When I heard the first reports of Whitney Houston’s death at age 48, just hours before she was set to perform at the legendary Clive Davis Grammy Eve party, I was neither shocked, nor stunned nor saddened in contrast to the mounting numbers of television reporters and fans gathering at the Hilton Hotel where her lifeless body was found in her fourth-floor bathtub. I had already grieved the loss of Whitney Houston for more than a decade.
I have now spent what remains of “Grammy weekend” wondering if all the people around Whitney Houston throughout the second half of her life were enablers, unwitting or not. Or did they help extend her life throughout these final turbulent years.
First, full disclosure of my role as a keen observer. Almost 30 years ago, the man I would later marry, was managing director of Arista Records in the U.K.,, at the very time Clive Davis was signing the 19-year-old former back-up singer for Chaka Khan and daughter of the legendary gospel queen, Cissy Houston. My husband recalls the recording ingenue as so sweet and funny, she went along with the marketing team’s practical joke of switching her newly recorded demo tape for one she specially made about his favorite English soccer team.
Back then, that young ingenue blossomed into the Whitney with the perfect poise, the face and body of a Vogue model, and the voice of an angel. Always credited: Clive Davis, first and foremost, and Whitney’s first manager, Gene Harvey and Jerry Griffith, Arista’s A&R executive.
As we all would see, Whitney soared, breaking every conceivable record.
Then came her 1992, marriage to pop sensation Bobby Brown. The people around her changed.
In 1999, I became executive producer of ABC’s Good Morning America and soon produced a five-part series on the legendary Clive Davis. He even took a hand-held video camera to his famous pre-grammy party, giving us a bird’s eye view. At the time he was working on a “comeback” album for Whitney Houston and some of us “in the know,” shall we say, understood she was struggling. Perhaps because my own brother-in-law had been an addict for six years, we worried about her, and never repeated what we knew were attempts at interventions and more.
Still, with the power and magic of Clive Davis, she finished her comeback album, and sat down with Diane Sawyer for that tricky interview which, I was reminded today, was taped the day Bobby Brown was arrested, one of many such run-ins with the law he would have.
Sawyer’s interview was a challenge for even an experienced news anchor such as she.. As we know in broadcast news, the journalist only gets to ask the questions; Whitney Houston got to answer them. She certainly shocked a lot of us then with her sassy street talk, most notably, “Crack is whack” which hardly put to rest the rumors she regularly smoked cocaine.
Four years ago, I was saddened by eye-witness reports from reliable friends who told me they watched her snorting cocaine during a taping for another network. By then that voice of an angel was gone, replaced by a shallow and croaky sound of vocal cords.ravaged by drugs. All the auto-tuning in the world couldn’t hide it.
Then, at his 2009 pre-grammy party, after live performances of Alicia Keyes and Rod Stewart, Clive Davis introduced his special diva, the one he discovered, nurtured, groomed and truly loved. It was another comeback for Whitney Houston and everyone in the room was rooting for her. After a long standing ovation and a tearful embrace of the audience, she began to sing. Well, not really. She skillfully used every vocal trick in the book to “talk” the high notes, let the audience sing along to where I suppose she could not.
Yet, what followed was another album, a two-part Oprah Winfrey interview and performance. her demeanor in the two separate hours was markedly different. In one part, I thought she appeared high.
Then came another concert performance for Good Morning America, one, I’m told, had to be re-recorded and altered in the sound truck before air. She then embarked on a world tour where she was booed off the stage in some places, hospitalized for “exhaustion” in another.
So, I ask, must the show go on? Did these last years give her something to live for, or did it utimately destroy her?
In the end, full responsibility lies with Whitney Houston, who made some bad, even tragic choices in her life. Those at Arista, J Records, Harpo, and ABC News wanted to believe her vocal gifts could be restored. Clive Davis, I know, believed to the very end, he could help her rediscover the angel within.
With a better heart and purer intent, did it turn out any differently than those who tried to prop up a bloated drug-addled Elvis Presley who was wearing a diaper to bed… or Michael Jackson who clearly was not fit for the European tour on which he was embarking.
Over the next days we will learn of how Whitney Houston spun out of control and to her death. TMZ has reported she was found in the bathtub by her body guard and that prescription drugs were found in the room.
I reported earlier that an eye-witness told me that Friday night he experienced a massive water leak in his hotel room at the Hilton where he was one floor below Whitney Houston He told me hotel representatives said it was Whitney Houston’s room where she had also destroyed three stereo units.
Just an hour ago, I met another eyewitness who occupied room 248 and wonders if he may be the last person to see or hear her alive. He told me it was 4:00 a.m. Saturday morning and he went out on his balcony where Houston, he says, was on her knees holding onto the balcony bars above, screaming, “I can’t take this anymore. I can’t take this anymore.”
He also felt awful, knowing what he now knows, to assume she had lots of people around her help her in her distress.
His “timeline” doesn’t fit current reports; he believes he heard commotion –like medics arriving — at about 10:00 a.m. on Saturday. (He clearly wasn’t tailoring what he heard and saw to published reports.)
I hope police get around to interviewing him.
The next few days will get ugly as authorities and journalists get to the bottom of what went so wrong in the last days in life of Whitney Houston. . Fans, family, friends and some entertainment journalists will be appalled as every last bit of her privacy will be violated.
Sadly, it’s a necessary exercise as is the pursuit of my one big burning question: must the show always go on?
Only once we explore her death for any and all teachable moments, can her real legacy be restored, and, like Presley and Jackson before her, shine even brighter. When all is said and done, I suspect many will join me in mourning the Whitney Houston who sadly died over a decade ago.