LOS ANGELES — A year ago, Clive Davis’ 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.
Instead, what transpired was yet another troubling display of erratic behavior from the superstar, and a foreshadowing perhaps of what was to come.
Though she looked spectacular, her once-stunning voice sounded frayed and hoarse. She didn’t seem to follow the rehearsed plan and looked out of sorts at times. Even when Davis, her longtime mentor and producer, announced that the show was over, Houston appeared to try to get back on the microphone, only to be stopped by Davis with the joke: “I found you when you were 19; I’m still your boss!” On Saturday, Houston was once again the focus of Davis’ 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 behavior and a tumultuous marriage to singer Bobby Brown, died on the eve of the Grammy Awards she once reigned over. She was 48.
Houston was pronounced dead Saturday afternoon in her room on the fourth floor of the Beverly Hilton, Beverly Hills police Lt. Mark Rosen said. “There were no obvious signs of any criminal intent,” he said.
The cause of death was unknown, said Houston’s publicist, Kristen Foster.
Houston’s death came on the night before music’s biggest showcase, the Grammys. She will be remembered Sunday in a tribute by Jennifer Hudson, organizers said. Houston had been at rehearsals for the show Thursday, coaching singers Brandy and Monica, according to a person who was at the event but was not authorized to speak publicly about it. The person said Houston looked disheveled, was sweating profusely and liquor and cigarettes could be smelled on her breath.
At her peak, 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. She wowed audiences with effortless, powerful and peerless vocals rooted in the black church but made palatable to the masses with a pop sheen.
Her success carried her beyond music to movies, where she starred in hits like “The Bodyguard” and “Waiting to Exhale.”
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, who when she first came out sounded so much like Houston that many thought it was Houston. But by the end of her career, 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 a wild demeanor and 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,” Houston told ABC’s Diane Sawyer in an infamous 2002 interview with then-husband Brown by her side.
It was a tragic fall for a superstar who was one of the top-selling artists in pop music history, with more than 55 million records sold in the United States alone.
Davis, went ahead with his annual concert Saturday at the same hotel where her body was found. He dedicated the evening to her and asked for a moment of silence. Houston was supposed to appear at the gala, held downstairs in the hotel where her body lay for most of Saturday night.
Aretha Franklin, her godmother, said she was stunned.
“I just can’t talk about it now,” Franklin said in a short statement. “It’s so stunning and unbelievable. I couldn’t believe what I was reading coming across the TV screen.”
Houston seemed to be born into greatness. In addition to being Franklin’s goddaughter, she was the daughter of gospel singer Cissy Houston and the cousin of 1960s pop diva Dionne Warwick.
She first started singing at the New Hope Baptist Church in Newark, N.J., as a child. At the church on Sunday 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.
The pastor asked for strength for Houston’s family, said churchgoer Shawn Cooper, 32, of Newark. He said he hadn’t regularly attended church but felt compelled to go on this Sunday. “The Houston family means a lot to this community, they have done a lot for this community, and being there for them is the best thing we can do as a community,” he said.
In her teens, Houston sang backup for Chaka Khan, Jermaine Jackson and others, in addition to modeling. It was around that time when music mogul Clive Davis first heard Houston perform.
“The time that I first saw her singing in her mother’s act in a club ... it was such a stunning impact,” Davis told “Good Morning America.”
“To hear this young girl breathe such fire into this song. I mean, it really sent the proverbial tingles up my spine,” he added.
Before long, the rest of the country would feel it, too. Houston made her album debut in 1985 with “Whitney Houston,” which sold millions and spawned hit after hit. “Saving All My Love for You” brought her her first Grammy, for best female pop vocal. “How Will I Know,” “You Give Good Love” and “The Greatest Love of All” also became hit singles.
Another multiplatinum 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 Franklin drew criticism by some who saw her as playing down her black roots to go pop and reach white audiences. The criticism would become a constant refrain through much of her career. She was even booed during the “Soul Train Awards” in 1989.
“Sometimes it gets down to that, you know?” she told Katie Couric in 1996. “You’re not black enough for them. I don’t know. You’re not R&B enough. You’re very pop. The white audience has taken you away from them.”
Some saw her 1992 marriage to former New Edition member and soul crooner Bobby 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 DUI and failure to pay child support.
But Houston said their true personalities were not as far apart as people may have believed.