On the Detroit set of Sparkle that day in November, Houston looked surprisingly radiant in all white, and sounded upbeat about the project and her future. "I don't think of it as like, as a comeback," she said. "Entertaining is in my family bloodline. I can't help it. It's natural."
"It was the happiest I've ever seen her working, and I'm not blowing smoke," says a friend, Sparkle producer Debra Martin Chase. "She hung out on the set. She was in the makeup trailer, on time, every day." Between filming, Houston attended a Detroit Lions game and popped into a studio to record a song with producer Harvey Mason. Houston had first sung that song in her Baptist church in Newark, and it would be the last track she would record alone.
According to reports, Houston fell off the wagon hard in the next couple of months, hitting bottom with a confused and confusing two weeks in Los Angeles. On Thursday, February 2nd, she was seen wandering around by herself in the Hollywood nightclub Playhouse, drunk. A few days later, she met with Davis at his hotel bungalow to happily play him the Sparkle tracks; a few days later, she would make a bedraggled, uninvited appearance at his press conference for a project with Brandy and Monica.
That night, Houston and her entourage visited the club Tru Hollywood to cheer on a performance by Kelly Price. "Hold on, I'm gonna come up," Houston said, making her way from her table to the stage. She joined Price for a brief harmony on the hymn "Jesus Loves Me." In video footage shot that night, Houston sounds raspy. Backstage, Houston reportedly got into a tussle with former X Factor contestant Stacy Francis, which may have accounted for the bits of blood seen dripping down Houston's leg as she left the venue.
The night of Houston's death, Davis' annual party went on. The mood seesawed between somber and upbeat; one minute, Pitbull rocked his playful hit "Give Me Everything," and the next Davis was asking for a moment of silence in Houston's honor. "It was fucking weird," says Warren. "It was like this surreal, weird movie. People are talking and we're acting normal. But there's nothing normal about this, because four floors above us is Whitney Houston's body, not even cold. And I'm just sitting there, like, 'Can I have more wine, please?' I don't even drink."
At Houston's funeral on February 18th, the different aspects of her world once again converged: family members alongside record executives, Bobby Brown alongside childhood friends from her school and church. R. Kelly's moving, gospel-rooted take on "I Look to You" and performances by longtime friends BeBe and CeCe Winans contrasted with the sight of Brown storming out at the beginning of the service after feeling his posse had been dissed by being asked to sit in different parts of the church. Producer Walden remembers the last few times he saw Houston, when she said she wanted to work with him again, this time on a remake of Brainstorm's obscure 1977 disco hit "Lovin' Is Really My Game." Walden cut the track and waited for Houston's schedule to open up so they could finish it. "Like Aretha, Whitney was always a threat," he says. "Like Michael Jackson, always a threat." But Houston never made it to Walden's studio in the Bay Area, nor was she able to sing one of its most telling lines: "Why not give me a chance/I swear I could prove it."
This story is from the March 15th, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone.
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