It’s the late 1980s and a girl child – aged maybe nine or 10 – is running down Koedoe Street in Gelvandale, Port Elizabeth. She hears a familiar request, “Whitney, won’t you come do a song for us quickly? I just want this person to hear you sing.”
She enters houses in the neighbourhood allocated to those categorised as coloured during apartheid, spaces perhaps decorated with doilies, where glass cabinets hold precious china that is never used and couches remain covered in plastic to guard their newness. The child opens her mouth and a hauntingly familiar voice emerges, the sound of Whitney Houston. But her name is not Whitney, it’s Belinda Davids.
Davids has been caught in an inescapable tandem existence from childhood, a musical double consciousness since she first heard Houston’s duet with Teddy Pendergrass on the 1984 track Hold Me. Now, Davids performs across continents in The Greatest Love of All, preserving the concert experience and memory of the singer who died in 2012.
Davids’ performance, a tribute to Houston, may have been born in Gelvandale but it was discovered in Cape Town. “It’s not just full circle,” says Davids, sitting in the Mother City’s Artscape Theatre, where she first auditioned for the role. “There’s a spiritual connection, and for the longest time I was trying to get away from it. But here I am, doing it again. Only in full force, as a grown woman.”
Speaking about those seemingly endless requests to sing in her neighbourhood, she recalls, “I could get no rest.” And rest is still elusive. Before our interview, Davids had been attempting a quick nap in a comfortable corner of the theatre’s strangely quiet foyer, having been up since 4.30am doing press for the show’s upcoming American tour and Artscape run. It is now midday.
It’s been almost a decade since Davids walked into this foyer with a three-month-old baby in her arms, ready for the audition that would change her life. A friend urged her to try out for the lead in the show, which Showtime Australia was producing, and the director held the last audition spot for her. More than 15 000 people from 11 countries auditioned to play Whitney Houston, but Davids had been preparing for the role her whole life.
There was never any doubt in Davids’ mind. Her gaze is unwavering, self-possessed. While she makes a living performing Houston’s catalogue, Davids emphasises the independence of her art. “I need for people to understand that I’m not becoming Whitney, I’m just giving you an amazing show … what she would’ve given you if she was onstage giving you a concert.”
With similar costumes, lighting, dancers and a full backing band, Davids explains that the show is “the best of” Houston, in which she performs “all of her number one hits”. She says, “If you are going to do a Whitney Houston song, you have to be as good, better. But you cannot be less.”
Davids continues, “What people don’t know is they found the voice, they just didn’t have the look. They had the look, but [not] the voice … I’m not the only person that can sing Whitney Houston. What they were looking for was … the full package.”
In an interview with breakfast show Die Groot Ontbyt (The Big Breakfast), Davids maintained: “Ek wil nog altyd my eie naam hê (I always want to have my own name).” Her words echo the title of the 2016 Netflix documentary, Whitney: Can I Be Me?.
Davids was eight when she knew she wanted to be a singer. In the absence of music lessons, Houston’s records were her teacher as she moulded her four-octave range and style around the icon’s approach to singing. It proved both blessing and burden. When Davids started pursuing a professional career, she was told by record labels that she sounded too much like Houston. Today, she has spun the shadow of Houston into success.
On the show’s opening night in Cape Town, she finished the first song by saying, “My name is Belinda Davids, in case you didn’t know.” Everyone knows. The audience is screaming. Somewhere, someone keeps shouting, “Lekker, Belinda!”
Through a show honouring Houston, Davids has made a name for herself. Each night of the taxing tour, she performs a surreal sonic feat onstage.
Houston possessed a voice that felt limitless. The Newark-born singer was surrounded by musical talent. Her mother, Cissy Houston, was a singer. Soul singer Dionne Warwick was her cousin. And the legendary Aretha Franklin was her godmother. Houston forged her formidable voice from these influences and her mother’s teachings, earning the nickname “The Voice”.
She possessed power in every vocal register. As she went higher, her voice retained its strength. Her range was said to be five octaves.
In Houston’s songs, there are certain signatures. At the end of sustained notes, when most singers run out of steam, she added a controlled, powerful vibrato as a final kick. In her riffs, she journeyed up and then down musical octaves, stacking several notes into one syllable in a technique known as melisma. Everything was held together with remarkable breath control. Houston could sing beyond ordinary human capacity. She reminded us that the voice is an instrument.
Vindication and victory
Most singers attempting Houston’s catalogue find in her songs the ceilings of their ability. In the tribute show, Davids takes on more than 20 of Houston’s titanic songs. As each one reaches its peak – demanding a combination of high notes, power and various vocal skills – the audience holds its breath, preparing for potential failure.
It’s the same every time. In 2017, in front of New York’s notoriously difficult to please Apollo Theatre crowd, host Steve Harvey asked Davids what she planned to sing. When she responded with the title of Houston’s iconic ballad, I Will Always Love You, he warned: “You can’t miss no notes on no Whitney Houston song. Because we know ’em.”
The audience expressed its scepticism plainly. By mid-song, as Davids’ voice ascended to its upper reaches, the crowd was on its feet while Harvey paced the stage, incredulous.
Davids held it down. In performance, she stood up to the near impossible standard of a near impossible voice. When she closed saying “Thank you, Apollo”, it was as though she had been rehearsing this since her days in Gelvandale.
