‘There's a hole in the heart of music’

By Drum Digital
22 February 2012

“Every girl wanted to sound like Whitney, look like Whitney, dress like Whitney…”

That’s how musician Wyclef Jean describes the almost instant allure of Whitney Houston when she launched her record-breaking career in the 1980s.

Not only was she blessed with red-carpet good looks, but there was also that towering voice of hers that seemed peerless. Yet, at the same time, she was one of us.

For many of those who grew up with her music, she could so easily have been the girl next door – granted a supernaturally gifted and gorgeous one.

Her talent spanned all ages, cultures, races and continents – and reached all the way to South Africa. The affection was mutual for the singer, who refused to have her pictures published in apartheid-SA when she was a teenage model.

She also joined other musicians in June 1988 to perform at Wembley Stadium in London to celebrate the 70th birthday of former president Nelson Mandela, who was imprisoned at the time.

“I can’t begin to tell you what my visit home truly means to me,” Whitney told an audience at her Johannesburg concert in 1994.

“I have been . . . to Japan and I have seen Japanese people in their land. I have been to China and seen the Chinese in their land. I have been to Italy and seen Italians in their land.

I have been to Spain and I have seen the Spanish in theirs. I have finally come home to see my people!

“I look at you, I see me. Hopefully, when you look at me you see yourselves.”

Shortly after her death Madiba paid tribute to her, remembering how she had dedicated a rendition of The Greatest Love of All to him in 1994 at a dinner in his honour at the White House.

Our familiarity with this larger-than-life star made her recent death at the age of just 48 especially sad and shocking. But perhaps her tragic end was inevitable, considering the years she spent battling drug addiction – the affliction that robbed her of her beautiful gift.

How did someone who had so much and was loved by so many end up like this?

There was nothing from Whitney’s childhood to indicate that she would have such a tragic life.

She was born into music royalty, in a God-fearing, middle-income family in suburban Newark, New Jersey. She was the third and youngest child of army serviceman and entertainment executive John Russell Houston Jr and gospel singer Cissy Houston.

By all accounts, Whitney, or “Nippy” as the petite youngster was nicknamed, enjoyed a happy childhood in a tightly knight family, a bond that was carried over into her career. Her brother Michael became her production manager on tour and her other sibling, Gary, joined her as a backup singer.

Whitney was almost certainly destined for fame. Her mother Cissy is an award-winning singer who had a successful career as a backup singer for artists such as Elvis Presley and Aretha Franklin, while Whitney’s cousin is singer Dionne Warwick.

The man who discovered her said she was right up there with those greats. When she was just 19, producer Clive Davis already saw that Whitney possessed all the “guts and soul” of jazz legend Lena Horne and her famous cousin Dionne.

It was clear from a young age that Whitney possessed a rare talent, which talk show queen Oprah Winfrey later labelled The Voice.

By the age of 12 Whitney was already belting out gospel hymns in church. And from the moment she stepped onto the music scene, she was a legend.

Her first album, Whitney Houston, became the biggest-selling debut in history after its release in 1985. And from there she continued to soar. With her second offering in 1987, titled Whitney, she became the first singer to score seven consecutive number one hits on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.

Incredibly, she outdid even herself in 1992 with her acting debut in The Bodyguard. Her previous achievements had been spectacular, but with this phase of her career her success became blinding.

The Bodyguard became one of the 100 most successful films of all time and the omnipresent I Will Always Love You became the best-selling single by a female artist in music history.

At the same time, though, Whitney was feeling the strain of her success and its demands. She found some solace in the arms of bad boy R&B singer Bobby Brown, whom she married in 1992 – to the horror of many who knew Bobby’s reputation for playing the field.

Many have blamed Bobby, whom she divorced in 2007, for Whitney’s decline. Others argue her drug-filled wreck of a marriage to Bobby may have fuelled her deterioration, but ultimately she may have succumbed to the same fame monster that hastened the demise of so many other greats. Think Amy Winehouse and Michael Jackson.

Whitney’s every misstep was splashed across gossip pages all over the world and became the butt of countless jokes.

Just days before her death, one entertainment channel reported gleefully that Whitney had been seen in an “erratic” state outside a club in Los Angeles.

“We’re happy to see Whitney back on the scene, even if she is acting a little crazy because, I admit, it’s a lot more fun to watch,” the TV anchor ends off the story.

The singer, whose achievements had put her in the same company as The Beatles, had become fodder for comedians. In a 2002 TV interview with talk show host Dianne Sawyer, it was clear that Whitney was teetering on the brink.

Appearing edgy, she spoke about her drug abuse, but insisted that she did not use crack cocaine.

It was all downhill from there. Whitney became known more for her erratic behaviour than her music. She fell with increasing speed from her throne as the most recognised female act ever, with 415 awards behind her name.

That includes six Grammys, 22 American Music Awards and 30 Billboard trophies.

Whereas she once could do no wrong, it seemed that judgement now followed all of Whitney’s actions, including her crumbling marriage to Bobby.

There were reports of domestic violence and her arrest on drug possession charges. By the late 1990s Whitney’s voice had taken a beating and she appeared sickly thin. Her record sales also suffered.

STILL, fans kept their fingers crossed that Whitney would return to her former glory. And many heaved a sigh of relief when it was announced in 2007 that she was planning a comeback.

Having just divorced from Bobby, she finally released I Look to You in 2009 and for a while it seemed that Whitney was Whitney again, after the album entered the Billboard music charts at number one.

In an interview with Oprah to mark her return, it was clear the singer had been through the mill. She spoke honestly about her addiction to marijuana laced with cocaine and told Oprah about how Bobby had once spat in her face out of anger.

But she appeared healthy, spirited and determined to get back up. Some even said she looked more beautiful than ever, the classic black beauty who ages gracefully.

But pretty soon it became clear that this was not the Whitney of old. Her world tour to promote I Look to You was a disaster from the start, as the singer croaked through hit after hit in her drug-ruined voice. Some disappointed fans walked out of her concerts, according to reports.

Then last year there were more worrying signs that Whitney’s once fairy-tale life may not have a happy ending. Whitney booked herself into a rehab centre for alcohol and drug abuse.

Earlier this year words like “erratic” were again used to describe her behaviour after she was nearly kicked off a flight for refusing to buckle her seatbelt. Reports also emerged that she was so broke she had to borrow money from friends to pay her bond.

Then on 11 February Whitney was found dead in a bathtub in her room at the Beverly Hills Hilton Hotel in Los Angeles. Some reports said she had died from a lethal combination of Xanax and other prescription drugs mixed with alcohol.

"There's a hole in the heart of music," Hillary Scott of country music trio Lady Antebellum said.

If there is any comfort to be found in this nightmare, it’s that Whitney had in a sense come full circle.

“It’s so strange that she died when she did. February was her month. Her first album was released on Valentine's Day, right around the time of the Grammys, right around the time of Clive Davis’ party,” her friend and former assistant Robyn Crawford remembers.

“She was Clive’s girl, his great discovery. And she died right before Valentine’s Day, right before the Grammys, right before Clive’s party.”

She died around the same time of year as when she’d first made her unforgettable foray into the music industry – and also into our hearts.



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