LOS ANGELES Amid intense scrutiny, pop diva Whitney Houston struggled but persevered through a 20-minute medley of six of her hits, at Arista Records' 25th anniversary concert here Monday night.
Clad in a long, champagne-colored dress, the singer smiled and seemed surprisingly carefree as she delivered renditions of such tunes as "How Will I Know" and "My Love Is Your Love" (RealAudio excerpt) at the Shrine Auditorium the same building where, two weeks earlier, she canceled an appearance at the Academy Awards, citing throat problems.
(For more about the concert and other performers, click here).
Houston's health and career status have been the subject of much speculation, following a string of no-shows (which her representatives have blamed on throat problems), a disturbing interview with Jane magazine and reports that in January she walked away from security officers at a Hawaii airport after they seized a bag allegedly containing half an ounce of marijuana.
The 36-year-old star held a handkerchief throughout her performance, occasionally using it to dab sweat from her face and chest. At times she noticeably struggled with her voice, opting to speak-sing some lyrics and stopping just before the climax of her 1992 megahit "I Will Always Love You," to request that her husband, R&B singer Bobby Brown, bring her a glass of water.
Brown quickly obliged his wife, walking onstage to hand her a glass, dab sweat from her face and kiss her on her lips. Houston then proceeded to belt out the final chorus of the song.
Brown rejoined Houston during the medley's final tune, "My Love Is Your Love," as did singers Deborah Cox, Monica, Angie Stone and Faith Evans.
"The record's not over yet, remember," Houston said cryptically before leaving the stage. "God bless you. I love you."
Waiting To Exhale
"The tension was pretty thick in there," one attendee, 26-year-old Latiah Janise Warren, said after the show. "Everyone was just waiting. She kept you on the edge of your seat, and there were [moments] when you thought it could go real wrong, real fast, but she pulled it off. God bless her."
The performance began and ended with standing ovations from a crowd that included many of Houston's label mates, including veteran rockers Carlos Santana and Patti Smith and singer/songwriter Sarah McLachlan, and Arista chief Clive Davis, whom the event was a tribute to.
Backstage, Davis who discovered and signed Houston to Arista when she was 19 deflected a question about a report in Newsweek that he had approached Houston's family to do a drug intervention. "She and I have a professional relationship," Davis said. "She made everyone's jaw drop at rehearsals yesterday. ... I think when you see her tonight, you'll see an artist at the top of her form."
In March, Houston was scheduled to help induct Davis into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame but bowed out, citing throat problems. That cancellation and her absence at the Oscars three weeks later compounded speculation that began in January, when security officers in Hawaii said they found marijuana in Houston's bag. The star left the airport before police arrived and has not been charged on any counts.
Houston Has No Problem, Says Cousin
On Monday, both Dionne Warwick, who is Houston's cousin, and Cox said the press had stirred unfounded rumors. "That's the way it is when you guys don't know something, you make it up," Warwick said backstage. She denied a report, in the current issue of People magazine, that she and Natalie Cole planned to talk to Houston about her alleged drug problem.
"I read it like you did; I don't know where that came from," Warwick said. "There's no need for intervention."
Warwick said Houston "looks fabulous, and I'm certain she's going to sound fabulous."
Cox, who recently recorded a duet with Houston titled "Same Script, Different Cast," slated to appear on Houston's greatest-hits album as well as Cox's third LP, said the singer has fallen victim to "a lot of rumors and a lot of fragmented information."
"Instead of badgering and making up stories, we should be supportive of her condition," said Cox, claiming to be referring to Houston's throat problems.
Montell Jordan, who produced Houston and Cox's collaboration, said Houston is a "wonderful person who has the same difficulties that people with normal lives have, except that we don't have microscopes following us around all day."
Enjoying The Festivities
Houston sat in the audience between Brown and Davis and sang along as pop singer/songwriter Barry Manilow performed "I Write the Songs." She and Brown later jumped up to dance during multiple Grammy winner Santana's performance, a medley that included "(Da Le) Yaleo," "Maria Maria" (with the Product G&B) and "Smooth."
During her own performance, she was backed by a seven-piece band, 14-piece string section and four background singers. "We all need to exhale sometimes," she said before singing "Exhale (Shoop Shoop)."
Rocker Melissa Etheridge, who appeared at the ceremony even though Davis had passed over her demo tape in the '80s, said she hoped Houston would "find her own truth" as she "comes in here to be an entertainer and do her job."
The show, which also featured performances by Cox, McLachlan, Smith, R&B star Toni Braxton, and boy group LFO, is scheduled to air May 15 on NBC.