May Flights of Angels Sing You To Your Rest, Whitney Houston

Dolly Parton, who wrote what would become Houston’s signature song, I Will Always Love You, said in her statement: “Mine is only one of the millions of hearts broken over the death of Whitney Houston. I will always be grateful and in awe of the wonderful performance she did on my song.”

 With her incredible vocal range and purity, runway good looks and girl-next-door charm, Whitney Houston was an out-of-the-box superstar when she arrived on the music scene in 1985. Her meteoric rise included record-setting hits, groundbreaking videos and a promising film career.

Whitney Houston, whose stellar voice made her a superstar but who was long plagued by personal problems including drug abuse, died Saturday. She was 48.

Her stellar voice made her a superstar but who was long plagued by personal problems including drug abuse, died Saturday. She was 48.

Word of the 48-year-old singer’s death broke early Saturday evening as the industry gathered in Los Angeles for the official Pre-Grammy Gala at the Beverly Hilton Hotel hosted by her mentor Clive Davis, chief creative officer of Sony Music Worldwide. Her publicist, Kristen Foster, confirmed that the singer died in her room at the Beverly Hilton, but the cause of her death is unknown. Houston had been expected to attend the gala.

“It’s so stunning and unbelievable,” said Aretha Franklin in a statement. “I couldn’t believe what I was reading coming across the TV screen.”

Producer Quincy Jones said in a statement that he was “absolutely heartbroken … I always regretted not having had the opportunity to work with her. She was a true original and a talent beyond compare.”

By Mladen Antonov, AFP/Getty Images
A Beverly Hills police crime lab truck leaves the Beverly Hilton Hotel where Whitney Houston was found dead.

Dolly Parton, who wrote what would become Houston’s signature song, I Will Always Love You, said in her statement: “Mine is only one of the millions of hearts broken over the death of Whitney Houston. I will always be grateful and in awe of the wonderful performance she did on my song.”

At the Staples Center, site of Sunday night’s Grammy Awards, executive producer Ken Ehrlich was wrestling with how to tweak the awards show to pay tribute to one of its onetime brightest lights, Whitney Houston.

The veteran Grammy producer confirmed that he was in contact with singer/actress Jennifer Hudson about honoring Houston at the show.

In recent years, Houston had struggled to regain her past glory — a career that spawned sales of more than 42.7 million albums, singles and digital tracks since Nielsen SoundScan began tracking sales in 1991.

In 2009, she released I Look to You, her first studio album in seven years and first since going through rehab and divorcing Bobby Brown, her husband of 14 years, in 2006. While the album did debut at No. 1 and sold more than 1 million copies, it failed to produce any massive hit singles, or receive hoped-for Grammy Awards nominations. Her subsequent overseas tour met with mixed reviews, with disappointed fans demanding refunds.

“She don’t want to come, my soprano friend,” Houston crooned from the stage after stumbling through her signature songs at London’s O2 arena in April 2010. “Sometimes the old girl sings, but not tonight,” she said of her voice. “I want to do it, but she doesn’t want to. … She’s getting a little … temperamental, even.”

It was a sad end for the once incandescent star who paved the way to pop success for other African-American singers such as Janet Jackson, Anita Baker, Mariah Carey and Mary J. Blige, and has been cited by the likes of Beyoncé, Alicia Keys, Jennifer Hudson, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and Leona Lewis for inspiring them to become singers. The gospel-trained Houston was the daughter of singer Cissy Houston, goddaughter of Aretha Franklin and cousin of Dionne and Dee Dee Warwick.

Houston was already an up-and-coming magazine model (she was one of the first women of color to grace the cover of Seventeen) when record mogul Clive Davis signed her to his Arista Records label in 1983. In an interview accompanying the 2010 reissue of her debut album, Whitney Houston: The Deluxe 25th Anniversary Edition, Davis recalls first seeing her backing up her mother at the New York City club Sweetwater’s.

“She did two solo numbers, one of which was the song The Greatest Love Of All. Whitney sang the song with such fervor, with such a natural vocal gift, with such passion, that I was stunned. I knew really right then and there that this was a special talent, and I was blown away by her,” Davis recalled. “There was no hesitation. I wanted to sign Whitney.”

Together, they would make music history. Davis spent more than a year grooming Houston, lining up producers and collecting the right material. Her first hit, Hold Me, a duet with Teddy Pendergrass for his 1984 Love Language album, went to No. 5 on the R&B chart. It was a precursor to Whitney Houston, which arrived in 1985 to rave reviews.

First single You Give Good Love was a top 5 pop hit, and its follow-up, Saving All My Love for You, was even bigger. It went to No. 1, as did How Will I Know, the video for which became one of the first by an African-American female to get heavy rotation on MTV. The Greatest Love of All also spent three weeks at the top of the charts, and Whitney Houston wound up selling 13 million copies domestically.

She earned three nominations at the 1986 Grammy Awards, including one for album of the year. Saving All My Love for You won for female pop vocal, and her performance of the song on the show would win her an Emmy Award later that year. The Greatest Love of All would also be nominated for record of the year at the following year’s Grammys.

Houston’s superstardom was solidified in 1987 with the release of Whitney, which sold 9 million copies in the USA and spawned four No. 1 singles —I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me),Didn’t We Almost Have It All, So Emotional and Where Do Broken Hearts Go— to give her a record seven chart-toppers in a row. A fifth single, Love Will Save the Day, was a top 10 hit. Thanks to her record sales and concert grosses for 1986 and 1987, Forbes ranked her as the eighth-highest-earning entertainer at the time.

