Industry Remembers Pop Icon Whitney Houston

The talented but troubled singer was found unresponsive at a Los Angeles hotel on the eve of the Grammys. Debra Lee of Black Entertainment Television and music critic Steven Ivory join host Michel Martin to discuss Whitney Houston's life and legacy.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Coming up: a diva finally gets her due. We talk about singer Diana Ross, who was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Grammys yesterday. We'll talk more about that in just a minute. But as most people now know, Sunday's Grammys were sadly somewhat overshadowed by the sudden death of superstar Whitney Houston. She was just 48 years old.

Here's host LL Cool J offering a prayer for Houston at the start of last night's ceremony.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE 2012 GRAMMY AWARDS")

LL COOL J: Heavenly Father, we thank you for sharing our sister, Whitney, with us. Today, our thoughts are with her mother, her daughter and all of her loved ones. And although she is gone too soon, we remain truly blessed to have been touched by her beautiful spirit and to have her lasting legacy of music to cherish and share forever. Amen.

MARTIN: We wanted to talk more about Whitney Houston's life and legacy, so we've called longtime culture critic and music journalist Steven Ivory. We also hope to have with us Debra Lee, the chairman and CEO of BET Networks. The BET honored Whitney Houston just two years ago.

Steven Ivory, thanks so much for joining us.

STEVEN IVORY: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: It's a very difficult period, and many people are very shocked and upset by this, as I know you are, as well. But I'd like to ask you to focus on what made Whitney Houston so special as an artist.

IVORY: What made Whitney Houston special was the fact that she was one of the few vocalists who could go effortlessly, seamlessly between R&B and pop and jazz. She could actually sing jazz. People didn't hear her sing a lot of it, but she could sing jazz.

But this was a woman whose godmother was Aretha Franklin, who was - is the embodiment of soul vocalizing, and her cousin, Dionne Warwick, spent all of those years making great modern pop records with Burt Bacharach. All of that has to, you know, be influential to this woman at some point. But it was her instincts as a vocalist that made her just above par.

MARTIN: Debra Lee is now with us. She is the chair and CEO of BET Networks. The BET is hosting the BET Honors tonight, and Whitney Houston was honored by your organization in 2010, Debra Lee. Tell us a little bit more about why you chose to recognize her in that way, and what made her so special as an artist in your view.

DEBRA LEE: Oh, well, hi, Michel. You know, Whitney was such a great talent, and she had always been a great friend of BET. We were instrumental in breaking her, you know, when her career first started. We honored her with our second Walk of Fame many years ago. She got the Lifetime Achievement at our first BET awards. And, as you said, in 2010, we honored her at BET Honors.

And it was such a great way to recognize her long career, her talent, everything she gave us. I mean, she really was the voice of our generation, and she was such a great person, so giving.

We aired the 2010 Honors yesterday, and just seeing her reaction to Kim Burrell and Jennifer Hudson, who both paid tribute to her that night, and it was one of the first times people had seen Whitney in a couple of years. So everyone was rooting for her. You know, she had numerous comebacks.

I went to her album release party several years ago with her last album. And every year, we looked forward to seeing her at Clive Davis' party. And to be there this year knowing that she had passed away was just so surreal and so sad. But I'm glad the tribute last night on the Grammys was terrific. LL saying the prayer for her was really touching. And, you know, she will be missed.

MARTIN: Well, I wanted to ask more about that, because we asked - we reached out on, of course, Twitter and Facebook and asked our listeners to comment on what it is about her that made her special to them. I just want to read one of them. Trevor Fanning(ph) said: For me, it said at every point in my life, there's been a Whitney song to go along with it. I was excited for every album she released, no matter type of venue, music video, film, as a musical guest on "SNL" or the unbeatable and never-to-be-matched "Star Spangled Banner." She brought something new and amazing to her singing and the songs.

Steven, I'm going to go back to you and ask: What is it about her that made people feel so personally connected? A lot of people think that they know a celebrity, but there's something very - it just seemed to be, a lot of people had a personal - felt they had a personal connection. Do you have any sense of why?

