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Whitney Houston: The Diva and Her Dark Side

Inside the singer’s meteoric rise, chaotic life and tragic final days

Whitney Houston, performsWhitney Houston, performs

Whitney Houston performs in Pokolbin, Australia on February 27th, 2010.

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E arly in the evening of February 7th, Whitney Houston was ready to reclaim her place in music. Wearing black pants and a matching black sweater, she rolled into producer Harvey Mason Jr.’s North Hollywood studio with her sister-in-law and manager Patricia Houston. Whitney had just finished filming a role in an upcoming movie, Sparkle, and tonight she would lay down her part for a song on its soundtrack, “Celebrate,” a duet with co-star Jordin Sparks written by R. Kelly.

After singing a few warm-up scales, Houston hit the mic. Her voice was no longer the brawny, octave-spanning instrument heard on her platinum hits of the Eighties and Nineties. She’d already spent several days with Mason working on her part, and still wasn’t finished. “Whitney had days when she sounded amazing; she had days when she sounded decent; and she had days when she sounded not so great,” Mason says. “But she was really working to improve.” This session was better than most; after she’d taken her last pass, Houston excitedly asked Mason, “You got it, you got it?” When Mason told her he did, she exclaimed, “Now play it!” The two danced in front of the speakers as the booming party anthem shook the studio. For a short while, the troubles that had plagued Houston for more than a decade evaporated.

Sparkle, a remake of a 1976 music-business cautionary tale, would mark Houston’s return to the big screen for the first time in 16 years; she was cast as the mother of a fledgling singer, played by Sparks. As a teenager, Houston had loved the original movie, which followed an R&B trio – one member winds up dead from an overdose, while another becomes a star. “I would go every Saturday for, like, four months straight, and I’d watch the matinee to evening show,” Houston told a group of reporters in November. “It was a positive reinforcement for young African-American women, that anyone who wants to can pursue their dream or their desires.”

Aretha Franklin, a longtime family friend, had attended a preview of the remake and was relieved at what she saw. “Like a lot of artists, Whitney lost her way, but she found it again,” Franklin says. “I thought she looked absolutely stunning in the movie. She looked fresh and healthy and all of that.”

But in the days that followed the session with Mason, Houston’s demons rose up again. She was spotted at Hollywood nightspots acting spacey and probably drunk. She made a surprise appearance at a press conference hosted by her mentor, Clive Davis, smelling of cigarettes and alcohol. On Saturday, February 11th, Houston was planning to attend Davis’ annual pre-Grammy party at the Beverly Hilton, where she was also staying. She’d flown in from her home in Alpharetta, Georgia, for the party and to work on the Sparkle songs. But later that afternoon, after she’d spent an inordinate amount of time in the bathroom of her fourth-floor room, members of her entourage burst in to find her submerged in her bathtub. Houston was declared dead at age 48. At press time, the cause of death was still undetermined, since toxicology reports haven’t yet been released, but Beverly Hills detectives announced that a small amount of prescription drugs, which reportedly included Xanax, were discovered in her room.

Diligent professional one moment, wild child the next: Those were the opposing sides of Houston in her last days – and, it turns out, much of her life. Blessed with a peerless combination of bravura lung power, model-perfect looks, and an image that was both warm and regal, Houston was that pop rarity: a genuine crossover star, juggling music and film, audiences young and old, black and white. “Because of her cousin Dionne [Warwick], she understood all those pretty-ass melodies from Burt Bacharach,” says Narada Michael Walden, one of Houston’s many producers. “But because she was young and from the era of Michael Jackson, Prince and Madonna, she had soul in her too – those rhythms. She had both sides. Plus, she was so damn gorgeous. You couldn’t say no to her.”

But after she peaked with her 1991 version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” and 1992’s The Bodyguard, her fans watched as, year by year, Houston’s demons were revealed to the world: Her voice grew huskier, her looks hardened. Her records, when they appeared, didn’t sell as well as they once had; her live performances revealed a performer physically and vocally rusty.

People who worked with her still find it hard to comprehend her dark side. “A lot of us talked about that, and no one could come up with an answer,” says Gerry Griffith, the A&R man who brought Houston to Davis’ attention around 1982. “Where is that rebellion coming from? It didn’t come out for a while.” When it did, it came out in force, nearly destroying her personal life, career and music.

