Whitney Houston: The voice of a generation (40340)

by Sonya Young
Special to the Tri-State Defender

As news of the death of legendary pop diva Whitney Houston spread throughout the Landers Center arena in Southaven, Miss. Saturday night (Feb. 11), fans gathered for the New Edition Reunion Tour wondered if band member Bobby Brown, ex-husband of Houston, would appear.

Brown and Houston married in 1992 and spent 14 tumultuous and controversial years together amid later-confirmed rumors of drug abuse until divorcing in 2007. They were parents to one daughter, Bobbi Kristina, 18.

Whitney Houston (Courtesy photo)

  Survived my darkest hour, my faith kept me alive
  I picked myself back up, hold my head up high
  I was not built to break
  I didn’t know my own strength
  There were so many times
  I wondered how I’d get through the night
  I thought I took all that I could take
  I didn’t know my own strength
Whitney Houston
“I Didn’t Know My Own Strength”

At the concert venue, cell phones began to light up with breaking news alerts announcing Houston’s death, security tightened and media was banned from filming Brown and his band mates onstage. As the crowd waited for the show to begin, one concertgoer, who wished to remain anonymous, told The New Tri-State Defender that she’d just spoken with New Edition’s manager and was told that the concert would still go on.

“They said they just need some time to get themselves together,” she reported. “Bobby is having a hard time.”

Concert promoter Julius Lewis, who was responsible for bringing the show to the Mid-South, told the TSD that Brown was having crying fits. Lewis didn’t know until 20 minutes before they went on stage if all or none of the group would perform.

“Bobby all of sudden came in and said, “Let’s go, boys. Tonight I’m gonna turn this (expletive deleted) out.”

Lewis said he was glad that Brown had the support of the guys he grew up with. They consoled Brown after he heard the news. Even the other act on the ticket, K-Ci and JoJo, gathered around Brown to help him grieve, said Lewis.

Concertgoer Tammy Collins of Memphis said it was like a member of your family had died. “No matter what she and Bobby (Brown) had gone through, I feel for him,” she said.

The lights went down around 7:35 p.m. and radio personality Stan Bell kept the crowd entertained as the show sputtered along in what appeared to be stalling to allow Brown to compose himself. Bell told the TSD that his heart was heavy.

“Whitney did so much for the (music) industry,” said Bell. “Prayers go out to the family.”

New Edition initially took the stage minus Brown, who finally appeared to thunderous applause at the start of the band’s second number, “Hit Me Off.”

“Coming on this stage was the hardest thing to do,” Brown shared. “You paid your money. You came to see us. After 29 some years….”

The show went on, with Bobby vacillating between the hardcore artist fans remembered and a grieving ex-husband and father. At one point, Brown shouted, “I love you, Whitney.”

His mood seemed good considering, and he performed well, even singing one line of his hit, “Tenderoni” to his former wife as he pointed to the sky. Fans cheered him on, chanting “Bobby” and offered applause. He held his composure until the end, leaving the stage, and then returning to close the show with the group.

Brown ended the evening asking for prayers for his daughter, Houston’s mom, and himself, “…if you find some time….”

‘Greatest voice I’ve ever heard’

What ABC News called “The voice of a generation” fell silent Saturday (Feb 11) in a Beverly Hills hotel just hours before Houston, 48, was scheduled to attend a pre-Grammy Awards party given by her mentor and music producer Clive Davis.

Her voice, described to the Toronto Sun as “the greatest voice I’ve ever heard” by musical legend Tony Bennett, lifted her to fame worldwide, and landed her in the Guinness Book of World Records in 2007 as the most awarded female artist of all time.

The vocalist became an immediate sensation in 1985 with the release of her debut album “Whitney Houston,” which scored a record seven consecutive hits. In her nearly 30-year career, Houston released seven studio albums, three movie soundtracks and starred in three motion pictures. All of her albums have diamond, multi-platinum, platinum or gold certification.

