Two loud booms jolted awake the music industry executive in her fifth-floor room of the Beverly Hilton hotel.
The time was 3:30 p.m. Saturday. The thuds seemed to be coming from the room below. The voice of a man, loud and urgent, followed. It was only later that she learned the news: Whitney Houston, a guest in the room below hers, had d**d. Cause of d***h: Unclear.
Time pronounced: 3:55 p.m., February 11, 2012.
Age: A mere 48.
The shock and grief from fans worldwide was immediate: Houston’s pipes and presence, her grit and glamour had made her an icon. For a decade and a half, she ruled the charts: 170 million albums sold, including seven back-to-back multi-platinum ones.
Numerous No. 1 hits, including the biggest-selling U.S. single of all time, “I Will Always Love You.” Emmys, Grammys, Billboard Music awards. Dozens of them. And while her luster had dimmed in recent years, as she battled d**g a*******n, Houston was in the midst of a comeback. A few shows here and there, mostly abroad, and a movie in the works.
She had appeared healthy and beautiful in recent days, said the music executive — who did not want to be identified because she didn’t want reporters hounding her. Just days before, the exec had seen Houston swimming in the hotel pool with daughter Bobbi Kristina.
They looked happy, she said. What exactly happened Saturday afternoon now awaits a coroner’s examination. Police and f**e officials were called to Houston’s room at 3:43 p.m., after Houston’s bodyguard found her u*********s body. Medics tried reviving her, but failed. There were “no obvious signs of c******l intent,” said Beverly Hills Police Lt. Mark Rosen.
Medics removed her body from the hotel room early Sunday morning and an autopsy has been scheduled. But the county coroner’s office could not say when. “I just can’t talk about it now. It’s so stunning and unbelievable,” said singer Aretha Franklin on hearing the news. “I couldn’t believe what I was reading coming across the TV screen.”
Saturday night, fans mourned Houston’s d***h in different ways inside and outside the Beverly Hilton. Outside, grieving fans laid roses and flickering candles on the front and back entrances of the sprawling complex. Some sang songs. Others played her music videos on their smartphone.
“Everyone has their own demons, and some overcome them and some never do,” said Tya Conerly, referring to Houston’s history of d**g a***e. “Sometimes life gets the best of us.” Inside the hotel, music industry’s biggest names gathered in elegant attire for an annual pre-Grammy party that had been long planned by Houston’s mentor, Clive Davis.
“I do have a heavy heart, and I am personally devastated by someone so close to me for so many years,” Davis told the gathering of artists and entertainers, that included Tony Bennett, Gladys Knight and Britney Spears. “My heart goes out to her daughter Bobbi Kristina and her mother, Cissy.” He then asked for a moment of silence. “We dedicate this evening to her,” he said.
Houston had been scheduled to attend the festivities. She had performed as late as Thursday night at a pre-Grammy event in the area, a raspy rendition “Jesus Loves Me” with singer Kelly Price. The organizers of Sunday’s Grammy Awards said they have retooled the show to pay respect to Houston, with the help of singer Jennifer Hudson. “It’s going to be something respectful,” said Ken Ehrlich, executive producer of the show. “It’s not going to be a full-blown tribute. That’s too early and it’s too fresh at this moment. It’s going to be something respectful to Whitney’s memory.”
Houston was born in Newark, New Jersey, on August 9, 1963, the daughter of gospel singer Cissy Houston. Her cousin was Dionne Warwick; her godmother Aretha Franklin. “You couldn’t find a more auspicious template for great expectations,” said music critic Gene Seymour. In the mid-1980s, Davis spotted Houston in a New York nightclub and signed her on the spot.
For the next quarter century, he steered her career and served as her mentor. “I saw a depth and a range and soul … that rarely ranks at the top level,” he said Thursday. “And that’s why we’ve been working together ever since.” Her string of Billboard No. 1 hits included “Saving All My Love for You,” “How Will I Know,” “The Greatest Love of All,” “Where Do Broken Hearts Go,” and “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me).”
In 1991, Houston’s commanding performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the Super Bowl, just days into the first Persian Gulf W*r, electrified audiences and became the gold standard for performing the national anthem, according to many music critics. The next year, she released the soundtrack to her movie “The Bodyguard,” one of the top 10 biggest-selling albums of all time. Her cover of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” for the soundtrack has been interpreted by many but rarely duplicated. She appeared in several more films in the 1990s, including “Waiting to Exhale.”
In 2000, Houston earned her sixth Grammy for best female R&B performance and, a month later, she was named female artist of the decade at the “Soul Train” Music Awards. But by then, her battle with d***s — c*****e and m*******a — and her tumultuous marriage to singer Bobby Brown were taking their toll. The couple appeared together in the mid-2000s on the reality show “Being Bobby Brown,” and had one child together, Bobbi Kristina.
In a 2009 interview with Oprah Winfrey, Houston recalled how her mother arrived one day at her doorstep with sheriff’s officers and a c*********r in a d**g intervention. “(My mother) says, ‘I have a court (injunction) here,'” Houston said. “Either you do it my way, or we’re just not going to do this at all. We are both going to go on TV, and you’re going to retire.'”
She entered r***b and took a long hiatus. Her 2009 release, “I Look To You,” was her first in seven years. “I just took a break, which sometimes you have to,” Houston said. “You have to know when to slow that train down and kind of just sit back and relax for a minute.” She recently returned to a movie set for “Sparkle,” a remake of the 1976 hit that was loosely based on the story of The Supremes.
It is scheduled to be released nationwide in August, her first movie role since 1996’s “The Preacher’s Wife.” Music mogul Simon Cowell said Houston’s d***h is one of those events where you remember what you were doing when you heard the news. “It’s that significant,” he said. “I’m so sad for her. She was undoubtedly one of the greatest superstars of all time, one of the greatest voices in our lifetime we’re likely ever to hear.”