From the start, Whitney Houston was a child of both the church and the charts. Her mother, Cissy, was a Newark, New Jersey-born soprano powerhouse who sang backup on classic records by Franklin (“Ain’t No Way,” “Chain of Fools”) and Van Morrison (“Brown Eyed Girl”), and toured with Elvis Presley (when she was a member of the Sweet Inspirations). Her cousin Warwick had crossed over to pop in the Sixties and Seventies with hits like “Walk On By” and “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?” Whitney, born in 1963, inherited her voice from her mother, and her elegant good looks and strong will from her father, John Houston, who worked variously as a truck driver and for the city of Newark, and who would later manage his daughter’s career.

When Whitney was four, her parents moved her and her two brothers to suburban East Orange, New Jersey, where many black families relocated after the Newark riots. Houston was a shy kid; her grade-school principal recalls Houston standing in line, tightly holding her classmates’ hands, her head down. When Houston’s godmother, singer Darlene Love, would stay at the family’s home while on tour, she shared a bed with “Nippy,” as Whitney was called. “I was pregnant at the time and she’d go, What do you want, what do you want?'” Love recalls. “There was a store on the corner where she’d run down the street and buy fruit for me. So charming from Day One.”

By the time Houston started high school at Mount Saint Dominic Academy, an all-girls school in nearby Caldwell, she’d become more popular; it didn’t hurt that the Houstons had one of the few pools in the neighborhood. She blossomed into a lanky, beautiful girl with a wide smile. A local friend, Richard Gregory, took her to her prom, but only after talking her into it – she wasn’t a heavy dater. It was her voice that caught everyone’s attention. Cissy was the musical director of Newark’s New Hope Baptist Church, one of the oldest black churches in the country; Whitney joined the choir when she was 11. “When I used to watch my mother sing in church, that feeling, that soul, that thing – it’s like electricity rolling through you,” Houston told Rolling Stone in 1993. “If you have ever been in a Baptist church, when the Holy Spirit starts to roll and people start to really feel what they’re doing, it’s incredible. That’s what I wanted.”

Houston was exposed to more than gospel. “Cissy brought her to one of my recording sessions,” Franklin recalls of their first meeting. “She was around nine or 10. I think Cissy had instructed her to be very quiet because she didn’t say too much after that. She was just very quiet and very attentive.” By the late Seventies, Cissy’s solo career was in middling shape, and she tried cutting disco records. During a session for disco producer Michael Zager, one of the backup singers called in sick. When Cissy suggested her 14-year-old daughter fill in, Zager thought Cissy was joking. “Nippy” showed up wearing her white-and-blue school uniform and flawlessly sang the parts that Zager taught her. “I almost fell out of my chair,” Zager recalls. Houston was so impressive that Zager gave her a prominent part on his disco hit “Life’s a Party.”

Her few stabs at rebellion amounted to wearing different-colored socks to her Catholic school. When Whitney accompanied her mother to recording studios, Cissy would remind her daughter why they were there. During one session with Zager, Whitney began cracking jokes. “Everyone was laughing,” Zager says. “After an hour, Cissy yelled at Whitney, ‘Get it together and start recording!’ Cissy was all business.”

The Houstons were in no hurry to have Whitney turn pro; Cissy kept her away from a record deal until she finished high school. Still, she began a career as a backup singer on albums like Chaka Khan’s Naughty, and word of her raw, emerging talent spread fast. Houston also began a teen-modeling career, after a rep from an agency spotted her on the street near Carnegie Hall; before long, Houston was posing for photos in bathing suits, preppy pleated skirts, arid ice-skating outfits in magazines like YM and Seventeen.

During now-legendary shows at clubs like Sweetwater’s, Cissy would often give a solo spot to her daughter, who sported a short Afro and would step out on covers of pop hits like Stephanie Mills’ “Home.” Whitney still very much deferred to Cissy, even during these first real moments in the spotlight. As Darlene Love recalls, “It was, ‘OK, now, go on back in the background – this is Mommy’s show. OK, go sit down now. Don’t be trying to take over.'”

Arista A&R man Griffith heard about the younger Houston and made his way to Cissy’s shows. “I had worked with Aretha, Minnie Riperton and Phoebe Snow,” says Griffith. “So to see Whitney incorporate all of what they had at one time just freaked me out. She was a natural. It flowed so easily.”