According to the Associated Press (AP), Houston was found in the bathtub, “underwater and apparently unconscious,” in Room 434 of the Beverly Hilton hotel where the party was to take place. AP broke the news that evening after receiving word from Houston’s publicist, Kristin Foster.

Triple threat

Houston was in the first grade when she picked up the nickname “Nippy” because she was so small, WABC-TV in New Jersey reported. She referred to the name in her remake of the Stevie Wonder song, “I Was Made to Love Him.” Her lithe stature and striking good looks made her one of the most sought after teen models of the 1980s, according to the July 16, 1990 edition of Jet Magazine.

While Houston is probably best known for her stunning vocals, she also made inroads as a hit actress, starting on the small screen with a cameo appearance on the 1980s sitcom “Gimme a Break!” in 1984, then moving to the silver screen with a starring role in the 1992 hit, “The Bodyguard,” in which Houston also contributed to the multi-platinum soundtrack.

From there, Houston starred in “Waiting to Exhale,” “The Preacher’s Wife” and “Cinderella.” Production just wrapped on a remake of the 1976 movie “Sparkle” due in theaters this August.

‘Nothing But Love’

The passing of the legendary pop diva has created a global outpouring of emotions and condolences by celebrities and fans.

“Whitney Houston was an unbelievable talent and one of the greatest voices of all time. Her passing is a tremendous shock and a terrible shame,” said Sound of Philadelphia creators Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff in a joint statement. “She had a rough life and was under so much pressure as an artist, because she meant so much to the music community. She was one of the most admired singers ever, who was loved by everybody.”

Houston recorded the song “Hold Me” with Sound of Philadelphia artist Teddy Pendergrass in 1984, the year before she was skyrocketed to stardom with the release of her first album.

Memphians in the music industry are feeling the loss as well. Earle Augustus, programming director for WRBO 103.5-FM, fondly recounted playing Houston’s debut music in 1985 at WASL 100-FM in Dyersburg, Tenn. Augustus told The New Tri-State Defender that he was on the air when the news of her death broke.

“I was stunned,” he said. “After I confirmed it, I made the announcement and went instantly into tribute mode.” Augustus added that he has always been a fan of the “well-rounded singer” who he described as “perfect.”

Bell also shared the first time he’d played a Whitney record.

“It was 1985 and I was at UT Martin.” He joked about how he at first didn’t think it would be a hit, but after he played it the phone lines in the college’s studio lit up.

Grammy Award-winning jazz saxophonist Kirk Whalum toured with Houston from 1989 to 1996, and played the saxophone solo in her monster hit, “I’ll Always Love You.” He remembers her being kind and giving, with a dynamic personality.

Houston, said Whalum, was a “homegirl who loved the Lord and loved people.”

“While we didn’t keep in touch, I would pray for her often,” Whalum said. “Fame…exacts a toll that’s hard to quantify.”

On the social site Twitter, Gillydakid summed it up: “She didn’t raise the bar for singers…she WAS THE BAR!”

Going home

Los Angeles County Coroner’s spokesperson Ed Winter said in a press conference on Monday that a completed autopsy showed no signs of trauma or foul play. He denied reports that his office told the family that Houston didn’t drown and was likely the victim of a deadly painkiller and alcohol cocktail, as reported by celebrity gossip site TMZ.

Winter added that it could be weeks before toxicology tests are completed to establish cause of death and that “a security hold” by the police department prevented him from speaking further on the case.

The same day, Houston was transported by actor/producer Tyler Perry’s private jet to Newark for a private funeral to take place Saturday (Feb 18). According to Reutors.com, the invitation-only service will be held at noon at the New Hope Baptist Church, where Houston began singing as a child.

CNN reported late Wednesday that the funeral services are expected to be available for television and web streaming and that the death certificate filed Wednesday lists Houston’s burial site as Fairview Cemetery in Westfield, N.J.

(This story includes NNPA reports special from the Philadelphia Tribune)