording studio. It’s been a double-win, then, for films like The Bodyguard, Waiting to Exhale, and The Preacher’s Wife that were able to get Houston to both star in the film and provide some of the key soundtrack vocals. One of those boons came when then-up-and-coming gospel singer CeCe Winans joined Houston on ode to friendship “Count on Me” for the soundtrack to 1995’s Waiting to Exhale. Not only are the two convincing in their promise to be there for one another in the anthem for sisterhood, but Houston gracefully allows Winans to have her own moments in the spotlight. It’s a song about friendship that feels utterly authentic.
Click ahead for more memorable Whitney duets…