At Griffith’s urging, his boss, Arista head Clive Davis, went to one of Houston’s Manhattan showcases. “I was stunned when she did ‘The Greatest Love of All,'” says Davis. “It was a song I’d commissioned 10 years earlier for a movie about the life of Muhammad Ali. Signing her was one of those no-brainers.”

“Clive wasn’t jumping crazy like when Marvin Gaye was free and he was calling every five seconds, ‘Have you heard back?'” recalls Roy Lott, one of Davis’ vice presidents. “This was still a new artist.” But Davis was impressed enough to out-maneuver a competing label, Elektra, for her talents.

At the signing day in 1983, Houston, in a Levi’s sweatshirt and jeans, was very much a work in progress. “Just a regular kid,” recalls Lott. “Not squeaky-clean, but a regular kid.” Everyone knew Houston could sing, but expectations were modest for someone so young. Talent agent Ben Bernstein, hired to set up tours and personal appearances for Houston, says everyone would’ve been thrilled to sell a few hundred thousand albums.

Houston already had a father, but in Davis, she found a protective and overly doting show-business father figure. Known equally for his love of an across-the-board pop song and his considerable ego (later, industry execs would joke that Davis thought the CD was named after him), Davis had started as a lawyer for Columbia Records before becoming head of the label in 1967, where he signed Santana, Janis Joplin and many others. After being ousted in 1973, he launched his own company, Arista, in 1975.

The 50-year-old Davis, who was three decades older than Houston, treated his signing like newfound royalty. “He talked about Whitney the way he talked about Janis Joplin,” says former Arista creative-services director Ken Levy. “He was from the world of great singers. He’s enchanted by powerful voices.” From the start, Davis was viewed fondly by Houston and her family; the fact that he’d worked with Warwick and Franklin at Arista played in his favor. They believed in Davis so much that they asked for a rare key-man clause in Whitney’s contract: If Davis left Arista, she could leave as well.

Davis took his time with Houston: Over the course of more than two years, he and his team sifted through material, arranging showcases with her for songwriters and spending close to $400,000 on the album, a huge sum. More than the heads of most labels, Davis approved all the song choices. “Clive would gather material and send her a cassette of songs,” says Lott. “And 95 percent of the time she would say, ‘That sounds great.'” Houston seemed happy to let Davis take control, since she had crossover dreams herself. “She was always looking to impact as many people as possible,” says Lott. “She wanted to be a major artist.” She began wearing wigs onstage and in videos – her choice, according to Lott.

During those early days, Houston enchanted everyone who encountered her. After the L.A. session for “Saving All My Love for You,” “we were all fawning over her,” recalls pianist Robbie Buchanan. “Nathan East, who was playing bass, asked her to marry him. She just blushed.” At the session for “How Will I Know,” producer Walden remembers the skinny Houston walking into a New York studio with Cissy and nailing the vocals. “When it was done, she leaned back in the chair in the control room like an old veteran,” says Walden. “She loved her voice.”

Her debut album, Whitney Houston, released in March 1985, was a textbook crossover success. Arista released “You Give Good Love” to R&B stations. When it caught on, three other singles followed: “Saving All My Love for You,” “How Will I Know” and “The Greatest Love of All.” All hit Number One on the pop charts.”Gospel was the basis of her gift,” Griffith says. “You put pop on top of it, and boom.”

As Houston’s second album got under way, the pressure was on. Houston was developing signs of the forcefulness she’d come to exhibit later. This time, the same musicians who worked on her debut rarely saw her. “She got more assertive,” says keyboardist Preston Glass. “On the first album, she was very gracious and spent time talking with us. On the second album, when she came in to do her vocals, she said, T don’t want anyone around except the producer and engineer.’ Later I’d have to ask Nara-da,’How’d it go?'”

Walden, who did most of the tracks on Whitney, noticed a change in Houston as well. “After a first album, most acts have a sophomore jinx, and I said to her, Are you nervous?'” Walden says. “She said, ‘No. If they loved me the first time, they’ll love me now.’ I was really taken aback by her confidence. But she was right.”

