In the new book The Whitney I Knew gospel singer BeBe Winans tells the story of his friendship with Whitney Houston. The book arrived just before the release of Houston's final movie, Sparkle, which opens this Friday in theaters.
The following excerpt comes from Chapter 1: Our Black Princess.
Whitney was Whitney. And that’s why we all loved her. She
brought herself into everything she did. She made the fairy-tale land
her own. She brought that sparkle to Cinderella (and would later do so as Jordin Sparks’ mother in her final movie, Sparkle), and my daughter dove into it head first.
When I run into people in my community, they ask how the family is doing and they say how sorry they are for the loss of my friend. And nearly everyone says, “I loved Whitney.” There was universal upheaval when she died on February 11, 2012. I think people feel as if their Fairy Godmother—or maybe more so, Sleeping Beauty—has fallen asleep but isn’t waking up.
I remember Oprah’s interview with Whitney a few years ago. Whitney’s involvement with “the princess movie,” Cinderella, prompted Oprah to call her “our black princess.” I would agree. I think she was
that for anyone who heard her sing. She was that for my daughter.
But eventually we all grow up and the fairy tales we love to act out in our pretend worlds lose their luster.
My daughter is sixteen now. She just attended her first prom. She dressed up in her pretty dress and walked out the door, her best version of Princess Whitney. But the fairy-tale world has changed now. It changed the day I received a phone call while at dinner with my son, Benjamin.
My phone started going crazy. It was my cousin Cindy.
“Have you heard what’s being reported?” she asked.
Cindy told me what she knew. I hit “End” on my iPhone with a trembling finger.
I tried to call Pat, Whitney’s sister-in-law, but as I was dialing, my mom’s number showed up.
“Have you heard?” she asked.
“I’m going to call Pat to find out . . .”
“Oh, BeBe. CeCe and I just hung up with Pat. It’s all true.”
Everything changed with just the flash of a phone screen.
It changed when Benjamin and I drove to my daughter’s work and told her that Whitney had died.
It changed when we cried together.
It changed when I realized my kids were more concerned about me than their own hurt.
Even now, I look at my phone, thinking she’ll call. But she doesn’t.
If you can, lean in and listen to that voice—the one that sang the National Anthem, the voice that drew us into The Bodyguard. Imagine that voice in the form of a phone call. Can you hear it?
“Hello-o, my bro-tha,” she would sing as I answered. Up and down the scale she’d soar—her typical phone greeting to me. We sang our hellos.
“Hello, my bro-tha. Whatcha doin’ today? Mmmhmmm.”
And of course, I would respond in kind. “Whatcha’ doin’, my sister! Can you get together sometime? Ohh-ohh, mmmhmmm.”
We’d perform our conversational opera, she and I. Can you hear it? Not just a voice, but a person behind the voice. The playful sister always wanting to sing, even on the phone.
That same playful girl and I were planning my fiftieth birthday party. Hers would follow the next year. We’d talk about what we’d do for the party and who I’d invite. And now, when I think about that birthday, I only hear an echo of our discussions. It’s a heavy echo. And I find myself singing back to it the same way I’d sing to her phone calls. But the echo fades and only my voice skims the empty hallway.
She’s gone. And I miss her.
“She had everything: beauty, a magnificent voice.
How sad her gifts could not bring her the
same happiness they brought us.” - Barbra Streisand
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