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This story originally appeared in the Feb. 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter.
The sudden death of Whitney Houston sent shockwaves through the industry on the eve of music’s biggest night, the 2012 Grammy Awards. Here, the iconic singer’s friends, colleagues and admirers share their intimate and personal memories of her life.
I know that family — [her cousin] Dionne and I have been close since we started in the industry. I knew her mother, Cissy. I remember the day Dionne told me, ‘Wait till you hear Nippy [Houston’s nickname]!’ It’s part of life, and it’s God’s plan. Her star was so bright. Even though it burned for a short while, boy, did it burn. There will never be another voice like that. Hers was unique to the world.”
“I sat next to Whitney at the BET Awards, and if you ever sat next to her anywhere, you already knew that you were in for a good time. Whenever you saw Whitney, she always hit you with that beautiful smile, that incredible energy and a grandma hug that just shook your body — that real love. Hearing her sing was like listening to magic. Anytime we think of Whitney, we have to remember that positivity. Whenever she performed, she’d give 5,000 percent. She gave love. She was not a hater; she was a congratulator
all the time.”
PHOTOS: Iconic Singer Whitney Houston’s Life and Career in Pictures
“When I first heard ‘I Will Always Love You,’ that was my song. I would create duets between us because I always wanted to sing a duet with Whitney. She’s who I modeled myself after; I always loved her technique. I never had any formal training.”
“I am devastated by the loss of someone who has meant so much to me for so many years. My heart goes out to her daughter, Bobbi Kristina, to her mother, Cissy … to her extended family who loved and cherished her and her spirit. Whitney was a beautiful person and a talent beyond compare. She graced the stage with her regal presence.”
Music supervisor, The Bodyguard
“I had pitched ‘I Will Always Love You,’ and Kevin [Costner] decided that would be the song and brought it to her. I could have easily been forgotten. It was like my second or third film. She thanked me for my ears at the Billboard Awards and at the Grammys. I was shocked. I didn’t even realize what that meant — that’s the kind of person she was. She didn’t want the little people to be forgotten. She truly tried to acknowledge everyone around her. She was a very generous, gifted person who knew she was gifted and knew that she wanted to give her gift back to the world. When she sang, she gave a thousand percent.”
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Director, The Preacher’s Wife
“Last time I saw her was last year. She was trying to get better. We still don’t know everything that happened; I’m not gonna guess about it. I’m just sad. I did Preacher’s Wife, so she got to sing her gospel songs, where she came from. She was great. She was a delight. She was fun to be around.”
Songwriter, “I Will Always Love You”
“I was brought to tears … when Jennifer Hudson sang, ‘I Will Always Love You’ on the Grammys in memory of Whitney. Like everybody else, I am still in shock. But I know that Whitney will live forever in all the great music she left behind. I will always have a very special piece of her in the song we shared together and had the fortune to share with the rest of the world. Rest in peace, Whitney. Again, we will always love you.”
“I’d written ‘I Didn’t Know My Own Strength.’ It’s basically, ‘Survived my darkest hour … I picked myself back up.’ Because she was doing a comeback record, she got divorced from Bobby Brown, and going to kick ass again, like she always did. It was an amazing experience because I was actually in the studio with her. David Foster produced it, and he was kind of afraid: ‘Will she be able to hit those notes after damaging her voice a little bit?’ Being in that room when she wrapped her voice around that song and hit those notes, I was sitting there and crying.”
Director, Waiting to Exhale
“The first day of shooting was only with Whitney, a simple scene where she applied makeup to go out. I proceeded for a whole day to just shoot her eyes, her mouth, her ears, her hand, her smile, her face. … So when studio executives flew in, I was confused and explained that it was the beauty and power of Whitney that would make the film work. I turned on this old song by the Whispers, ‘Chocolate Girl,’ and called action. After looking at Whitney on the monitor, they stepped back. It was impossible not to see her beauty, not to feel her soul.”
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Director, The Bodyguard
‘I Will Always Love You’ was virtually the last thing we shot in the movie. We shot it live in the Fontainebleau hotel ballroom in Miami in April 1992. You hear that song and you hear her as she goes through it — not just demonstrating this amazing vocal talent that she had but just living through emotions that you’ve seen her go through in the movie in the song. And that’s a lasting thing.”
We [Zadan and producer Neil Meron] spent a day with her in Atlanta last year discussing a show for her and it was a great reunion. It was so great to really catch up on everything, because we were able to reminisce about all the things that we went through on Cinderella… I was so touched by how fragile and insecure and sweet and clear she was. It’s the most clear I’d ever seen her. I thought she was completely sober and straight where she was in a very good place and we had a very emotional conversation. The last discussion we had was all about Michael Jackson‘s death. She told me she was very close to him and all about the conversations she with him. She was worried about him rehearsing for the concert tour, about whether or not he was able to get through it. And she described the experiences she had when she went over to his house and what happened when he died, and the aftermath. And we were talking about what a tragedy that was. That’s the last conversation I had with her.
Actress, Waiting to Exhale
I was really looking forward to us working together again this year on the sequel to Exhale. Loretta (Divine) and I had tried to reach out to her and she was excited about seeing us. Then that Monday she checked herself into rehab, so we never connected. It was like, you do some movies and you just work with people. We did a movie and we became friends. I would imagine it’s not easy to have friends or be friends. We did all those things. We did dinners, birthdays, wedding gifts, cards, notes. She cracked me up. She was funny and worldly and knowledgeable when it came to life and men and what that was and what that was about and people. She was just a girlfriend, you know. She had great advice.
Without a doubt, we’ve lost a magnificent talent. She could do a lot of things great. Her movies were very good. The performances that she gave were iconic and mysterious.
