Annette John-Hall: Saying farewell to a legendary artist

After an emotional week that felt more like a year to me, Whitney Houston will be laid to rest Saturday.

Her private funeral, which will be televised and streamed live online, is set for New Hope Baptist Church in Newark, N.J., the church where she came of age polishing her glorious instrument, that multi-octave marvel critics simply referred to as "the Voice."

Even now, I can't shake my inexplicable sadness over why the legendary artist had to go so soon, at age 48.

This one hit hard, even harder than Michael Jackson's death. Which is odd, because if we're just talking music, MJ's work resonated much more for me than did Whitney's.

Don't get me wrong. No diva worth her six-inch stilettos could match Whitney, before or since. That voice, at once gospel thunder and crystal bell, could move audiences to tears, not to mention mid-song standing ovations. Her soaring 1991 rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner" still gives me chills.

Gov. Christie is right to honor Whitney by having state flags flown at half-staff Saturday. To me, she's more than deserving.

 

Musical connection

Despite Whitney's immense talent and crossover appeal, Jackson's music touched me more - "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough," "Billie Jean," "Remember the Time." Pop classics for sure, but with an unmistakable R&B groove. Those hits rendered Whitney's saccharine by comparison.

But not too many folks could connect to Jackson personally. He wouldn't allow it. The surgeries, the young boys, the overall freak show. It was as if we were voyeurs to his escape from reality.

Whitney, at her core, was just Nippy (her family nickname), an around-the-way girl. Her mom was Cissy Houston from the sassy '60's girl group the Sweet Inspirations. Her cousin was Dionne Warwick. "Aunt Ree," Aretha Franklin, was her godmother. I mean, you knew these women.

And Whitney felt like a member of our family, even as she self-destructed.

While we helplessly watched Jackson's demise, we rooted for Whitney to overcome the lethal combination of fame, rebellion, and addiction that eventually robbed her of her voice and plagued her personal life.

 

Not the only "nut"

Whitney and I sat down for an interview while she was promoting her third film, The Preacher's Wife, in 1996. She was pregnant (she miscarried) and hoping for a little brother for then-3-year-old Bobbi Kristina. We discovered our daughters were the same age, and she asked to see a picture of mine.

Dressed in minimalist black and wearing an ice cube of a wedding ring, she seemed focused and relaxed but already was getting a rep-by-association because of husband Bobby Brown, whose messes she was constantly cleaning up. Sure, he got a lot of the blame, but Whitney would admit later that he wasn't the only "nut."

At the time, she was hoping for the best. She said her marriage had endured some rocky spots but "all's well with my soul, my husband's and my child's."

If only it could have lasted.

By 2005, we were turning up our noses at Being Bobby Brown, the train wreck of a reality show that exposed the family dysfunction for the world to see.

I wrote then that the battling Browns (they divorced in '07) lived "a grimy, aimless life. . . . Mostly what you feel for them is sadness, especially for 12-year-old Bobbi Kristina, who is an afterthought."

So it did my heart good to see mother and daughter photographed together holding hands in L.A. during the last week of Whitney's life. If nothing else, it appeared she had gotten her relationship right with the person she loved most.

On Feb. 9, Whitney and Bobbi Kristina attended a pre-Grammy party thrown by R&B songstress Kelly Price. Whitney joined Price onstage and the two sang, almost prophetically, "Yes, Jesus Loves Me."

At least, Whitney tried to. Her voice raspy and cracking, it brought me to tears, but not in the way I was accustomed to.

Afterward, Price said to her longtime friend and pop's greatest princess: "You are a class act. You are an icon."

No one can argue with that. And it gives me solace to know that her fitful spirit will finally be in perfect peace.

 


Contact Annette John-Hall at 215-854-4986 or Ajohnhall@phillynews.com, or on Twitter at Annettejh.