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."
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