Her crossover success was unprecedented for an African-American woman, but she soon found herself defending it against critics, who claimed her hits lacked soul. Her third album, 1990’s I’m Your Baby Tonight, took her in a more urban direction thanks to production by L.A. Reid, Babyface, Stevie Wonder and Luther Vandross, but its reception was less spectacular. The album peaked at No. 3 while selling 4 million copies, though singles I’m Your Baby Tonight and All the Man That I Need topped both the pop and R&B charts.

Still, big things and big changes were on the horizon for Houston, whose 1991 Super Bowl performance of The Star Spangled Banner remains the yardstick by which other singers are judged. Two things happened in 1992 that would profound alter her career: She made a move into acting and making soundtracks with The Bodyguard, and after a three-year courtship, she married R&B singer and former New Edition member Bobby Brown.

In The Bodyguard, she starred as a singer being protected from a stalker fan by Kevin Costner‘s title character. The film grossed more than $121 million at the box office, and the soundtrack had an even bigger payoff for Houston. Her cover of Dolly Parton’s I Will Always Love You, distinguished by Houston’s a cappella intro, stayed at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 for a then-record 14 consecutive weeks and had significant stints atop the R&B and adult contemporary charts as well.

The album also spawned top five hits I’m Every Woman and I Have Nothing. The album sold 17 million copies in the USA, won three Grammys, including album and record of the year, plus a slew of other awards.

Two years later, Houston performed at a state dinner at the White House honoring newly elected South African President Nelson Mandela, and she would later be the first major artist to perform in that country, playing three shows to 200,000 people.

Her next film, 1995’s Waiting to Exhale starring Angela Bassett, was also a hit with a huge soundtrack. This time, she teamed with Babyface to co-produce the star-studded album, and she contributed to its success with Exhale (Shoop Shoop), Why Does It Hurt So Bad and Count On Me, a duet with CeCe Winans.

She earned $10 million for her next role, 1996’s The Preacher’s Wife, which starred Denzel Washington and Courtney B. Vance. While it didn’t do as well at the box office as the previous two films, Houston got her best review yet as an actress. The soundtrack saw Houston cutting loose in a gospel setting. It featured six songs with the Georgia Mass Choir, including He’s All Over Me with gospel legend Shirley Caesar. I Believe in You and Me and Step By Step were both radio hits.

Houston branched off into TV in 1997, producing a remake of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella starring Brandy with Houston as the Fairy Godmother. The highly rated ABC special earned seven Emmy nominations. That set the stage for Houston’s first studio album in eight years, My Love Is Your Love. The album sold 4 million copies in the USA, and spawned a successful world tour, but peaked at No. 13 on the Billboard album chart, making it her first album to fall short of the top three. Still, with production by Wyclef Jean, Missy Elliott and Rodney Jerkins, it had the hits When You Believe with Mariah Carey, Heartbreak Hotel, It’s Not Right But It’s Okay, My Love Is Your Love and I Learned From the Best.

As the ’90s closed, Houston’s popularity was beginning to wane just as rumors about drug use with Brown swirled and reports began surfacing about erratic behavior and weight loss, along with missed interviews and canceled concerts. On Jan. 11, 2000, marijuana was discovered in Houston’s and Brown’s luggage as they passed through security at a Hawaii airport, though they boarded the plane and left before police arrived. Two months later, she was conspicuously missing when Clive Davis was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She was also to have performed on the Academy Awards, but was fired by musical director Burt Bacharach.

She signed a $100 million, six-album deal with Arista/BMG in 2001, but after appearing on the Michael Jackson: 30th Anniversary Special, her extremely thin frame fueled more rumors of drug abuse. Those rumors were confirmed a year later when she did an interview with Diane Sawyer to promote her upcoming Just Whitney. She admitted using drugs in the highly watched TV interview, which included her infamous declaration, “Crack is cheap. I make too much money to ever smoke crack. Let’s get that straight. OK? We don’t do crack. We don’t do that. Crack is wack.”

Just Whitney was her poorest-selling album to date, and none of its singles made the Hot 100’s top 40. She got positive reviews for 2003’s One Wish: The Holiday Album, but only modest sales.

Houston’s image took further pummeling on the sordid 2005 Bravo reality series Being Bobby Brown, which gave an inside look into their family life. Critics savaged the show, but morbidly fascinated viewers tuned in to see just how low they could sink. The show was canceled after Houston decided to no longer participate. She separated from Brown in September 2006 and the divorce was finalized in 2007, with Houston given custody of the couple’s daughter, Bobbi Kristina.

In a 2009 interview with Oprah Winfrey to promote I Look To You, Houston blamed an emotional abusive and jealous Brown for many of her problems, confessed that she laced her marijuana with rock cocaine and revealed that she’d spent time in rehab and had undergone an intervention by her mother.

The album made its debut at No. 1 on the Billboard album chart with a career-best opening week of 305,000 copies sold. It was her first chart-topping album since 1992’s The Bodyguard. But the title track and the Alicia Keys-penned Million Dollar Bill had only modest success.

Her post-release TV appearances were also spotty. Though the fans responded warmly, she had to apologize for her voice cracking at a three-song Good Morning America concert in New York’s Central Park. It came not long after the Oprah interview, which she says wore out her vocal cords. She gave a much better received performance of I Didn’t Know My Own Strength on the American Music Awards two months later.

But the savage reviews of what would be her final tour in 2010 remain a stark reminder of the gorgeous voice she once had, and how much she lost to years of drug abuse and personal turmoil.

Contributing: Edna Gundersen, Marco R. della Cava and Elysa Gardner

By Steve Jones, USA TODAY


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