A Legend's Final Days
An upcoming movie, a shot at being on "The X Factor" and hopes for a comeback (this time, a real one): Friends and colleagues open up about the troubled life and career of perhaps the greatest female singer of all time in the wake of her untimely death.
At about 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 7, Whitney Houston went to a recording session with producer Harvey Mason Jr. at his studio in North Hollywood and laid down what would be the last track of her career.
The song, R. Kelly's "Celebrate," is a duet with Jordin Sparks, her co-star in Sparkle, that will play during the end credits of the movie, set for release in August. (American Idol sixth-season winner Sparks, who had completed her part of the song a few months earlier while the movie was filming in Detroit, was not present.)
Houston was in good spirits that day. "She was always a sweetheart to me at least, and we always get along great," says Mason, slipping into the present tense. "Actually, we sometimes argue in the studio, but we always have a good time. She was the same as she always is. She's fun-loving; we laughed a lot. We listened to a lot of music. We talked about other singers and songs."
Houston, who would be found dead four days later in the bathtub of her suite at the Beverly Hilton in Beverly Hills, was not just excited about Sparkle; she had launched herself into consideration for being a judge on The X Factor next season. Given that and other possible projects she had in the works, some have suggested that Houston, at 48, might have been poised for a real comeback after years of drug abuse, a rocky marriage to singer Bobby Brown and faltering performances. Houston wasn't prepared to relinquish her stardom, and she also may have had practical reasons for attempting to resuscitate her career: There have been media reports -- denied by Houston's spokesperson -- that despite winning six Grammys and selling 42.7 million albums, singles and digital tracks since Nielsen SoundScan began keeping records in 1991, the singer was under financial strain.
Whatever impelled her, a top music-industry executive isn't so sure that Houston could have transcended her troubles. "The problem was, she never really got her performing abilities back," he says. "There was no huge comeback. She was rolling along, recording with big-name producers, doing live dates. But no one ever thought she could sing like she used to because no one believed she was ever sober."
For Sparkle, Houston had recorded just one solo song, "His Eye Is on the Sparrow," while filming was under way in Detroit. When it came to recording the duet more recently, Mason is reserved when discussing the quality of Houston's voice. "Certain days are better than others," he says. "That's typical of all singers. On Tuesday, it was pretty good. ... We finished the song, and we were dancing around the booth and laughing and just having a good time listening to what we had accomplished. Her demeanor the last two weeks was very upbeat."
By the afternoon of Feb. 9, two days later, however, there were alarming signs that all was not well with Houston. Poised to remind the world of her greatness at the Grammy Awards, she attended rehearsals that afternoon and danced just off-camera as reporters interviewed R&B singers Brandy and Monica and Houston's longtime mentor, Clive Davis. The Los Angeles Times reported that her demeanor was such that Grammy personnel were concerned that Houston's antics would be filmed and attract negative publicity. At times during her stay at the Beverly Hilton, Houston was seen disheveled, appearing in mismatched clothes and with dripping-wet hair; in one instance, she did handstands near the pool.
Later that day, things started off well at singer Kelly Price's pre-Grammy party at Tru Hollywood. R&B singer Kenny Lattimore says that Houston looked healthy and "absolutely gorgeous with her black dress on." She spent at least three hours at the event, mixing it up with old friends and briefly joining Price onstage to serenade her with a few lines from the song "Jesus Loves Me."
"She sang to Kelly, and it really felt like we were watching a private moment," says Lattimore. "She came up and looked at Kelly and sang, 'Yes, Jesus loves me for the Bible tells me so.' People went crazy."
But Houston also was seen yelling at an assistant and, according to an eyewitness, she later got into a nearly physical altercation with X Factor finalist Stacy Francis, apparently because Houston felt "crowded out" in a conversation with R&B singer Ray J, her friend and sometime boyfriend. "Whitney just got belligerent," the source tells THR. (Francis declined comment, other than to express her respect for Houston.)
On Feb. 10, when contacted by THR about the X Factor opportunity, Houston's publicist claimed the singer was at a spa. The next day, at about 3:30 p.m. on Feb. 11, hours before Houston was supposed to attend Davis' annual pre-Grammy party and accompany her mentor on the red carpet, a member of Houston's personal staff found the star "underwater and apparently unconscious" in the bathtub of her hotel suite, according to the Beverly Hills Police Department. She was pronounced dead on the scene at about 4 p.m. Houston's daughter, Bobbi Kristina, 18, was taken to nearby Cedars-Sinai hospital twice over the weekend after the grim discovery. She was said to be exhausted and inconsolable.
Police have declined to confirm reports that investigators recovered bottles of prescription drugs from the hotel suite and will release no further information about the investigation until the Los Angeles County coroner's office completes its report. An autopsy was conducted Feb. 12, but the official cause of death won't be known until toxicology tests are completed, which could take weeks. A funeral is scheduled for Feb. 18 at New Hope Baptist Church in Houston's hometown of Newark, N.J.
It is unclear whether Sony will move up the release date of Sparkle, but clearly the studio, which had been planning to target black audiences, now hopes the film will play more broadly. And Sony, having successfully released Michael Jackson's posthumous documentary concert film This Is It, would be within its rights to portray the movie as Houston's passion project. It was to be her first big-screen role since she starred in The Preacher's Wife in 1996.
Debra Martin Chase, Houston's producing partner during the mid-'90s, says Houston loved movies. Her biggest hit, The Bodyguard, grossed $441 million worldwide in 1991, and she had long wanted to remake the original Sparkle, which starred Irene Cara in 1976. The story follows three sisters who form a singing group that frays when one gets involved with drugs and another succeeds on her own. Houston's godmother, Aretha Franklin, had recorded the songs that Curtis Mayfield wrote for the movie.
Several years ago, Houston pitched the idea of a remake at Warner Bros. Then, in 2009, Sony acquired rights from Warners. Sony brought in Bishop T.D. Jakes (Jumping the Broom), the pastor of a Texas megachurch with a large black following, as an executive producer.
Houston plays the mother of the sisters, a former R&B singer who turned her back on show business because she came to disapprove of the lifestyle and embraced faith instead. Chase says she "never had more fun" with Houston than during the shoot: "She loved the movie. She loved the cast."
Jakes, who had never met Houston, found that she "did not behave the way you would think someone at that level and notoriety would act. She was very approachable, down-to-earth. The cast got along very well with her."
A talent representative with a client on the project confirms that Houston was prompt and professional. She didn't even demand her own hair and makeup person. But this source says there were signs that Houston had been drinking during off hours; on occasion she was "shaky" and had to be "a little propped up sometimes." Houston seemed to be fighting the same demons that had derailed some of Hollywood's brightest stars, this person says. "She would sing really loud spiritual music when she was in her dressing room."
The Friday before Houston's death, Sparkle director Salim Akil screened a rough cut of the film for about 30 guests. Houston wasn't there, but a source with ties to the project says her performance was "fantastic and funny and real and warm and empathetic."
As for Mason, his hope is that the duet that he recorded with Houston will send the perfect final message as it rolls over the end credits of the film. "I want people to realize that what she cared about was making great music and she loved her fans," he says. "She was like, 'I've got to do something better, this has got to be better than this. I've got to make something that these people love. I can't disappoint the people who buy my music.' She had so much passion and energy and love for what she did. Everybody sees the tabloids and you see different stories about this and that. I really don't know about that side of her. I just know that she did things a hundred percent."
With reporting by Shirley Halperin, Borys Kit and Daniel Miller.