Death of record-breaking pop vocalist casts shadow over Grammys
She was remembered as “a beautiful person who had talent beyond compare” and “the star of all stars.”
Whitney Houston’s death cast a long shadow over the music industry’s annual salute to its best and brightest, as the Grammy Awards where she had often triumphed became a forum for memorializing the singer and actress, who died barely 24 hours before at the age of 48.
Houston was lauded for her five-octave vocal range and the polish she brought to a string of hits in the 1980s and ’90s, making her one of the top-selling recording artists of all time and a six-time Grammy winner.
Despite her unrivaled success, Houston was dogged by personal demons. In later years her image was tarnished by well-publicized battles with drug and alcohol abuse and a stormy 14-year marriage to fellow R&B star Bobby Brown, which ended in 2007. Her 2009 comeback bid sputtered almost from the start amid reports of erratic behavior, vocal problems and canceled performances. She was also in the midst of reviving her acting career, having recently completed a co-starring role in a remake of the 1976 pic “Sparkle,” set for release by Sony in August.
The timing of Houston’s death on Saturday was an eerie final act for the singer whose career had been so carefully nurtured by music mogul Clive Davis. According to police, Houston was found around 3:30 p.m. in the bathtub of her room at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, where she was planning to perform that night as part of Davis’ famed pre-Grammy party – an event that marked the launch of her professional career more than 30 years before.
At the party, Davis spoke of being “personally devastated by the loss” and asked for a moment of silence for the woman he called “a beautiful person who had talent beyond compare.” Recording Academy prexy and CEO Neil Portnow recalled seeing one of Houston’s early live performances and realizing that she was destined to be “the star of all stars.”
Houston’s powerful, gospel-flavored voice launched 11 No. 1 hits from 1985-95, beginning with “Saving All My Love For You” and her eponymous 1985 debut album on Davis’ Arista Records. Her biggest smash was “I Will Always Love You,” a cover of Dolly Parton’s 1974 hit drawn from the soundtrack to the 1992 feature “The Bodyguard,” in which she also starred. Houston logged sales of more than 55 million albums sold in the U.S. alone.
“I Will Always Love You” held No. 1 on the national chart for 14 weeks, while the album topped the U.S. chart for 20 weeks, a SoundScan-era record that remains unbroken.
Houston’s other defining hits included “How Will I Know” (1985), “Didn’t We Almost Have It All” (1987), “All the Man That I Need” (1990) and her last hit, “Exhale” (1995).
Houston’s success in music and radiant beauty led her to topline the features “Waiting to Exhale” (1995), “The Preacher’s Wife” (1996) and the ABC telefilm “Cinderella” (1997).
Born in Newark, N.J. in 1963, Houston was raised in a musical family. Her mother was Cissy Houston, the R&B singer and one-time member of the Sweet Inspirations; her cousins were Dionne Warwick and Dee Dee Warwick.
A singer from the age of 11, Houston worked as a backup vocalist for artists like Chaka Khan, Lou Rawls and Jermaine Jackson. She worked in modeling from the early ’80s.
After a tip from Arista A&R exec Gerry Griffith, Davis signed Houston to a recording contract and carefully began developing her.
She issued three No. 1 albums in rapid succession: “Whitney Houston” (1985), “Whitney” (1987) and “I’m Your Baby Tonight” (1990). Her moving 1991 rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” at the Super Bowl, amid the first Gulf War, set a new standard and reaffirmed her as America’s sweetheart.
Following her 1992 marriage to Brown, a member of the R&B group New Edition, her career began to veer off track. Rumors of drug abuse plagued her. She divorced Brown in 2007 after appearing with him in a much-mocked cable reality show, “Being Bobby Brown.” The couple had a daughter, Bobbi Kristina, in 1993.
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 she was Houston.
But by the end of her career, Houston became a cautionary tale of the toll of drug use. 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 interview with then-husband Brown by her side.
Houston would go to rehab twice before she would declare herself drug-free during a televised interview with Oprah Winfrey in 2010. 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.
But 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’s survivors include her mother and daughter.
(Associated Press contributed to this report)