Davids recreates an experience that is holistically Houston. “The moment I step onstage, I feel like I want to walk like her, do her hand movements, pull my face like her,” she says. It’s in the way she shakes her head from side to side mid-note, how she moves her fingers as if sprinkling notes over the crowd, the way every movement of her body seems to summon sound.
At this stage in her career, Davids is developing a sense of play in her performance, adding her own Houstonesque riffs to the songs. While she is currently working on an album, offering a sense of the music Houston might have been making today, she maintains that “what I need for people to understand is that I’m not trying to be Whitney. Because if I was trying to be Whitney, I would fully steer my career into that direction. But I’m not.”
She is giving the people what they want, somewhere between Houston and Davids. In her world, success and sacrifice are twins.
Touring and the public eye
Life as a touring tribute performer is totalising for the award-winning performer who in July received the International Special Recognition Award at the British National Tribute Music Awards and won the BBC’s Even Better Than the Real Thing competition in 2017 with a performance of Houston’s I Have Nothing.
For eight years, Davids has performed up to five nights in a row, spending 10 months away from home each year. A parent to two boys, Davids declares, “I’m a mother first”. She sits her sons down before each long tour, saying, “I need for you to understand that I’d much rather be here with you than over there.” And then she calls them almost every day she is away.
In addition to the taxing demands of touring, Davids says tribute acts “work harder than [the original artists] to prove that we can do it as good as they did it. That’s our artistry, that’s how we do it … If I had to prove myself this way, through a tribute show, to show that I can do it, fine. I’ll do it to the best of my ability.”
Online, there is the perception that Davids’ story begins with the tribute show, with references to her time in Los Angeles as a backing vocalist for American R&B artists such as Keri Hilson, Keyshia Cole, The Temptations and Monica.
Asking her to speak into this silence, an attempt to find the person in the profile, away from the world of Whitney Houston, Davids takes a weighted breath. She delves into the story of her childhood with paper-thin delicacy.
“I don’t talk about it because it’s just that part of my life that I want to hold on to,” she says. “I had a very sensitive childhood. I was happy, I still am very happy…up until nine-years-old, when my grandmother died. And she was my everything, she was my rock … she was my happy place and as soon as that went away, everything went away.”
“It was very hard, because as soon as she died, I needed to be split up from my siblings and live with my mother, who I had no clue who she was … when I had to move in with her. That was not fun.”
Early work ethic
Davids describes her teenage years, spent working with her mother in addition to her schooling, as going from “weekend jobs at Repco, hauling motor parts” to “a factory in Lennon’s at a Dutch medicine place”.
“Listen, there was nothing wrong with that,” she explains carefully, adding that “at the time, I felt it was too much for me as a teenager”. But she acknowledges the work ethic this life instilled in her. She says, “I work hard. I want everyone to work hard.” But she also notes, “At the time, it was gruelling.”
Davids “chose to leave the country. It was hard, it was very hard. I get emotional just thinking about it right now.
“But I did it by myself. So no one taught me how to sing. No one pushed me in the right direction. No one said, ‘Listen, we will give you vocal lessons. We will get you to a music school and we will teach you how to do this and this and this.’ No one did that. I did that all for myself. I did 20 questions the other day and one of the questions was who are you most proud of, and I said, myself, because I’ve been through so much in my life.”
As Davids finishes speaking, she leans back in her chair and pushes herself away from the table, creating emotional and physical distance. “Ooh, that was hard. That was so hard because I just don’t talk about any of that stuff.”
The moment asks, what does it mean to remember?
Tribute as memory
The same questions reverberate as you watch Davids perform in The Greatest Love of All, reflecting on Houston’s legacy and life.
In legacy, memory is partial, fractured, selective, complicated. With Houston, memory is often a strangely selective binary, as if it is a choice between remembering the tabloids or the talent, rarely permitted to be as complex as reality.
Houston’s memory is again in the news with the announcement of a hologram tour and the release of a book written by her best friend, confidante, personal assistant and creative director, Robyn Crawford. While headlines have focused on their brief romance, Crawford centres deliberately on Houston’s memory in her interviews. In response to writer and director Lena Waithe, Crawford says she wrote the book now because she was trying to “lift her legacy out of the trash, to elevate it and put it back in her hands, while also honouring our friendship”.
The Greatest Love of All centres on Houston’s music. In Davids’ brilliant memory work, we remember the voice, the songs and the performer. As director John van Grinsven explains, the show is an attempt to “make a memory of her when she was at the top of her game”.
There’s something restorative to this act, the way the tribute merges memory, celebration and grief for the audience. “People miss her,” says Davids. She lets her audience contemplate Houston’s legacy, what it means to have lost her and what she left behind.
If Davids wasn’t a musician, she would be “some sort of healer”, and there is a sense of this in her performance, in the recuperation and rectification she affords Houston. “Maybe this is what I’m supposed to be doing. Maybe this is what I’m supposed to give back to people.”
When Davids performs I Will Always Love You at the end of the show, she simply stands and sings, looking into the distance. It’s a transcendent moment.
When asked what she is thinking in this moment, Davids inhales sharply and says: “I don’t see anything. I just see her … all I see is her … It’s like everything just goes away, it’s so surreal … and I don’t deliberately do it, it just happens … Where I go, okay, let it be, just let this moment be, and when it’s done, I feel a little drained,” she laughs. “I feel like, okay, I’ve now let go.”