From the Staples Center in Los Angeles to the New Hope Baptist Church in Newark, on the Web and beyond, tearful fans, bereaved friends and saddened fellow artists had a simple message for Whitney Houston on Sunday: We will always love you.
"To me, Whitney was THE VOICE," wrote Oprah Winfrey on Twitter, offering her tribute to the singer who was pronounced dead Saturday afternoon in her Beverly Hills Hilton hotel room at age 48. "We got to hear a part of God every time she sang. Heart is heavy, spirit grateful for the GIFT of her."
Said Alicia Keys on Sunday's Grammy Awards show, "When the truly great artists leave us, their legacy lives on. We love Whitney Houston."
And in one of the show's more moving moments, Jennifer Hudson belted out a beautiful version of I Will Always Love You, ending it with the words, "Whitney, we love you."
It was Houston's vocal purity and impressive range that earned her the nickname The Voice. From the moment she arrived on the scene in 1985, the church singer from East Orange, N.J., had a natural beauty and an indelible charm. Not only did she generate record-breaking album and single sales, she launched the dreams of dozens of future pop stars who grew up belting out Whitney songs into their hairbrush while in front of the mirror.
"I, like every singer, always wanted to be just like her," Beyonc said in a statement Sunday evening. "Her voice was perfect. Strong but soothing. Soulful and classic. Her vibrato, her cadence, her control. So many of my life's memories are attached to a Whitney Houston song. She is our queen and she opened doors and provided a blueprint for all of us."
But what exactly is that blueprint? What will the legacy be for a singer who was revered and admired for her amazing vocals, but who also battled drug and alcohol addictions that sparked years of sordid tabloid headlines about her health, marital woes and finances?
"I think it's kind of reminiscent of Michael Jackson," says Bill Werde, editorial director for Billboard. "When a performer with a public and troubled persona dies, I think a lot of the baggage evaporates and what's left behind is this spectacular career of work and music. Part of that process starts right away."
Look back through history, he says. Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Elvis Presley. "There's a certain deification that goes on. The press goes through the lascivious details. And at the end of the day, we remember she was this singularly talented woman who absolutely had a troubled period, but for a good two decades put her talent to great use."
Separating the legacy from the lurid isn't easy. "I'd like to say her incredible voice will trump all in how she's remembered," says Yahoo music's Chris Willman. "Unfortunately, with a lot of entertainers who come to tragic ends, it becomes hard to appreciate their art or how it was intended, without thinking of the tragedy of their lives."
Sunday's Grammys, a night meant for musical merriment, was overshadowed by the death. "It's like a big cloud," said songwriter Diane Warren, who did seven songs with Houston, on the red carpet before the show. "It's sad."
Said Grammy host LL Cool J at the start of the show: "There is no way around this. We've had a death in our family. And so at least, for me, the only thing that feels right is to begin with a prayer for a woman who we loved, to our fallen sister, Whitney Houston."
On Sunday morning, New Hope Baptist Church pastor Joe Carter, standing on the on the steps of the Newark church where the young Whitney first came to the microphone, also asked for prayers -- and privacy -- for the family. Houston's mother, Cissy Houston, a Grammy-award winning gospel singer, had led the musical program at the 112-year-old church and Whitney had sung in its choir.
Houston's hotel room death came just hours before she was to be guest of honor at the annual pre-Grammy party Saturday of her mentor, music mogul Clive Davis. Beverly Hills police said they were called to the Beverly Hilton at around 3:43 p.m. PT, and fire department personnel already at the scene responded immediately. Houston was in her fourth-floor room but was unresponsive to CPR, and she was pronounced dead at 3:55 p.m.
David Foster, who produced portions of three Houston albums, including The Bodyguard, said at the Saturday party that the singer will be remembered for her music. Period.
"She had an incredible body of work. What artist sustains for 25 years with hits? Nobody."
"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."
Bobby Brown, whom the singer divorced in 2007 after a turbulent 14-year marriage, was overcome with grief Saturday while performing with New Edition in Southaven, Miss. "I am deeply saddened at the passing of my ex-wife," Brown said in a statement. "At this time, we ask for privacy, especially for my daughter, Bobbi Kristina. "
The Houston family issued a statement calling the death "an unimaginable tragedy."
The singer had struggled in the past decade to overcome her issues and regain her past glory, which included sales of more than 42.7 million albums, singles and digital tracks since Nielsen SoundScan began tracking sales in 1991.
Things seemed to be looking up and she had recently been out promoting her new film, Sparkle, which she executive-produced and stars in with American Idol star Jordin Sparks. It is scheduled to be released in August. She also had made a brief appearance on stage Thursday at a party hosted by singer Kelly Price. Houston joined Price for a rendition of Jesus Loves Me.
Positive steps forward were often followed by setbacks. In 2009, she released I Look to You, her first studio album in seven years and first since going through rehab and divorcing Brown. The album debuted at No. 1 and sold more than 1 million copies, but it failed to produce any massive hit singles or receive hoped-for Grammy nominations. Her subsequent overseas tour met with mixed reviews, and disappointed fans demanded 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.
It was a sad moment for the once-shining 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 so many singers, including Beyonc, Alicia Keys, Jennifer Hudson, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and Leona Lewis as inspiring them.
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.
Together, they would make music history. Her 1985 debut album, Whitney Houston, arrived 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.
Houston's superstardom was solidified in 1987 with the release of Whitney, which sold 9million 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.
Her third album, 1990's I'm Your Baby Tonight, took her in a more urban direction, with production by L.A. Reid, Babyface, Stevie Wonder and Luther Vandross, but its reception was less spectacular.
Still, big things were on the horizon for Houston, whose 1991 Super Bowl performance of The Star-Spangled Banner remains the yardstick by which all national anthem singers are judged. In 1992, two things happened that would profoundly 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 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.
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. She earned $10million for her next role, 1996's The Preacher's Wife, which starred Denzel Washington and Courtney B. Vance.
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 it peaked at No. 13 on the Billboard album chart, making it her first album to fall short of the top three.
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.
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 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.
In a 2009 interview with Oprah Winfrey to promote I Look to You, Houston blamed an emotionally abusive and jealous Brown for many of her problems, confessed she laced her marijuana with rock cocaine and revealed she had spent time in rehab.
The album made its debut at No. 1 on the Billboard album chart, 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.
The savage reviews of her final tour in 2010 remain a stark reminder of the powerhouse voice she once had, and how much she lost to years of drug abuse and personal turmoil.
Still, though Houston's biggest hits came more than a decade ago, it may be her death that most reminds us of her talents. "People will reconnect with why people loved Whitney Houston in the first place and that's her singing," says Anthony DeCurtis, contributing editor to Rolling Stone. "That will be the lasting legacy. If an event like this can have a positive effect, it's to restore focus on the person's artistry rather than the foibles."
Contributing: Edna Gundersen, Marco R. della Cava, Elysa Gardner, Andrea Mandell and Cathy Lynn Grossman
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