You could hear it a few blocks away. A crowd of hundreds softly singing “I Will Always Love You” in unison. They sang as they walked through the streets of Leimert Park in Los Angeles, tears slipping down their faces and candles held in both hands. Many wore T-shirts emblazoned with the face of the woman who had just lost her life. At intersections, pop-up memorials were filled with teddy bears, red roses and framed posters all lit by hundreds of candles.
Whitney Houston was once described as having the voice of God, a voice too great to simply be an angel’s. And just days after her shocking death at only 48 years of age on February 11, 2012, that vigil, one of many around the world, signified the immense reach of her incredible voice. In the crowd, there were children as young as three and women as old as 80, singing her hits and emulating her dance moves, unified in the knowledge that her death was nothing short of tragic.
Houston was found in the bathtub of her Beverly Hills hotel room, her drowning death contributed to by a heart condition and her cocaine use. It was a climactic end to the roller-coaster journey that had become her life. Houston had climbed to the heady heights of global success, something very few achieve. There had been more than 200 million records sold, more consecutive #1 hits than the Beatles, 1.66 million concert tickets snapped up by fans. But in a tragic decline, Houston plummeted to the depths of drug addiction and her life unravelled just as fast as it had ascended.
Born in Newark, New Jersey, on August 9, 1963, Whitney Elizabeth Houston was the third child of entertainment manager John Russell Houston Jr and gospel singer Emily “Cissy” Houston. She was the baby of the family, a self-confessed daddy’s girl called “Nippy” by those closest to her. She was surrounded by music from the moment she took her first breath. “My mother sang constantly to us around the house, in church. I used to watch her and the feeling,” explained Houston.
Her cousins were celebrated soul singers Dionne Warwick and Dee Dee Warwick. Her godmother was the ever-popular songstress Darlene Love. And the great Aretha Franklin was her honorary aunt. Her mother knew early that Houston had a gift and was incredibly strict in training her to become a “professional”. By 11, she was lead soloist in Newark’s New Hope Baptist Church junior gospel choir and a talented pianist. While in high school, she sang in her first studio session, performing backing vocals for music heavyweight Chaka Khan. “People were interested in me from the time I was 15,” Houston told Rolling Stone in 1993. “It was kinda like they were just waiting for me to grow up. Everybody put their bids in.”
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