I met Whitney Houston in 1996 at a press junket for The Preacher’s Wife. She would later admit that she was doing drugs on a daily basis by that point in time. She must not have gotten started that day; I found her lucid and engaging. She was sitting at a different table when the lead actor, Denzel Washington, made a joke about giving her singing lessons on the set. On cue, she turned around and gave him a quizzical look. Of course, I didn’t know about her drug habit, so I wasn’t looking for telltale signs. I was instead looking for signs of runaway ego, because I’d heard she was a bit of a diva. I didn’t find much; she occasionally delivered opinions in a tone that indicated that she didn’t expect any disagreement, but that was it. She lit up when I told her I was from the Phoenix area, because she had just starred in Waiting to Exhale, which was set in Phoenix.
In the ensuing years, her substance abuse problems became embarrassingly public, so it wasn’t really a surprise to find that Whitney Houston passed away earlier this evening. As of this posting, the cause of death is still unknown, and we’ll find out later whether her drug use was a factor. She hadn’t been musically relevant in a decade, and her last album found her voice in tatters. It’s hard to remember now how much she ruled over show business in the late 1980s and early ’90s. Her musical talent came allied to matinee-idol looks that made her the star of several movies. Cheesy though The Bodyguard was, it was a breakthrough for featuring an African-American lead actress opposite a white male romantic lead. She’d sometimes coast on that voice’s nuclear capability (most notably in her cover of “I Will Always Love You”), but when she was on, it was a force of nature. She and her voice are gone from us too soon, but for now, let’s remember her at her best, in this 1985 performance on Late Night With David Letterman.