By Nekesa Mumbi Moody
LOS ANGELES– A year ago, Clive Davis’ glittery pre-Grammy showcase was winding down after a number of electric performances when the grandest name of all, Whitney Houston, walked on stage to close the evening with what promised to be a show-stopping tribute to her famous cousin, Dionne Warwick.
Instead, what transpired was yet another troubling display of erratic behavior from the superstar, and a foreshadowing perhaps of what was to come.
PHOTO: Rising star Whitney is seen with music producer Clive Davis, in 1983, shortly after signing a contract with Arista Records.
Though she looked spectacular, her once-stunning voice sounded frayed and hoarse. She didn’t seem to follow the rehearsed plan and looked out of sorts at times. Even when Davis, her longtime mentor and producer, announced that the show was over, Houston appeared to try to get back on the microphone, only to be stopped by Davis with the joke: “I found you when you were 19; I’m still your boss!”
On Saturday, Houston was once again the focus of Davis’ annual party, but her presence was a posthumous one. Pop music’s former queen, until her majestic voice was ravaged by drug use and her regal image was tarnished by erratic behavior and a tumultuous marriage to soul singer Bobby Brown, died on the eve of the Grammy Awards she once reigned over. She was 48.
Houston was pronounced dead Saturday afternoon in her room on the fourth floor of the Beverly Hilton, Beverly Hills police Lt. Mark Rosen said. “There were no obvious signs of any criminal intent,” he said.
The cause of death was unknown, said Houston’s publicist, Kristen Foster.
Houston’s death came on the night before music’s biggest showcase, the Grammys. She will be remembered Sunday in a tribute by Jennifer Hudson, organizers said. Houston had been at rehearsals for the show Thursday, coaching singers Brandy and Monica, according to a person who was at the event but was not authorized to speak publicly about it. The person said Houston looked disheveled, was sweating profusely, and liquor and cigarettes could be smelled on her breath.
At her peak, Houston was the golden girl of the music industry. From the mid-1980s to the late 1990s, she was one of the world’s best-selling artists. She wowed audiences with effortless, powerful and peerless vocals rooted in the black church but made palatable to the masses with a pop sheen.
PHOTO: Bobby Brown and Whitney Houston arrive at Vanity Fair’s Oscar party at Morton’s in Hollywood on Sunday, March 25, 2001.
(AP Photo/Laura Rauch)
Her success carried her beyond music to movies, where she starred in hits like “The Bodyguard” and “Waiting to Exhale.”
She had the perfect voice and the perfect image: a gorgeous singer who had sex appeal but was never overtly sexual, who maintained perfect poise.
She influenced a generation of younger singers, from Christina Aguilera to Mariah Carey, who when she first came out sounded so much like Houston that many thought it was Houston.
But by the end of her career, Houston became a stunning cautionary tale of the toll of drug use. Her album sales plummeted and the hits stopped coming; her once serene image was shattered by a wild demeanor and bizarre public appearances. She confessed to abusing cocaine, marijuana and pills, and her once pristine voice became raspy and hoarse, unable to hit the high notes as she had during her prime.
“The biggest devil is me. I’m either my best friend or my worst enemy,” Houston told ABC’s Diane Sawyer in an infamous 2002 television interview with then-husband Brown by her side.
It was a tragic fall for a superstar who was one of the top-selling artists in pop music history, with more than 55 million records sold in the United States alone.
Davis, went ahead with his annual concert Saturday at the same hotel where her body was found. He dedicated the evening to her and asked for a moment of silence. Houston was supposed to appear at the gala, held downstairs in the hotel where her body lay for most of Saturday night.
Aretha Franklin, her godmother, said she was stunned.
“I just can’t talk about it now,” Franklin said in a short statement. “It’s so stunning and unbelievable. I couldn’t believe what I was reading coming across the TV screen.”
Houston seemed to be born into greatness. In addition to being Franklin’s goddaughter, she was the daughter of gospel singer Cissy Houston and the cousin of 1960s pop diva Dionne Warwick.
She first started singing at the New Hope Baptist Church in Newark, New Jersey, as a child. At the church on Sunday morning, a couple of sympathy cards were tied to a fence post. “To the greatest songstress ever,” one said, and tied next to it was a small bouquet of fresh flowers.
The pastor asked for strength for Houston’s family, said churchgoer Shawn Cooper, 32, of Newark. He said he hadn’t regularly attended church but felt compelled to go on this Sunday.
PHOTO: Whitney and daughter Bobbi Kristina Brown at the 2011 Clive Davis pre-Grammy party at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Feb. 2011.
(Featureflash / Shutterstock.com)
“The Houston family means a lot to this community, they have done a lot for this community, and being there for them is the best thing we can do as a community,” he said.
In her teens, Houston sang backup for Chaka Khan, Jermaine Jackson and others, in addition to modeling. It was around that time when music mogul Clive Davis first heard Houston perform.
“The time that I first saw her singing in her mother’s act in a club … it was such a stunning impact,” Davis told “Good Morning America.”
“To hear this young girl breathe such fire into this song. I mean, it really sent the proverbial tingles up my spine,” he added.