IVORY: Well, it was her ability to deliver a song. I mean, the songs that she sang were very emotional songs, had to do with love affair and relationships. And she had the uncanny ability to deliver the sentiment of these songs in such an instinctive way.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. We're talking about the life and legacy of music legend Whitney Houston. I'm speaking with journalist Steven Ivory. That's who was speaking just now. And also with us, Debra Lee, the chair and CEO of BET Networks.

Debra, the - this is a little bit painful to think about, but there were people who criticized her at some point in her earlier history. They said that she was too - some African-American audiences, for example - felt that she had - she was a crossover star, but they thought she'd crossed over a little too far, that they felt that she kind of lost something authentic in her music.

Do you have any sense of whether that bothered her, that kind of criticism bothered her at all?

LEE: I don't think so. I mean, Whitney was very self-assured. You know, she came from a long legacy of musical greats, with her mother Cissy and her aunt Dionne Warwick. I think, you know, she was trying to find her own way and trying to find her own voice. I think she was always embraced by the black community, whether she was singing pop or gospel, you know, in her movie career. I mean, I think - I don't think she had that much criticism.

You know, a couple of her songs were pop, and she did cross over, but I think we always felt that she was a part of our community and, you know, always remembered her roots - her church roots and her connection to our community.

As I said, she was a big supporter of BET. She always showed up any time we asked her. And, you know, she kept that connect. So I don't think she was one of those kind of artists where you worried about her remembering where she came from. I mean, she was true to herself. She just had a great, outsized talent, and I think she wanted to share it with the world. And, you know, looking back, it's so great that everyone embraced her and that she had a crossover career.

I mean, I really - you know, music is such a wonderful thing, and I think the Grammys and Clive Davis' party the other night really were evidence of that. It brings people together. It makes you feel good, even in troubled times. And I think Whitney was such a great example of that, as someone mentioned, her "Star Spangled Banner" appearance. I mean, that was for everyone. That's the kind of artist she was, from the very beginning of her career.

MARTIN: Steven Ivory, we asked you to select a couple of songs that you thought would be - really exemplified her artistry and skill. What would you like us to play? How about the "Greatest Love of All"? Would that be the one? Or would it be "You Give Good Love" as an example for - of what it is that was so special about her talent?

IVORY: Well, I mean, you know, we could go on forever. But those are two great songs that exemplify her style and her ability to deliver a song.

MARTIN: OK. Well, then let's give - let's do the "Greatest Love of All."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GREATEST LOVE OF ALL")

WHITNEY HOUSTON: (Singing) The greatest love of all is easy to achieve. Learning to love yourself, it is the greatest love of all.

MARTIN: You know, that doesn't begin to do justice to her amazing range and skill and articulation and all that. Debra Lee, though, I do want to ask you, you have the opportunity to work with and observe many young artists. And I just wanted to ask: Is there a cautionary tale to Whitney Houston's story that you would like you would like young artists, the young artists that you work with, to learn from this, if there's something that we should all learn from her example?

LEE: Well, I think the caution is that people need to understand that our stars, our artists, our musical legends are people, also. You know, they have to reconcile their public persona and their trials and tribulations as people, whether it's family issues or dealing with your career.

I saw Quincy Jones on TV this morning, talking about why musical artists sometimes are - have difficulty. But you have to have this public persona, but you have to do deal with them as a person. And we can't ask too much from them.

MARTIN: Sure.

LEE: And think sometimes we do. We put them on a pedestal...

MARTIN: OK.

LEE: ...and we think they don't have issues, but they do.

MARTIN: But they do.

LEE: And I think Whitney was human.

MARTIN: And on that note, we have to leave it there for now. Thank you so much for joining us to talk about the legacy of this important artist. Debra Lee is the chairman and CEO of BET, that's Black Entertainment Television. She was with us by phone from Los Angeles. Also with us, Steven Ivory, journalist who covers music and culture. He was with us from NPR West.

Thank you both.

LEE: Thank you.

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