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 3: Bloodlines, Elvis, and Her Eternal Fan.
In my life, it was not that I said, “Well, I’m gonna entertain” [or] “I want to be an entertainer.” It’s in my bloodline; I can’t help it. It is something that God said: “This is what you do.” It’s in me.
The first time I heard Whitney sing, I was riding in a cab. It was one of those experiences where you hear a song more or less in the background, but it grabs you and leaves you speechless. Don’t you have a certain song that always brings back a very specific memory? I can still smell that old cab I was riding in and hear this nameless voice soaring smooth and effortless over the cheap car radio. I waited for the DJ to name the singer, but he didn’t.
“Who was that?” I yelled. I was talking to myself, but I’m sure the cab driver was surprised at my passion. I had to know!
The singer had that special something that few singers ever tap into. I heard the distinction immediately. It’s what made me push. Pause on my day and take note. Though I was frustrated to step out of that cab without knowing that singer’s name, eventually providence would have its way, and I would receive the blessing of being introduced to the owner of that stunning voice.
That blessing materialized in 1985 when my brothers Marvin and Ronald attended a Jeffrey Osborne concert with me on a beautiful summer evening in Detroit. A tall, skinny, poofy-haired girl opened the evening and stole the show—no disrespect to Jeffrey. That night I was able to put the voice with a face.
I grew up in the church, singing gospel before I could say my ABCs. I was weaned on the great “soul” that accompanies gospel music. So, when I was finally introduced to this skinny girl with the big voice, I had one question to ask her: “I don’t want to hear your nickname or anything else about you. I just want to know what church you’re from. Because when I hear you sing, I know you have to come from someone’s church. So, which one?”
And thus marks the moment when I saw that famous Whitney smile—the one that started at her left ear and attached to her right. The one that said, “I got you,” while at the same time saying, “Let’s paint this town with song.”
“New Hope Baptist,” she replied, beaming. I would later find out that New Hope was the church she grew up in—the site of her first public solo as a young girl.
All I knew that night was that she came from a church. A voice like hers had to have been molded by the halls of worship.
Sure enough, she hailed from East Orange, a suburb of Newark. (Her parents moved the family out of Newark after the riots, when Whitney was four years old. Her church was located in the heart of Newark. So she was a Jersey church girl. That said it all to me.)
Eternally and instantly, I was a fan—all of the Winans were. And it turns out she was a fan of ours as well. That night she had sung my brothers’ song “Tomorrow” in her set. I had no idea she knew my family, but she told us that she listened to our music every day.
From that time on, we weren’t just friends, we were family. And even then, she loved having us around—being together, talking, acting crazy. But it was a good crazy. Not the crazy you get when fame slams into you like a wrecking ball. In some ways she was an enigma to me: the so-fun-and-crazy Whitney—and then she’d sing. From that crazy girl rose this voice.
It was the stop-you-in-your-tracks voice I heard that day in the cab. I had a hunch that the mystery of Whitney that drew me and my family to her would blossom into something great. Many people had that same hunch. But did we ever think that blossom would later become something so delicate and rare?
If anyone was born to sing, it was Whitney. Some people may call it dumb luck—I call it God. Whatever you want to call it, this much I know: God placed Whitney into a musical family, a legendary one. Her mom, Cissy, possessed a powerful voice in her own right and formed the Drinkard Singers, a gospel group in which her sister, Lee Drinkard, sang as well.
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