Saturday 10 December 2016

Musical diva's career tainted by battle with drugs and her inner demons

Nekesa Mumbi Moody in Los Angeles

Published 13/02/2012 | 05:00

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 22: Singer Whitney Houston performs onstage at the 2009 American Music Awards at Nokia Theatre L.A. Live on November 22, 2009 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Whitney Houston
LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 22: Singer Whitney Houston performs onstage at the 2009 American Music Awards at Nokia Theatre L.A. Live on November 22, 2009 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Whitney Houston

A YEAR ago, Clive Davis's glittery pre-Grammy showcase was winding down after a number of electric performances when the grandest name of all, Whitney Houston, walked on stage to close the evening with what promised to be a show-stopping tribute to her famous cousin, Dionne Warwick.

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Instead, what transpired was yet another troubling display of erratic behaviour from the superstar, a foreshadowing of what was to come.

Though she looked spectacular, her once-stunning voice sounded frayed and hoarse.

On Saturday, Ms Houston was once again the focus of Mr Davis's annual party, but her presence was a posthumous one. Pop music's former queen, until her majestic voice was ravaged by drug use and her regal image was tarnished by erratic behaviour and a tumultuous marriage to soul singer Bobby Brown, died on the eve of the Grammy Awards she once reigned over. She was 48.

Ms Houston had been at rehearsals for the show earlier in the week, but witnesses said she looked dishevelled, was sweating profusely and alcohol and cigarettes could be smelled on her breath.

At her peak, Ms Houston was the golden girl of the music industry. From the mid-1980s to the late-1990s, she was one of the world's best-selling artists. Her effortless, powerful and peerless vocals were rooted in the black church, but were made palatable to the masses with a pop sheen.

She had the perfect voice and the perfect image: a gorgeous singer who had sex appeal but was never overtly sexual, who maintained perfect poise.

She influenced a generation of younger singers, from Christina Aguilera to Mariah Carey. But by the end of her career, Ms Houston became a stunning cautionary tale of the toll of drug use.

Her album sales plummeted and the hits stopped coming; her once serene image was shattered by bizarre public appearances. She confessed to abusing cocaine, marijuana and pills, and her once pristine voice became raspy and hoarse, unable to hit the high notes as she had during her prime.

"The biggest devil is me. I'm either my best friend or my worst enemy," Ms Houston said in an infamous 2002 television interview, with then-husband Mr Brown by her side.

It was a tragic fall for a superstar who sold more than 55 million records in the United States alone.

Ms Houston seemed to be born into greatness. In addition to being Aretha Franklin's goddaughter, she was the daughter of gospel singer Cissy Houston and the cousin of 1960s pop diva Ms Warwick.

She first started singing at the New Hope Baptist Church in Newark, New Jersey, as a child. At the church yesterday morning, a couple of sympathy cards were tied to a fence post. "To the greatest songstress ever," one said, and tied next to it was a small bouquet of fresh flowers.

In her teens, Ms Houston sang backup for Chaka Khan, Jermaine Jackson and others, in addition to modelling. It was around that time when music mogul Mr Davis first heard Ms Houston perform.

"To hear this young girl breathe such fire into this song. I mean, it really sent the proverbial tingles up my spine," he said.

Before long, the rest of the country would feel it, too. Ms Houston made her album debut in 1985 with 'Whitney Houston', which sold millions and spawned hit after hit.

Another multi-platinum album, 'Whitney', came out in 1987 and included hits like 'Where Do Broken Hearts Go' and 'I Wanna Dance With Somebody'.

Her decision not to follow the more soulful inflections of singers like Ms Franklin drew criticism by some who saw her as playing down her black roots. The criticism would become a constant refrain through much of her career.

Some saw her 1992 marriage to former New Edition member and soul crooner Ms Brown as an attempt to respond to those critics. It seemed to be an odd union; she was seen as pop's pure princess, while he had a bad-boy image and already had children of his own. (The couple had one daughter, Bobbi Kristina, born in 1993.) Over the years, he would be arrested several times, on charges including driving under the influence and failure to pay child support.

In 1992, she became a star in the acting world with 'The Bodyguard'. It also gave her perhaps her most memorable hit: a searing, stunning rendition of Dolly Parton's 'I Will Always Love You', which sat atop the charts for weeks.

She returned to the big screen in 1995-96 with 'Waiting to Exhale' and 'The Preacher's Wife', both of which spawned hit soundtrack albums.

But during these career and personal highs, Ms Houston was using drugs. In an interview with Oprah Winfrey in 2009, she said by the time 'The Preacher's Wife' was released, "(doing drugs) was an everyday thing . . . I would do my work, but after I did my work, for a whole year or two, it was every day. I wasn't happy by that point in time. I was losing myself."

In the interview, Ms Houston blamed her rocky marriage to Mr Brown, which included a charge of domestic abuse against Mr Brown in 1993. They divorced in 2007.

Ms Houston would go to rehab twice before she would declare herself drug-free to Ms Winfrey in 2009.

She was so startlingly thin during a 2001 Michael Jackson tribute concert that rumours spread she had died the next day. She dropped out of the spotlight for a few years but staged what seemed to be a successful comeback with the 2009 album 'I Look To You', which went platinum.

But things soon fell apart. A concert to promote the album on 'Good Morning America' went awry as Ms Houston's voice sounded ragged and off-key.

A world tour confirmed suspicions that Ms Houston had lost her treasured gift, as she failed to hit notes and left many fans unimpressed; some walked out.

Ms Houston was to make her return to film in the remake of the classic movie 'Sparkle'.

Filming on the movie, which stars former 'American Idol' winner Jordin Sparks, recently wrapped.

Ms Houston was one of the producers, and it tells the story of a family of singers ravaged by drug abuse -- a story she knew all too well.

Irish Independent

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