- Associated Press - Sunday, February 12, 2012

LOS ANGELES — Whitney Houston, who ruled as pop music’s queen until her majestic voice was ravaged by drug use and her regal image was tarnished by erratic behavior and a tumultuous marriage to singer Bobby Brown, died on the eve of the Grammy Awards she once reigned over. She was 48.

Miss. Houston was pronounced dead Saturday afternoon in her room on the fourth floor of the Beverly Hilton, Beverly Hills police Lt. Mark Rosen said. “There were no obvious signs of any criminal intent,” he said.

The cause of death was unknown, said Miss Houston’s publicist, Kristen Foster.

Miss Houston’s death came on the night before music’s biggest showcase, the Grammys. She was to be remembered Sunday in a tribute by Jennifer Hudson, organizers said. Miss Houston had been at rehearsals for the show Thursday, coaching singers Brandy and Monica, according to a person who was at the event but was not authorized to speak publicly about it. The person said Miss Houston looked disheveled, was sweating profusely, and liquor and cigarettes could be smelled on her breath.

At her peak, Miss Houston was the golden girl of the music industry. From the mid-1980s to the late 1990s, she was one of the world’s best-selling artists. She wowed audiences with effortless, powerful and peerless vocals rooted in the black church but made palatable to the masses with a pop sheen.

Her success carried her beyond music to movies, where she starred in hits like “The Bodyguard” and “Waiting to Exhale.”

She had the perfect voice and the perfect image: a gorgeous singer who had sex appeal but was never overtly sexual, who maintained perfect poise.

She influenced a generation of younger singers, from Christina Aguilera to Mariah Carey.

But by the end of her career, Miss Houston became a stunning cautionary tale of the toll of drug use. Her album sales plummeted and the hits stopped coming; her once serene image was shattered by a wild demeanor and bizarre public appearances. She confessed to abusing cocaine, marijuana and pills, and her once pristine voice became raspy and hoarse, unable to hit the high notes as she had during her prime.

“The biggest devil is me. I’m either my best friend or my worst enemy,” Miss Houston told ABC’s Diane Sawyer in an infamous 2002 interview with then-husband Brown by her side.

During her career and personal highs, Miss Houston was using drugs. In an interview with Oprah Winfrey in 2009, blamed her rocky marriage to Mr. Brown, which included a charge of domestic abuse against Mr. Brown in 1993. They divorced in 2007.

Miss Houston would go to rehab twice before she would declare herself drug-free to Miss Winfrey in 2009. But in the interim, there were missed concert dates, a stop at an airport due to drugs, and public meltdowns.

It was a tragic fall for a superstar who was one of the top-selling artists in pop music history, with more than 55 million records sold in the United States alone.

Her longtime mentor, Clive Davis, went ahead with his annual concert Saturday at the same hotel where her body was found. He dedicated the evening to her and asked for a moment of silence. Miss Houston was supposed to appear at the gala.

Aretha Franklin, her godmother, said she was stunned.

“I just can’t talk about it now,” Miss Franklin said in a short statement. “It’s so stunning and unbelievable. I couldn’t believe what I was reading coming across the TV screen.”

Miss Houston seemed to be born into greatness. In addition to being Miss Franklin’s goddaughter, she was the daughter of gospel singer Cissy Houston and the cousin of 1960s pop diva Dionne Warwick.

She first started singing at the New Hope Baptist Church in Newark, N.J., as a child. At the church on Sunday morning, a couple of sympathy cards were tied to a fence post. “To the greatest songstress ever,” one said, and tied next to it was a small bouquet of fresh flowers.

The pastor asked for strength for Miss Houston’s family, said churchgoer Shawn Cooper, 32, of Newark. He said he hadn’t regularly attended church but felt compelled to go on this Sunday.

“The Houston family means a lot to this community, they have done a lot for this community, and being there for them is the best thing we can do as a community,” he said.

Miss Houston made her album debut in 1985 with “Whitney Houston,” which sold millions and spawned hit after hit. “Saving All My Love for You” brought her her first Grammy, for best female pop vocal. “How Will I Know,” “You Give Good Love” and “The Greatest Love of All” also became hit singles.

Another multiplatinum album, “Whitney,” came out in 1987 and included hits like “Where Do Broken Hearts Go” and “I Wanna Dance With Somebody.”

In 1992, she became a star in the acting world with “The Bodyguard.” Despite mixed reviews, the story of a singer (Miss Houston) guarded by a former Secret Service agent (Kevin Costner) was an international success.

It also gave her perhaps her most memorable hit: a searing, stunning rendition of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You,” which sat atop the charts for weeks. It was Grammy’s record of the year and best female pop vocal, and the “Bodyguard” soundtrack was named album of the year.

Her decision not to follow the more soulful inflections of singers like Miss Franklin drew criticism by some who saw her as playing down her black roots to go pop and reach white audiences. The criticism would become a constant refrain through much of her career. She was even booed during the “Soul Train Awards” in 1989.

Some saw her 1992 marriage to Mr. Brown, former New Edition member and soul crooner, as an attempt to respond to those critics. It seemed to be an odd union; she was seen as pop’s pure princess while he had a bad-boy image and already had children of his own. (The couple had one daughter, Bobbi Kristina, born in 1993.) Over the years, he would be arrested several times, on charges including DUI and failure to pay child support.

Mr. Brown was getting ready to perform at a New Edition reunion tour in Southaven, Miss., as news spread about Miss Houston’s death. The group went ahead with its performance, though Mr. Brown appeared overcome with emotion when his voice cracked at the beginning of a ballad and he left the stage.

Before his departure, he told the sell-out crowd: “First of all, I want to tell you that I love you all. Second, I would like to say, I love you, Whitney. The hardest thing for me to do is to come on this stage.”

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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