Before long, the rest of the country would feel it, too. Houston made her album debut in 1985 with “Whitney Houston,” which sold millions and spawned hit after hit. “Saving All My Love for You” brought her her first Grammy, for best female pop vocal. “How Will I Know,” “You Give Good Love” and “The Greatest Love of All” also became hit singles.
Another multiplatinum album, “Whitney,” came out in 1987 and included hits like “Where Do Broken Hearts Go” and “I Wanna Dance With Somebody.”
Her decision not to follow the more soulful inflections of singers like Franklin drew criticism by some who saw her as playing down her black roots to go pop and reach white audiences. The criticism would become a constant refrain through much of her career. She was even booed during the “Soul Train Awards” in 1989.
“Sometimes it gets down to that, you know?” she told Katie Couric in 1996. “You’re not black enough for them. I don’t know. You’re not R&B enough. You’re very pop. The white audience has taken you away from them.”
Some saw her 1992 marriage to former New Edition member and soul crooner Bobby Brown as an attempt to respond to those critics. It seemed to be an odd union; she was seen as pop’s pure princess while he had a bad-boy image and already had children of his own. (The couple had one daughter, Bobbi Kristina, born in 1993.) Over the years, he would be arrested several times, on charges including driving under the influence and failure to pay child support.
But Houston said their true personalities were not as far apart as people may have believed.
“When you love, you love. I mean, do you stop loving somebody because you have different images? You know, Bobby and I basically come from the same place,” she told Rolling Stone in 1993. “You see somebody, and you deal with their image, that’s their image. It’s part of them, it’s not the whole picture. I am not always in a sequined gown. I am nobody’s angel. I can get down and dirty. I can get raunchy.”
Brown was getting ready to perform at a New Edition reunion tour in Southaven, Mississippi, as news spread about Houston’s death. The group went ahead with its performance, though Brown appeared overcome with emotion when his voice cracked at the beginning of a ballad and he left the stage.
Before his departure, he told the sell-out crowd: “First of all, I want to tell you that I love you all. Second, I would like to say, I love you, Whitney. The hardest thing for me to do is to come on this stage.”
Brown said he decided to perform because fans had shown their loyalty to the group for more than 25 years. During an intermission, one of Houston’s early hits, “You Give Good Love,” played over the speakers. Fans stood up and began singing along.
It would take several years for the public to see the “down and dirty” side of Houston. Her moving 1991 rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” at the Super Bowl, amid the first Gulf War, set a new standard and once again reaffirmed her as America’s sweetheart.
In 1992, she became a star in the acting world with “The Bodyguard.” Despite mixed reviews, the story of a singer (Houston) guarded by a former Secret Service agent (Kevin Costner) was an international success.
It also gave her perhaps her most memorable hit: a searing, stunning rendition of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You,” which sat atop the charts for weeks. It was Grammy’s record of the year and best female pop vocal, and the “Bodyguard” soundtrack was named album of the year.
She returned to the big screen in 1995-96 with “Waiting to Exhale” and “The Preacher’s Wife.” Both spawned soundtrack albums, and another hit studio album, “My Love Is Your Love,” in 1998, brought her a Grammy for best female R&B vocal for the cut “It’s Not Right But It’s Okay.”
But during these career and personal highs, Houston was using drugs. In an interview with Oprah Winfrey in 2009, she said by the time “The Preacher’s Wife” was released, “(doing drugs) was an everyday thing. … I would do my work, but after I did my work, for a whole year or two, it was every day. … I wasn’t happy by that point in time. I was losing myself.”
In the interview, Houston blamed her rocky marriage to Brown, which included a charge of domestic abuse against Brown in 1993. They divorced in 2007.
Houston would go to rehab twice before she would declare herself drug-free to Winfrey in 2009. But in the interim, there were missed concert dates, a stop at an airport due to drugs, and public meltdowns.
She was so startlingly thin during a 2001 Michael Jackson tribute concert that rumors spread she had died the next day. Her crude behavior and jittery appearance on Brown’s reality show, “Being Bobby Brown,” was an example of her sad decline. Her Sawyer interview, where she declared “crack is whack,” was often parodied. She dropped out of the spotlight for a few years.
Houston staged what seemed to be a successful comeback with the 2009 album “I Look To You.” The album debuted on the top of the charts, and would eventually go platinum.
Things soon fell apart. A concert to promote the album on “Good Morning America” went awry as Houston’s voice sounded ragged and off-key. She blamed an interview with Winfrey for straining her voice.
A world tour launched overseas, however, only confirmed suspicions that Houston had lost her treasured gift, as she failed to hit notes and left many fans unimpressed; some walked out. Canceled concert dates raised speculation that she may have been abusing drugs, but she denied those claims and said she was in great shape, blaming illness for cancellations.
Houston was to make her return to film in the remake of the classic movie “Sparkle.” Filming on the movie, which stars former “American Idol” winner Jordin Sparks, recently wrapped. Houston was one of the producers, and it tells the story of a family of singers ravaged by drug abuse , a story Houston knew all too well.