The news broke on the eve of Grammy Awards, the music industry’s biggest night: The woman with the pitch-perfect voice who once reigned as the queen of pop at the awards show had died.
Whitney Houston was found dead Saturday by her bodyguard on the fourth floor of an upscale Beverly Hills hotel where only hours later she was to attend a pre-Grammy bash hosted by her longtime mentor, Clive Davis.
Her death, at age 48, was the final chapter of a storied career that began with the nurturing by superstar cousin Dionne Warwick, soared in the 1980s and 1990s with one record-setting achievement after another, stalled as her drug use and marriage to Bobby Brown made for tabloid fodder and was on the rebound with a highly anticipated star turn.
“You’re going to remember where you were when you heard the news. It’s that significant. She was undoubtedly one of the greatest superstars of all time,” music producer Simon Cowell said.
“One of the greatest voices in our lifetime we’re likely ever to hear. And to hear this news, it really, really, really upset me.”
Houston’s voice, once described by The New York Times as “peerless,” influenced and inspired a new generation of singers, from Mariah Carey to Christina Aguilera, and garnered a legion of fans.
“Her notes soared to places most singers dream of reaching,” Aguilera said.
Houston seemed destined for stardom almost from the very beginning.
Born on August 9, 1963, in Newark, New Jersey, to gospel great Cissy Houston, cousin to both Dionne and Dee Dee Warwick and goddaughter to Aretha Franklin, Houston’s upbringing was the embodiment of musical greatness.
She honed her vocal skills from a young age, singing in the church choir and taking the stage occasionally with her mother. As a teenager, she sang backup for Chaka Khan on “I’m Every Woman,” a song Houston would re-record in 1992 and that would go on to become one of her biggest hits.
As the story goes, Clive Davis spotted Houston in 1983 in a New York nightclub performing and signed her on the spot.
Houston released her debut album, “Whitney Houston,” in February 1985 to wide acclaim. Rolling Stone magazine called her “one of the most exciting new voices in years.”
With the release of the album, her commanding voice combined with a natural beauty and a clean-cut image made her an instant star.
A generation danced their way through the 1980s to a string of her hits, including the poppy “How Will I Know,” “Saving All My Love For You,” “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” and “The Greatest Love Of All.”
But it was in the 1990s that she shot into the superstar stratosphere with two songs that showcased her stunning octave range and her maturity.
On January 27, 1991, while the United States was at war in the Persian Gulf, Houston performed “The Star Spangled Banner” at Super Bowl XXV to a record 79 million viewers.
During a time when the country seemed divided by the war, her searing, heartfelt performance seemed to unite a nation at least for a few minutes. Her rendition — the gold standard by which all performances of the national anthem are judged — was released as a single and reached the Top 20 on the U.S. Hot 100 Billboard.
Houston’s version was re-released in 2001 following the September 11 terrorist attacks, and proceeds from the sales were donated to charity.
That was followed up by her cover of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” recorded for the movie “The Bodyguard,” in which she also made her acting debut.
While the movie received mostly poor reviews, the song went onto to sell 10 million singles, winning Grammy’s record of the year and best female pop vocal. The soundtrack was named album of the year.
“I will always be grateful and in awe of the wonderful performance she did on my song and I can truly say from the bottom of my heart, ‘Whitney, I will always love you. You will be missed,'” Parton said.
But by the time the movie opened, Houston’s clean-cut pop image had begun to tarnish with her marriage to R&B bad boy Bobby Brown. The two met in 1989 and married three years later.
Their relationship became tabloid fodder, with every misstep chronicled and the couple’s relationship a subject of constant speculation. Brown’s notorious hard-partying led him to several run-ins with the law and stints in jail.
While Houston managed to maintain a successful music and movie career through the end of the 1990s, starring in “The Preacher’s Wife” and “Waiting To Exhale,” her behavior turned increasingly erratic amid reports of heavy drug use.
By the 2000s, her career was in free fall as her album sales dropped off and her voice began to show signs of wear.
The rumors were further fueled by her gaunt appearance and crass behavior on the 2001 short-lived Bravo reality show “Being Bobby Brown,” which she later said in an interview she only did to try to save her marriage. The couple, who had a daughter together, divorced in 2007.
In an infamous interview in 2002 with ABC’s Diane Sawyer, Houston admitted to using drugs but denied the use of crack.
“Crack is wack,” she said, quoting a line taken from Keith Haring mural painted in 1986.
It was during the same interview, she told Sawyer: “The biggest devil is me. I’m either my best friend or my worst enemy.”
Houston bounced in and out of drug rehab twice, declaring herself drug-free during a 2010 interview with Oprah Winfrey, though an Australian tour that same year was fraught with reviews that she sounded “croaky” and, at times, appeared disoriented.
Recently, Houston was working to turn around her career — and image — with a star turn in the upcoming movie “Sparkle,” the remake of a 1976 film that is said to be loosely inspired by the Supremes.
The night Houston died she was to be a guest of honor at Davis’ annual pre-Grammy bash.
“She loved music and she loved this night that celebrated music,” Davis told party-goers.
“Her family asked that we carry on.”
She would have loved that, too.
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