I’ve a penchant for seeing iconic, older artists who are presumably on their farewell tours. The first artist I ever covered was Cher, and I’ve since reviewed Barbara Dickson OBE, Dionne Warwick, Diana Ross (twice) and Gladys Knight. I’ve even been to in conversations with Dame Joanna Lumley DBE FRGS, Dame Joan Rivers DBE, and Dame Sheila Hancock DBE. I cannot miss the opportunity to see these icons in the flesh – before it’s too late.
One of the reasons for this yearning is my inability to see my favourite 20th century artist (well, joint with Ross): Whitney Houston.
Houston, aka “The Voice”, drowned in a hotel bathtub a decade ago – and by then, the gift behind her honorific title had long expired.
A few years back, I went to see the expensive but subpar Whitney Houston hologram tour. Whilst ABBA Voyage has been critically acclaimed, the technology behind An Evening with Whitney was not up to scratch.
Then there’s the stage adaptation of The Bodyguard – but performers ought to honour Houston without imitating her.
The closest one can get to seeing Houston in concert is a tribute show. Now, I’m not such a fan of tribute acts but beggars cannot be choosers. I’m up for seeing the often-touring Queen of the Night but have never gotten around to, nor prioritised, it.
However, I’ve been aware of two exceptional Houston tribute acts for years: Belinda Davids (Britain’s Got Talent) and Glennis Grace (America’s Got Talent). So, when it was announced that Davids’ The Greatest Love of All was embarking on a UK tour, I leaped at the chance to see it. I even told my boss at my main job that I could not travel on that day!
The show began with an overture – an instrumental medley of some of Houston’s best-known ballads, such as ‘I Have Nothing’. The lights went down before the overture and did not go up until Davids started singing, which created a dreamlike ambience and allowed Davids to have a dramatic arrival – but it also caused a bit of a disconnect, with much of the audience continuing to chatter whilst the overture played; to many, the show had not yet begun.
Davids’ arrival was marked with a cheer. Cloaked in a long-sleeved, sequinned, silver gown, and her hair impersonating Houston’s signature curls, she looked every bit the part.
First, Davids sang two ballads: ‘Run to You’ and ‘Didn’t We Almost Have It All’. It was clear, right from the get-go, that she was going to blow us away with her vocal prowess all night long though I was not yet sold on her Houston imitations. But then came the third song: her (less recognisable) duet with George Michael, ‘If I Told You That’. This song allowed Davids to fully embody Houston – not just vocally but also physically, right down to her facial expressions and hand gestures. I was in disbelief. She had clearly studied Houston right down to the T.
This was followed by ‘Believe’; Houston’s duet with Mariah Carey, though Davids sang the whole song. She had the audience in awe with her powerful delivery of this touching ballad. She then sang ‘Where Do Broken Hearts Go’ before ending the act with the groovy, badass ‘It’s Not Right But It’s Okay’ (my favourite Houston song), which had the audience on their feet. The song’s super long outro allowed Davids to leave the stage for a costume change, with her backing vocalists taking over and commanding the audience.
Belinda returned to the stage wearing a red leather jacket and matching pants, and a black top underneath. Once again, it was the third song that got us going: following ‘I’m Your Baby Tonight’ and ‘You Give Good Love’, she sang the heavenly ‘How Do You Know’. She then finished with the enchanting title song of the show: ‘The Greatest Love’ – in which she blew the roof off the building and then left the stage for an interval (or “intermission”, as the American voiceover said), leaving us to reckon with what just happened.
After the interval, Davids returned to the stage in a white shirt and sparkling purple suit; she embodied confidence and class, sexuality and sass. It was fitting, then, that she opened the act with ‘I’m Every Woman’. I love how she even included the two “Chaka Khan” chants towards the end of the song – Houston’s way of honouring the song’s original singer (as well as including her in the music video).
After ‘Exhale’ and ‘My Love is Your Love’, she once again bewildered us with her roaring rendition of ‘One Moment in Time’. This was, quite possibly, the best performance of the night, at least vocally. The final part of the song was mesmerising; her delivery of “I will be free” made my heart skip a beat.
She ended the act with Houston’s final hit, ‘Million Dollar Bill’. Given Houston’s vocal decline, Davids (who is very much in her prime) delivered a cover perhaps even better than the original. She then left the stage for another costume change, allowing her male backing singer to deliver the soothing “ohh”s.
Davids returned wearing a long-sleeved red gown, complete with tassels. She looked like a devil but continued to sing like an angel. Her first song was crowd-favourite ‘I Have Nothing’. I love that she sang the song like Houston did live – with the “don’t make me” of the final chorus slowed down, a longer pause in between each word than in the studio recording. She sought to be as close to Houston as possible.
As she sang the final “if I don’t have”, the audience responded “you”, to which she pulled a fake unimpressed face – and whilst that was probably impromptu, the expression still embodied Houston. I noticed that she was even holding a handkerchief, just like Houston often would (heck, the handkerchief is so iconic that even the Whitney hologram held one).
The last song of this act was the captivating ‘Saving All My Love’ – which Davids told her was one of Houston’s favourite songs and is also one of hers (and also one of mine). As she left the stage, the saxophonist had his moment to shine.
Davids then returned in a sparkly black suit to sing ‘So Emotional’ before ending the main set with Houston’s most popular dance song: ‘I Wanna Dance with Somebody’.
For the encore, she wore a short-sleeved white gown, complete with rhinestones, and sang Houston’s signature song, ‘I Will Always Love You’. This is not an easy song to sing, harder yet if you are trying to sing it like Houston, but Davids had already proven herself; our expectations were high yet she somehow exceeded them.
Rather than ending the concert on a sad note, she blessed us with Houston’s only posthumous hit: ‘Higher Love’. Though, instead of singing the hit version (Kygo featuring Houston), she sang the original version, which was merely a bonus track on a Japanese edition of I’m Your Baby Tonight. The original version has a bridge that Kygo discarded in his remix; it was nice to hear Davids sing that.
Ending the show with this recent hit (which had allowed us to appreciate Houston’s talent once again) was an ingenious idea. The show was like an history lesson, and this song brought us back to the present whilst still honouring the past. Conversely, the hologram tour opened the set with this song, which allowed us to travel back in time and appreciate Houston’s incredible catalogue. The placing of songs on tracklists and setlists alike is so important, and the creatives behind both tours put great thought into their respective setlists.
Whilst Davids perfectly embodied Houston – physically, vocally and even verbally – she never pretended to be her. In her first speech, she told us that she was Belinda Davids and that this show allowed her to pay tribute to the “Queen of Pop” (technically Madonna but Houston deserves that honorific title too).
The Greatest Love of All is a cathartic celebration of the greatest vocalist that ever lived – and the closest one can possibly get to seeing her live.