A member of Houston’s entourage found the 48-year-old singer unresponsive in her hotel room on Saturday, just hours before she was supposed to appear at a pre-Grammy gala.
A sensation from her very first album, Houston was one of the world’s best-selling artists from the mid-1980s to the late 1990s. She awed millions with soaring but disciplined vocals rooted in gospel and polished for the masses, a bridge between the earthy passion of her godmother, Aretha Franklin, and the bouncy pop of her cousin, Dionne Warwick.
Houston’s success carried her beyond music to movies, where she became a rare black actress with box office appeal, starring in hits such as The Bodyguard and Waiting to Exhale.
Houston had the perfect voice and the perfect image: gorgeous, but wholesome; grounded, but fun-loving. And 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 couldn’t tell the difference.
In her teens, Houston sang backup for Chaka Khan, Jermaine Jackson and others, in addition to modeling. Clive Davis, who, as head of Arista Records, had already signed up Warwick and Franklin, was instantly smitten by the statuesque young singer.
“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.”
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 the singer 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 Where Do Broken Hearts Go and I Wanna Dance With Somebody.
Some saw her 1992 marriage to Bobby Brown, the former New Edition member and soul crooner, as an attempt to toughen her image. 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. Over the years, he would be arrested several times, on charges including driving under the influence and failure to pay child support.
But by the end of her career, Houston had become a stunning and heartbreaking cautionary tale. 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 precious voice became raspy and hoarse, unable to hit the high notes of 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
interview with then-husband Brown by her side.
Bishop T.D. Jakes, a Texas minister and producer on Houston’s final film project, a remake of the 1970s release Sparkle, said he saw no signs Houston was having any substance issues. He said Houston was a complete professional and moved the cast and crew to tears two months ago when she sang the gospel hymn Her Eyes on the Sparrow for a scene.
“There was no evidence in working with her on Sparkle that there was any struggle in her life,” Jakes said Sunday. “She just left a deep impression on everybody.”
Houston, who won six Grammys, had been expected to perform at the pre-awards gala Saturday night thrown by music impresario Clive Davis, her longtime mentor.
Davis went ahead with his annual party and concert which were held at the same hotel where Houston’s body was found. He dedicated the evening to her and asked for a moment of silence.
Houston had been at rehearsals for the Davis concert on 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. It was the latest of countless stories about the decline of a uniquely gifted and beautiful artist, once the golden girl of the music industry.
Civil rights leader Rev. Al Sharpton remembered Houston while preaching Sunday morning at the Second Baptist Church in Los Angeles.
“Yes, she had an outstanding range,” he said. “Yes, she could hit notes no one else could reach. But what made her different was she was born and bred in the bosom of the black church.”
The congregation app-lauded and answered him with shouts of “Amen” and “Tell it!”
“The world should pause and pray for the memory of a gifted songbird,” said Sharpton, who called for a national prayer to honor Houston and support her family.
As attendees arrived at the Grammys Sunday night, Houston was on everyone’s mind.
For those who were particularly close to Houston, the evening was a difficult one. Just days before, on Thursday, R&B singer Kelly Price performed a duet of Yes, Jesus Loves Me with Houston at a pre-Grammy celebration — Houston’s last performance.
“I’m here,” said an emotional Price, a friend and a frequent collaborator with Houston. “She gave the genre of R&B music a gift that can never be denied.”
Heartfelt reaction swept across genres.
“Few people will ever touch the world as much as Whitney Houston,” said country star Billy Ray Cyrus.
Musicians who grew up in the 1980s recognized the loss of a soundtrack to their youth. R&B singer Ledisi burst into a warm, impromptu rendition of How Will I Know on the red carpet.
The Grammys on Sunday were in part a memorial to Houston, a six-time winner. LL Cool J introduced a clip near the start of the show of a glowing Houston singing her signature ballad, a cover of Dolly Parton’s I Will Always Love You.
Bonnie Raitt and Stevie Wonder were among performers who praised Houston and Jennifer Hudson capped the tributes with an emotional version of I Will Always Love You that ended with a personal note: “Whitney, we love you.” Houston’s most famous song was the most downloaded single for much of Sunday on iTunes.
Coroner’s officials said they will not release any information on an autopsy performed Sunday at the request of police detectives investigating the singer’s death. Assistant Chief Coroner Ed Winter declined to say anything more about the room’s condition or any evidence investigators recovered.
There were no indications of foul play and no obvious signs of trauma on Houston’s body but officials were not ruling out any causes of death until they have toxicology results, which likely will take weeks to obtain.
Meanwhile, Houston’s daughter was transported by ambulance to a Los Angeles hospital Sunday morning and later released. Bobbi Kristina Brown, 18, who is Houston’s daughter from her marriage to Brown, had accompanied her mother to several pre-Grammy Awards events last week.
“At this time, we ask for privacy, especially for my daughter, Bobbi Kristina,” Bobby Brown wrote in a statement. “I appreciate all of the condolences that have been directed towards my family and I at this most difficult time.”
“She walked that walk, she talked that talk and she sang that song,” said Danyel Smith, editor of Billboard magazine.
And, said Darlene Love, Houston’s godmother, “She was the mold, and God took the mold back to heaven, that’s it.”
This story was compiled from dispatches filed by the Associated Press, supplemented by staff reports.
Photo: Whitney Houston