Magazine | March 5, 2012, Issue

The Gospel Singer’s Daughter

(Frank Micelotta/Picture Group/AP)

Whitney Houston died before her time, and more to the point, from the perspective of her mentor, Clive Davis, before his time — the glittering Saturday-night pre–Grammy Awards bash thrown by the music mogul that’s become an annual triple-A-list event for what’s left of the pop biz. The fallen diva apparently drowned in her bath on the fourth floor of the Beverly Hilton a couple of hours before guests were due to arrive at the hotel for Mr. Davis’s party. What to do?

It was decided to proceed. Because of the circumstances of Miss Houston’s demise, the LAPD declined to remove her body, leaving it in situ and sealing the death scene with yellow tape. And so, after a moment of silence, Britney Spears and Quincy Jones and Kim Kardashian and Dr. Dre ate and drank and sang and rocked out “with Whitney Houston tragically passed away just a few floors above,” as Media Bistro tactfully put it. Downstairs, the celebrities tragically partied, a difficult balancing act. Diana Ross and Berry Gordy capered for the cameras, and then remembered they weren’t meant to be having that good a time. The Los Angeles County coroner arrived to examine the body as Elvis Costello and the Kinks’ Ray Davies took to the stage for a rockin’ good set. Toward the end of the party, the corpse was removed — discreetly, one trusts, as it would have been unfortunate if the coroner’s men had crossed the lobby with the body bag while Alicia Keys and Mary J. Blige were giving pre-Grammy interviews to Entertainment Tonight.

“It’s appropriate,” the producer Jimmy Jam said. “The show must go on. I think Whitney would have wanted that to happen.” Well, she was upstairs dead on the bathroom floor, so we’ll never know. But the show-must-go-on saw gave the game away: Officially, this wasn’t a show but a party. Except that, like many such “parties” in Beverly Hills, it was a corporate event masquerading as a social occasion. Strictly business, like a mob wedding with a body in the trunk. If anyone at the news networks thought the scene macabre, he preferred not to say. CNN was particularly respectful to the showbiz muscle, perhaps because their former comrade Larry King had made the cut and one day they might, too — although Larry was sufficiently old-showbiz to tell reporters the whole thing should have been canceled.

Still, the opening act, Tony Bennett, paid tribute to Miss Houston by calling her “the greatest singer I’ve ever heard in my life” — which, by happy coincidence, is exactly what he said about the late Amy Winehouse six months ago. If memory serves, he also said it of Judy Garland and Billie Holiday. It’s actually quite hard to find a prematurely deceased chanteuse he hasn’t said it about, but at least with the Misses Garland and Holiday he had a passing acquaintance with their oeuvre. Back in the Sixties, when Columbia leaned on him to do an album called “Tony Sings the Great Hits of Today,” Bennett was so disgusted with himself for doing a lot of lame soft-rock covers that he was physically sick before the session: Tony Bennett pukes the great songs of today. I doubt his reaction to the average Whitney Houston CD would be very different. But he has a cheery, portable generosity in his dotage, not unlike his paint-by-numbers chemistry-free-zone celeb-duets album, which picked up a couple of Grammys the night after the big party:

“. . . that’s why the lady is a tramp! Yeah, thank you, Mariah Carey! You’re the best!”

#page# “Er, I’m Lady Gaga.”

“Whatever. Next!”

Bennett’s duet with Amy Winehouse was supposed to be the big death moment at the Grammys, but Miss Houston complicated matters. Just before they went on air, an Academy official addressed the audience and, while acknowledging the tragic circumstances, cautioned that they didn’t want to “overdo” it.

No danger of that. Halfway through the show, Nicki Minaj, who is some sort of pop star, performed a musical exorcism on a mock cathedral set, complete with a guy dressed like the pope, dancing monks, and a choirboy kneeling to pray between the spread legs of an undergarbed chorine. In a show that began with a prayer for the latest dear dead departed casualty of celebrity excess, one or two of the assembled artists might perhaps have wondered whether such cobwebbed conveyor-belt transgressiveness struck quite the right note. But none felt strongly enough to object. Sad about Whitney, but we don’t want to overdo it.

I met Miss Houston once, over 20 years ago, just for seven minutes or so. I was a dork, and she was beautiful, if even then somewhat overwrought. I wouldn’t mention it, except that Fox News was reduced to interviewing a “showbiz blogger” or some such whose claim to authority was that he’d once been in an elevator with Whitney. I make no claim to intimacy, but I’m mindful that underneath even the most drug-rotted caricature of celebrity is someone real. My friend Don Black, who wrote Michael Jackson’s first solo No. 1 hit, “Ben,” remembers “Wacko Jacko” as a shy boy who used to come over and play snooker with his sons and do charming amateur paintings with his wife Shirley.

And so it was with Whitney Houston. Before she was the fourth-floor ghost at Clive Davis’s feast, she was the daughter of a gospel singer who grew up singing in church. Had she remained a church singer, she would be alive today. Something for Nicki Minaj and the prancing monks to ponder. But I don’t expect they will.

– Mr. Steyn blogs at SteynOnline (www.steynonline.com).

Mark Steyn — Mark Steyn is an international bestselling author, a Top 41 recording artist, and a leading Canadian human-rights activist.

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