Whitney, released in 1987, repeated the first album’s formula of bouncy pop R&B (“So Emotional,” “I Wanna Dance With Somebody [Who Loves Me]”) and mass-appeal ballads (“Didn’t We Almost Have It All,” “Where Do Broken Hearts Go”) – all four of which went to Number One on the pop charts. Men were attracted to her, and young women related to her mix of heartbreak and empowerment. “I first saw her in the ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody’ video,'” says Christina Aguilera. “I was instantly drawn. She represented a female who was strong and had a strong voice, and that appealed to me as a young girl.” Some of the pressures of being America’s new pop princess began to chafe. Offstage, she would sneak away and smoke cigarettes. And she expressed a desire to branch out musically. “She was smarter than people took her for,” says Steven Saporta, executive producer of some of her early videos. “She wanted to discover her gospel roots early on, and more themed music. At that time, Linda Ronstadt had done a Mexican record, and I remember we talked about it and how interesting it was.”

Some of this filtered up to Davis: “After the second album, she came to me and said, ‘Everyone’s telling me I should write songs. Is this wise?'” he recalls. “She saw that Madonna and Janet Jackson were co-writing. I said, ‘Look, you’re from the tradition of Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Barbra Streisand and Frank Sinatra, whose genius is in their voice and the meaning they find in songs.'”

A turning point seemed to arrive in 1989, when Houston was nominated for Best R&B/Urban Contemporary Single by a Female at that year’s Soul Train Awards. Seated up front, Davis and Houston listened as the announcement of her name was greeted with scattered boos. The two looked at each other with baffled expressions. Crossover success had come at a price: For critics in the African-American community, Houston – or, as some called her, “Whitey Houston” – wasn’t black enough. The criticisms seem silly now, but at the time they stung deeply. “She would look at us and say, ‘What do they mean I’m not black enough? I’ve been in the church my whole life,'” recalls Don Ienner, who had been general manager of Arista. “It was horrible and undeserved. That might have haunted her the rest of her life.”

Houston and Davis sought to make her image and her sound more soulful on her third album, I’m Your Baby Tonight, using producers like LA Reid and Babyface. “We shot the cover under the Brooklyn Bridge with her on a motorcycle,” says Levy. To everyone’s surprise, she even rode the bike around the set of the shoot. “Privately, she was rebellious,” says a source who worked with her at the time. “She was, ‘Oh, yeah? I’m so much cooler than people think.’ But she couldn’t really say that. It used to flip her out when the urban world would get in her face and say she sang like a white girl. The next time I saw her, she started talking a little more street.” That side of Houston became more prominent, thanks to a new man in her life.

The 1989 “Soul Train” Awards shook Houston’s world in another way. That night, Houston met Bobby Brown. Raised in the projects of Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood, Brown, then only 20, was a star himself, having scored hits as a member of New Edition. His multimillion-selling 1988 solo album, Don’t Be Cruel, established him as the king of new-jack swing, and he was a hell-raiser in other ways – he had already fathered three kids with two women.

As Houston later told RS, Brown was initially brusque toward her: “He was hot, he was on fire. I and some friends of mine were sitting behind him. I was hugging them, we were laughing, and I kept hitting Bobby in the back of the head . . . I leaned over and said, ‘Bobby, I’m so sorry.’ And he turned around and looked at me like, “Yeah, well, just don’t let it happen again.’ And I was like, ‘Oooooh, this guy doesn’t like me.’ Well, I always get curious when somebody doesn’t like me.” Eventually, it was Brown who asked Houston out; the two became a couple almost immediately. Houston turned down his first marriage proposal. She told RS, “The first time he asked me to marry him, I said, ‘Forget about it, no way. It’s just not in my plans.’ [But] after a year or so, I fell in love with Bobby.” They married in 1992. To many, the couple were a strange fit. But Houston and Brown, as one of their later duets would say, had something in common: “When you love, you love,” Houston told RS. “You know, Bobby and I basically come from the same place. Bobby comes from Boston, out of the projects. I come from Newark, out of the projects. Bobby has two very strong parents, I have two very strong parents.” She later told Oprah Winfrey they were in “crazy love” at the time and had sex constantly.