Certainly one of the greats — she paved the way for a lot of young girls, Mariah Carey and Christina Aguilera. I remember I was going to drama school when her first video came out and I first heard the voice and then saw the video and thought, ‘Who is that?’ She had such exuberance and joy and just this insane talent and you felt like you were in the beginnings of really recognizing that you were in the presence of someone who was going to have a long career. Maybe she’s up there with Amy Winehouse and some other fine people making some fine music.
Music executive and producer
Whitney Houston was the idol of every young singer and a true role model in a time when hit songs were great melodies and incredible lyrics and not marketing concepts. Think of the simplicity of ‘saving all my love for you.’ This is like the industry loses a child before its time. Christina (Aguilera) must be crushed – Etta James and Whitney Houston were her idols.”
She’s an American icon, an international icon. I heard about it on the ride over here [the Clive Davis pre-Grammy gala], it brought me back to last year at this time; I was so excited to actually get a picture with her. I mean, I grew up listening to The Bodyguard soundtrack. That was my jam. But what’s kind of eerie, is we [Glee] just did “I Will Always Love You,” and I think it’s going to air on Valentine’s day.
It’s definitely a tragic moment. But more than anything we want to celebrate her life and legacy and the happiness that she’s brought to everybody’s life other than the sad party of everything. I think she’s gonna be remembered as an icon, as a legend, as somebody who can never be matched, never be topped, broke the mold. That’s it. Whitney, we love you.
I wrote a song for Whitney Houston on paper, yeah. I got the opportunity to work with her on the last album, but we never got to finish it. My schedule had me all over the place, hers had her all over the place. The memories from that are sitting with her in Atlanta and talking to her about what she wanted me to write about. She said, ‘I want everyone to know that I’m happy. I’ve got my kids, I’ve got my music and I’ve got my God. I’m happy.’ That stuck with me.
President of Worldwide Music at Sony Pictures
We actually were working with Whiney Houston on her movie Sparkle, Spring Aspers, my partner at Sony, and myself. Whitney has a part in that film and performs an on-camera song and she also, just a few days ago, recorded the song for the end title. (chokes up) It’s really incredibly tragic to lose someone at such a young age who had such a huge impact.
Co-star in Cinderella
The loss of an icon and superstar like Whitney Houston is devastating. However, it can’t compare to the loss of a mother, daughter, niece and friend, so my heart goes out to her family, to whom she was so much more.
Billy Ray Cyrus
Whitney Houston was a friend. Her legacy and talent will live on forever. The music that she made has influenced and touched us all.
Foster The People
It’s just really sad. I hate it when artists die when they are too young. She was just too young — 48 is really young. And also kind of watching the progression over the last few years and the struggle she had. It’s a really sad thing to lose a talent like that.
Kings of Leon
With the digital age you hear so many rumors so often that at first it is disbelief and then once you see some reputable sources come out with it, then it just sets in. I got chills when I first heard about it. It’s just, it’s devastating.
Grammy Award winning singer
Every girl, she was an influence on. We all had that brush in the mirror. Every singer pretending like they’re Whitney Houston. She was the voice. She brought so many people together with her voice and with her spirit. She was always upbeat. I’m going to miss her.
I worked with her on three songs on her last album, so I spent a considerable amount of studio time with her. She was first an icon to me and then became a friend, so it’s bittersweet because I love that her music is being celebrated, but of course it’s at the expense of her not being here. It’s heartbreaking, but I am here today [at the Grammys] for the same reason I was here last year. She gave me great advice. She told me to always keep your heart in the music and let everything else take care of itself. The money will come, the business will come, the opportunities will come, if you have your heart in the music and you sing about what you believe in and write what you believe in. It’s absolutely true. I’m here for that reason. She was an advocate for me when no one else really was.
She was so revered, so loved, and so respected for her talent . It’s a shame that her life derailed as it did. That was hard to watch and hard to see. There’s never been a better singer in the whole world. You get into that caliber of someone who can sing like Whitney and there’s just a handful. People like that, they are just anointed. They are blessed. That’s what makes music so great. If everyone were the same, it probably wouldn’t be near as interesting , but when somebody comes along and is gifted beyond measure, like Whitney is and was, it’s so refreshing.
Christian pop singer
She was the greatest musical influence on my life. The first song I ever recorded when I was a young girl and stepped into a studio and stood in front of that huge, intimidating microphone was ‘The Greatest Love of All.’ We’ve talked about how she didn’t just define a generation, she also created an entire new generation of female artists. What other artist can you say has crossed across every line, no matter who you are and no matter where you’re from, you can all remember the first time you heard Whitney Houston sing. It’s a great loss for us here, but a huge gain for heaven. She’s singing her butt off.
Debra Martin Chase
Whitney’s movie producing partner, Cinderella
I have almost twenty years of knowing her… She’s a great woman – she was funny, she was warm and very instinctual. I didn’t even say that much to her that first time but she liked me. She got me. And we were off to the races. And she was very wise. She had seen a lot, met a lot of people. Whitney grew up hanging out with Aretha, Elvis. She saw a lot of life. She was in Detroit for six weeks for Sparkle and she spent a lot of time talking about Michael, Elvis, Aretha, Frank Sinatra. She had met everybody, knew them. Because she was such a unique talent, they embraced and supported her. The thing about Whitney, between the acting and the incomparable voice, she was truly one of the greatest performers and entertainers ever. Her first love was always movies. She saw herself as a singer who became a movie star.
Actor, writer, musician:
Terrible tragedy. But in a way, all the people who respected her are here to honor her [at the Grammys] and I think that’s actually quite nice for her that there’s such a moment to honor her life.
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