“THEY MISS HER, and they want her to be here,” singer Belinda Davids says of audiences at her Whitney Houston tribute concerts. “And I want people to remember why they loved her, why they loved her talent, her voice.”
Davids, who is from South Africa, stars in “The Greatest Love of All,” a show of Whitney Houston’s songs that has been touring the world for almost eight years. She sounds uncannily like Houston as her voice soars through octaves on hits like “I Have Nothing,” “So Emotional,” “You Give Good Love,” “I Believe in You and Me,” “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” and “I Will Always Love You.”
The show, which is not affiliated with the estate of Whitney Houston, is no ordinary tribute act. Belinda Davids is a star in her own right, a woman who possesses an astonishing voice, movie-star good looks, stage presence and charisma. And with its band, dancers and lights, “The Greatest Love of All” is more like a Broadway show than a concert.
Talent and determination have taken Belinda Davids far. She was raised in South Africa during the country’s apartheid era of government-enforced racial segregation. As a girl she idolized the American pop star Whitney Houston, but “I grew up very strict Christian,” she says, “and so it was not allowed in our house to have posters of Whitney Houston, and Teddy Pendergrass, and George Benson, and Lionel Ritchie, and Aretha Franklin. But I had Whitney Houston’s records. I started singing along to them when I was eight years old. She taught me how to sing.”
Like Whitney Houston herself, Belinda Davids started singing at church. In the small coastal town of Port Elizabeth, South Africa, she was one of seven children in a family that spent much of its time in church, singing and hearing gospel music. Remarkable considering her four-octave vocal range—which she seems to sail through as effortlessly as a bird flies into the sky—Davids has never received formal musical training.
SONG AND DANCE: Belinda Davids center-stage as band and dancers perform behind her.
(Showtime Australia photo)
She began singing professionally at the age of 14, and became a solo artist as a young adult. In the mid-1990s she recorded an album called Belinda Davids, and then spent years promoting the record in hotels, clubs and cabarets across South Africa. She later traveled abroad to perform in Dubai (where she would live for almost two years), London and Hong Kong. In 2009 she immigrated to the United States, to Los Angeles, where she worked for 10 years as a session and background singer for The Temptations, Keyshia Cole, Johnny Gill and other artists.
Los Angeles “was a culture shock for me,” Davids recalls. “I struggled the first month when I got there. Because where I grew up, survival is more important than how expensive your purse is. Having a plate of food on your table is more important than the next nose job you’re going to get.”
Though Whitney Houston is considered one of the greatest singers in music history, Davids’ ability to match the sound and range of the renowned vocalist has brought her rejections as well as opportunities. She once sent a package of her work to the singer and record producer Babyface, who sent it right back with a note that said: “We already have a Whitney Houston. We don’t need another one.”
In 2011 she returned to South Africa, where she soon landed her big break. But with a baby son on the way she was not looking for a new singing gig, so she found herself unprepared when a friend called to say that he had booked an audition for her in Cape Town. It was for the Whitney Houston tribute show.
‘If you have a work ethic, then you’ll do whatever you must, within limits, to get to where you want to be,’ Belinda Davids says. ‘But you have to stay true to yourself.’
The production company, Showtime Australia, had been searching the globe for a singer who could convincingly sound like Whitney Houston and portray the star for two hours onstage every night. Davids was chosen from a field of nearly 15,000 other hopefuls. The show started in 2012 and has since taken her around the world to perform concerts in the United States, Canada, Europe, Russia, Israel, Australia, New Zealand, the United Arab Emirates, Singapore, the Philippines, Indonesia and South Africa. Her band is also an international affair, with musicians from South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and the United States.
When it comes to audiences, “I get all sorts of crowds, and it’s fascinating to me, every time,” Davids tells Moresby Press before a Feb. 7, 2020 concert at the Genesee Theatre in Waukegan, Ill., near Chicago, on her second tour of the United States. She arrives for the interview looking glamorous in a pink satin jacket and silver-glitter high heels. “Let’s use the most extreme opposites, Germany and South Africa,” she says in her elegant South African accent, which sounds similar to upper-class British. “Performing in front of a very reserved crowd like Germany is so hard for me, because you don’t get them up to dance. You can’t even get them up to clap their hands.”
By contrast, in South Africa, where the show toured last year, “I promise you, I could just walk out, the band could play, and I wouldn’t have to sing—because the crowd is doing most of the work, doing the singing,” she says. “It’s the same way in Ireland: They sing every word of every song. These are crowds that I really enjoy performing for.”
American audiences have been skeptical of her performances. “When I go onstage, everyone says, ‘This is not possible. She cannot sing like Whitney.’ And then I get the crowds that are quiet because they’re mesmerized. Afterwards people will say, ‘We can’t believe what we just saw.’”
Some audiences seem to believe Belinda Davids really is Whitney Houston, who died in 2012. “I get people who yell out her name and go, ‘Oh, my God, Whitney!’ And I have to bring them back and say, ‘No, no, this is Belinda Davids, paying homage to Whitney.’”
People sometimes misunderstand her motivation for singing Whitney Houston’s songs in a voice so similar to the original. “I do it because I love her,” Davids says. “I will always love her.” She also wants people to know “how much hard work goes into putting on one of the best tribute shows in the world.”
Besides paying homage to Whitney Houston, Belinda Davids hopes to inspire up-and-coming artists, she says. “There’s so much more about the music industry than just getting a record deal and being famous. There are other ways of getting noticed. Artists are so stuck on, ‘I wanna do original music and write songs.’ And yes, I want to do that as well. I have a repertoire of my own songs that goes on forever. But it’s not the only solution to being in this music industry. If you have a work ethic, then you’ll do whatever you must, within limits, to get to where you want to be. But you have to stay true to yourself.”
Her potential seems vast. She would “most definitely” like to act in movies or TV, but at present “I’m not seeking it out,” she says. “I really like the position that I’m in right now. I’m enjoying what I’m doing.”
For tour dates and ticket information, visit the “The Greatest Love of All” site.