Her marriage to Brown worked on other fronts; she’d long been attracted to bad boys, and had briefly dated Eddie Murphy. But rumors swirled that Houston was in a relationship with Robyn Crawford, a female friend from her teen years who worked as Houston’s assistant on the road. Houston denied the rumors to RS: “Our relationship is that we’re friends. We’ve been friends since we were kids. She now is my employee. I’m her employer. And we’re still best of friends. I mean, what kind of a person am I – to be married and to have another life?” Crawford has never addressed the issue (and declined to speak with RS for this article).

Brown was later quoted saying the marriage was “doomed from the very beginning. I think we got married for all the wrong reasons. Now, I realize Whitney had a different agenda than I didI believe her agenda was to clean up her image, while mine was to be loved and have children. The media was accusing her of having a bisexual relationship with her assistant. In Whitney’s situation, the only solution was to get married and have kids. That would kill all speculation, whether it was true or not.” Houston ferociously defended her marriage to the press. “You see somebody, and you deal with their image. It’s part of them, it’s not the whole picture,” she told RS. “I am not always in a sequined gown. I am nobody’s angel. I can get down and dirty. I can get raunchy.” Looking back on that time, Houston later told Winfrey, “[Brown] allowed me to be me.”

Months after her marriage to Brown, Houston made her feature-film debut in The Bodyguard. By then, she’d been signed to Triad, a Hollywood talent agency. Watching the glamour-girl video for “Where Do Broken Hearts Go,” several Arista executives joked, “There’s the screen test.” The moment arrived with The Bodyguard. Houston’s role – a pop star being stalked by a psycho – wasn’t a stretch, and expectations for the film were modest.

At the last minute, co-star Kevin Costner suggested Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” to replace another song planned for the film. During the sessions for the song, producer David Foster saw Cissy Houston nearby: “She had no idea who I was, and she leaned over and said, ‘You’re witnessing greatness right now – I hope you know that.'” During the making of the Bodyguard soundtrack, Houston painstakingly worked on all the vocal parts in “I’m Every Woman” while visibly pregnant. Her daughter with Brown, Bobbi Kristina, was born in March 1993.

Promotion executives at Arista were initially worried that radio stations wouldn’t play a song with a 45-second a cappella intro, but nothing could stop “I Will Always Love You,” a massive hit that helped the soundtrack album sell at one point a million copies a week. By the late Nineties, according to Lott, Arista’s annual gross profit had jumped from $35 million, when Houston was first signed, to $400 million, and Houston’s record sales were largely credited with boosting that number.

After making two more movies – the female-empowerment film Waiting to Exhale and the comedy The Preacher’s Wife – Houston returned to music full-time with 1998’s My Love Is Your Love. By now, rumors that she and Brown were a tempestuous couple were rampant. The album had a tougher lyrical and musical stance, particularly on one of its standouts, “It’s Not Right But It’s Okay,” about marital infidelity.

While working on the album with Houston, Wyclef Jean sensed her growing disenchantment with the expectations placed on her from all sides. “We talked about the church, because that’s where it started,” says Wyclef. “Once you can stand up and rock the church congregation, everything else is easy. But when you’re a church person, people expect you to be a certain way.”

On the day My Love Is Your Love was released, Arista arranged a record-signing session at the Virgin Megastore in New York’s Times Square. Lines began to form around the block. Only one thing was missing: Whitney Houston. After some frantic searching, her handlers finally found her – in the bookstore two levels down, reading a book of dirty sex jokes and letting loose with her full-throated laugh.

Houston began acting out in other, more dramatic ways as word of her turbulent marriage and drug use with Brown made the rounds. On tour to promote the album, in 1999, she canceled five shows – including one in her hometown of Newark, 15 minutes before showtime. With a sold-out arena waiting, promoter John Scher was called backstage by Houston’s father, John, who was then managing her. “He closed the door and looked at me very upset and said, ‘She’s not gonna make it,'” Scher recalls. “He was welling up with tears.” The official reason was throat ailments, although Scher was never told the precise reason for the cancellations. “That was a tough tour,” says Scher. “She had issues, and during that tour they sometimes got the best of her.”

The girl who had once been so prompt to teen-modeling sessions was now showing up for a photo shoot six hours late. In 2000, Houston was fired from a planned Oscars performance after wobbly rehearsals in which she reportedly kept breaking into “The Way We Were” instead of the song the orchestra was playing, “Over the Rainbow.” That same year, she was a no-show at Davis’ induction at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Performing at Michael Jackson’s huge New York concert the following year, she looked distressingly thin.

