The Whitney Houston Story: Interview With South African Vocalist Belinda Davids

The Greatest Love of All

Like thousands of little girls with big dreams, South African vocalist Belinda Davids wanted to grow up to be like Whitney Houston. Six years ago, she realized her dream, cast as the principal vocalist in The Greatest Love of All: The Whitney Houston Story.

The two-hour production is equal parts live concert and stage show. Davids is center stage in the role she’s held since the show’s inception. The Greatest Love of All: The Whitney Houston Story is presented by the FSCJ Artist Series for one night only July 21 at the Times-Union Center for the Performing Arts (www.artistseriesjax.com).

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Featuring such songs as “I Will Always Love You,” “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” “I’m Every Woman,” “How Will I Know,” “Didn’t We Almost Have It All” and “Where Do Broken Hearts Go,” the show boasts an international cast. Davids is from Port Arthur, South Africa and members of the seven-piece band and four dancers hail from Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Canada and the UK.

Paying tribute to Whitney Houston is a role Davids was destined to play. While many young girls wished they could sing like Whitney, there weren’t many who could. As a young girl, Davids possessed a raw, natural talent and a four-octave range that could climb to the top of Houston’s soaring notes.

“I have loved this woman for such a long time. Doing what I do, it’s not just a tribute show for me. This is literally a labor of love,” says Davids. “She was the person who made me decide that I want to sound like this. As a young girl, she was that connection to my dreams. This is not me trying to be Whitney Houston. This is me paying homage to my idol.”

The Greatest Love of All: The Whitney Houston Story also exposes Houston’s music to younger audiences. “She gets introduced to the younger generation and I see that when I do the show. They fall in love with her,” she says. “It makes the performance even more emotional and even more special for me. The fact that I see young girls come to show and they love it.”

Davids was introduced to Houston’s music by her childhood music teacher who tasked her with learning “The Greatest Love of All.” However, it was the original version by George Benson. She finally heard Houston sing on her brother’s Teddy Pendergrass album “Hold Me.” Houston did a duet with the R&B star when she was just 17. For an 8-year-old Davids, it was a revelation.

“That was my first realization that I wanted to be a singer. This is what I was going to do for the rest of my life. It just so happened that way,” she says. “I didn’t plan for it. My parents didn’t necessarily push me in that direction, but things just so happened to play out that way.”

Davids has performed Houston’s music on Showtime at the Apollo, hosted by Steve Harvey, in December 2017. The performance went viral on Facebook with 10 million views in a matter of days. She also performed – and won – BBC1 TV’s Even Better Than the Real Thing talent program, hosted by Paddy Maguire, in March 2017. In South Africa, her original song “We Go Together” reached #1 and Davids has performed with R&B artists across the US including Monica, Keri Hilson, Keyshia Cole and Johnny Gill.

Thousands turned out to audition for the role of Houston in The Greatest Love of All. It was a daunting process. Davids was the chosen one, plucked from a pool of over 15,000 hopefuls to inhabit the role of her personal hero. She learned that she’d won the part while conducting a radio interview on a popular station in her native South Africa.

“I get so frustrated when people come up to me, ‘aw, it’s so sad the way she went’. That’s not why we do this show. When we started this show, we wanted to remind people how great she was. That’s the reason I do it.”

“It was hard at first. Being picked out of 15,000 people, there was a lot of questions. Like, really? You couldn’t find someone who looked like her and sounded like her. That’s what my director said to me. He said ‘I was done looking. I wasn’t looking any more. They were literally at the end. So, when I got it, it was very exciting. I was flabbergasted,” she says.

Even after performing with the show for six years, Davids says she still feel intimidated by the precision it requires to navigate through such a breadth of music. She’s known these songs for 25 years but the comfort and familiarity part company when its time to take the stage and deliver in the “Whitney way.”

Among her favorite numbers to sing is the classic “I Have Nothing.” It’s also the most challenging. “You have to belt the crap out of that song, with all the ups and downs,” she says. “It never comes easy. I have to be perfect every night. Six nights a week. She didn’t do six nights a week. When you’ve done the show as long as we have, you learn to pace yourself. You learn to take care of your body and rest enough and don’t eat certain things because you do 21 Whitney Houston songs a night, six nights a week.”

Like Davids, fans are very protective of Houston’s legacy, especially American audiences. There is a certain weight that comes with performing her music in the states than in other countries. There’s also the lingering darkness associated with the star’s latter years but Davids answers through her music with light and love.

“It’s very special for me because I see how much people still miss her. There is more pressure coming to America and doing this big US tour for the first time. For me, it’s a matter of me wanting people to see how much I loved her and still love her,” she says. “I get so frustrated when people come up to me, ‘aw, it’s so sad the way she went’. That’s not why we do this show. When we started this show, we wanted to remind people how great she was. That’s the reason I do it.”

About Liza Mitchell