The room was filled to capacity — full of Soul singers, producers, musicians, writers, the very best of the R&B experience. Where else could you see Faith Evans, Brian McKnight, Keke Wyatt, Kenny Lattimore, Michel’le, Anthony Hamilton, Monifah, Goapele, and Ledisi in the same venue?
I was there — only a few steps from the stage on Thursday, February 09, 2012 — at Kelly Price’s Pre-Grammy Party to hear Whitney Houston’s last song.
Whitney walked in gracefully, attached to daughter Bobbi Kristina, Gary, Pat, and the rest of her entourage. She stood and watched as act after act from the Soul tradition paid homage to the greatest songs and singers. Whitney danced, hugged, and seemed to enjoy a space amongst those whom she’d seen grow up in the industry.
As I watched her embrace honoree Kelly Price off-stage, I thought of our entertainers, our generation’s most impactful, who Whitney helped to mold. Credits began to roll through my mind: Mariah, R. Kelly, Mary J, Brandy, Monica, Aaliyah, Tupac, Faith Evans, TLC, Christina Aguilera, Usher, and the ladies of Destiny’s Child. All of these artists publicly revered her as their inspiration in the entertainment industry.
After Kelly took stage, she spent a few minutes celebrating Whitney saying, “She challenged me to be a better singer. Whitney stopped me in the middle of rehearsals for Heartbreak Hotel … and I never held back again.”
As Kelly continued to sing praises to her idol-sister-friend, Whitney daintily walked up the stairs and stood face to face with her mentee. She gently grabbed the microphone and said, “I love you … I’m so proud of you … my friend.”
I pretended she said the words to me. We all did.
Then, just as we thought she would leave the stage without gracing the room with the sweetness of her voice, Whitney opened up and softly sang a gospel lullaby to Kelly. Whitney’s last song was “Jesus Loves Me,” a poignant final declaration of her love for God.
The entire crowd watched and listened to Whitney’s last song, some with eyes closed — most with tears streaming down.
This was the Whitney Houston I remembered being introduced to before I even had a concept of what an album was. That big, blue Whitney album sat up high atop dad’s old record player. My mom would play “For The Love Of You” and “Where Do Broken Hearts Go” over and over in the late 80s — my very first memories of hearing Whitney’s voice.
It would be many years before I fully understood Whitney’s impact on the music industry. I played those tapes — yes, cassette tapes — over and over again when singles were the hot buy at Sam Goody Record Store. The Bodyguard Soundtrack was the first I’d ever owned.
There were times that I would play “I Have Nothing” on repeat or try to make the piano keys match Whitney’s runs at the end of “Run To You.” She taught me discipline as an artist. This same discipline was evident in every record she recorded. Whitney didn’t give us no mess!
Her voice defined us. It was the indescribable possibility of young Black kids to create art more impactful than anyone could have ever imagined. Her pitch-perfect soprano made our hearts stop and chilled us to the core.
Her voice was the essence of excellence.
Back at Kelly’s Grammy Party, I came across another revelation on Whitney’s voice, and that was her dedication to social issues. I listened to the same voice used to help Nelson Mandela call an end to the apartheid movement.
In 1994, Whitney was present to headline an international campaign which celebrated the release of Mandela and signaled the end of the South African massacre which saw scores of men and women killed in hate. Whitney opened her Concert For A New South Africa with a moving Stevie Wonder cut, “Love’s In Need Of Love Today,” one of the songs Wonder ultimately performed at her funeral.
Her voice was a siren for equality, a beacon for justice, in the same light as Nina Simone, Aretha Franklin, and Marvin Gaye.
She spent countless dollars and lent her artistic space in support of many charities over the years including Children’s Hospital, Save The Music, United Negro College Fund, and her massively affective Whitney Houston Foundation for children.
She gave the world so much more than her symphonious voice — she gave the world color, hope, and life.
Near the end of Whitney’s last song, I marveled as I had forgotten about the pain, the drugs, and the questions about her sexuality, the accusations, the death threats, the stalking, the miscarriages, and the icy cold depression. I forgot how painful it was to be Whitney Houston.
She sang her song, and in some strange way it felt like she was singing her troubles over.
We’d all heard Whitney’s 2009 declaration, “I was not meant to break,” but we got to see the triumph with our own eyes, that night. The Whitney that stood before the packed crowd in Hollywood, less than two days before her untimely death, was vibrant, unequivocally beautiful, and stronger than ever.
She was strong for us.
That night I told Whitney, “I love you … I’ve always loved you,” and in many ways, I spoke for all of us who grew up watching the AT&T Your True Voice commercial. I spoke for those of us who stared wide-eyed at the TV screen to see her pulverize the National Anthem. I spoke for those who would never get the chance to.
Whitney’s last song was more than an ironic happenstance. She sang her last song for Kelly and Faith, Bobbi Kristina, Cissy, her family, colleagues, haters, her fans, and all of the people she’d touched throughout her 48 years.
She sang for me … and that was enough to remember the Whitney Houston that reshaped our culture, our spirits, and our lives.
Her last song was sung with dignity, pride, hope, and above all these things — love.
God bless you, Whitney.