“We were lacing our marijuana with base,” Houston told Winfrey in 2009. “We were buying kilos and ounces and ounces . . . I didn’t think about the singing part anymore.” Asked if she missed it, she replied, “No.” When Houston opened her mouth to sing, out came a deeper, sometimes hoarser tone that seemed incapable of hitting the once-easy high notes. “The voice is a muscle, and you’re always taught to go to the gym and warm up and stretch first before you lift hundred-pound weights,” says Foster. “She was lifting hundred-pound weights right out of the gate and probably did some damage to her voice.”

Just Whitney . . . , released in 2002, made her sound behind the curve, overtaken by younger R&B acts like Alicia Keys and Destiny’s Child. The album came and went with minimal impact. The most depressing part of its promotion arrived when Houston was interviewed by Diane Sawyer. Asked whether she was doing hard drugs, Houston famously snapped, “First of all, let’s get one thing straight. Crack is cheap. I make too much money to ever smoke crack. Let’s get that straight. OK? We don’t do crack. We don’t do that. Crack is whack.”

Houston’s self-destructive behavior during this time still surprises those who worked with her. “There was zero indication there would ever be a problem,” says Arista’s Lott of her early days with the label. To make matters worse, Houston suffered two significant losses early in the decade: In 2000, Davis was ousted as head of Arista. In 2003, her father died after a battle with heart disease and diabetes; she entered rehab for the first time the following year. “If Clive hadn’t left Arista and John hadn’t passed away, it’s possible things would have turned out differently,” says a source.

For many fans and friends, her wild, disheveled appearances in Brown’s 2005 reality show, Being Bobby Brown, were the dismaying capper. “We all watched that, and we were like, ‘Oh, no,'” says songwriter Diane Warren. For years, Houston kept up a stoic front about Brown. “She was working hard to keep herself together, and I think she felt that if she admitted any feeling of sadness or weakness she would crumble,” Crawford told Esquire in her only public statement on Houston’s death. In 2006, after years of turmoil, Houston and Brown separated, officially divorcing the following year.

In 2007, Davis had risen to a new position overseeing the RCA Music Group, which included Arista, and he began plotting Houston’s comeback by gathering new material. Warren wrote one song, “I Didn’t Know My Own Strength,” expressly for Houston. “She got rid of Bobby Brown, she got help, she was strong,” Warren says. “She was taking on the world again. When she heard it, she was like, ‘You wrote my life story. You really got inside my heart.'” Warren watched Houston summon up her old vocal prowess at the sessions for the song. “Some people were saying, ‘She’s not gonna hit those notes anymore, she doesn’t have it, her voice is damaged,'” Warren says. “But I sat there, and she nailed it.”

I Look to You, the album that would be Houston’s last, wasn’t the triumphant comeback she and the label had hoped. Although it sold an impressive 300,000 copies in its first week, proving the loyalty of her fan base, it didn’t generate any major hits, and newer pop acts like Lady Gaga and even Miley Cyrus far outsold her.

In 2010, Houston launched a comeback tour of Australia, Asia and Europe, her first since 1999. But several shows into the tour, in Brisbane, Australia, she looked and sounded winded, had coughing fits and couldn’t remember the names of her backup musicians. During “I Will Always Love You,” she paused before the song’s climactic power note to take a drink, then finally sang it softly. TV-news cameras caught fans walking out in disgust, and the reviews were brutal.

According to Australian promoter Andrew McManus, Houston and her team made a mistake having her sing and dance along with her dancers. “Whitney tried to dance, but by the third song she was duffed,” McManus says. At a meeting the next day, it was decided that Houston would focus on singing onstage. McManus says Houston wasn’t doing drugs or drinking on the tour, beyond some champagne in her dressing room, and in later shows, Houston did rise to the challenge. “She had lost the top range of her voice, and some of the audiences were not very kind,” says Aretha Franklin. “But night after night, she stood there like a champion and gave her very best.”

After she hit one especially strong note in the last Australian show, in Melbourne, she saucily told the audience, “See, I’m not so bad!” Promoter Scher says there were some “initial conversations” about a U.S. tour, but he never heard anything more. In the spring of 2011, Houston was once again back in rehab for drugs and alcohol.

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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