Grammy host LL Cool J called it a “death in our family” and it was he who suggested starting the Grammy Awards show last year with a prayer for Whitney Houston.
Behind the scenes, Grammy Awards producers had worked all night to re-shape the music industry’s biggest night just 24 hours after the drowning death of the troubled superstar in a Beverly Hills hotel.
Producers and musicians tell the tale in a one-hour TV special “The Grammys Will Go On: A Death in the Family” to be broadcast on CBS on Saturday on the eve of this year’s Grammy Awards ceremony.
The singer, known both for her soaring ballads and well-chronicled history of drug abuse, is also expected to be remembered at the annual pre-Grammy party hosted in Beverly Hills on Saturday by her mentor, record producer Clive Davis.
Earlier this week, Madame Tussauds museum unveiled four different wax figures of Houston at various stages of her 35-year career that will go on display at its attractions in New York, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.
Houston, 48, was found face down in a bathtub on February 11 2012, in what authorities later called an accidental drowning due to cocaine use and heart disease.
“My heart started racing. I started hyper-ventilating,” recalls Grammy Awards show director Louis J. Horvitz in the TV special, as news reached Grammy rehearsals last year of Houston’s death.
Producers realized immediately that despite months in the planning, the live TV ceremony the next day would have to reflect Houston’s passing.
Scripts were re-written, clips of Houston’s many previous Grammy performances were added, and the call went out to Oscar-winning actress and singer Jennifer Hudson to come in and perform Houston’s signature song “I Will Always Love You.”
“Moments later [after hearing news of Houston’s death] I got the call to sing in her memory. I would do anything for Whitney,” Hudson recalls in the TV special.
Rehearsal footage shows an emotional Hudson breaking into tears while practicing the song. “By the time she got to the end, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house,” said Horvitz of her rehearsal.
“We are used to tough situations,” said veteran Grammy Awards producer Ken Ehrlich, recalling how Aretha Franklin was called on to replace a sick Luciano Pavarotti in 1998 while the live Grammy show was on the air.
But the death of Houston, a six-time Grammy winner with some 200 million records sold, was something different.
It was rapper and Grammy host LL Cool J who suggested opening the awards telecast with a prayer for Houston. But he said his legs were shaking backstage with the pressure of balancing sorrow over her death with respect for all the other artists due to perform, and win awards that night.
“I was in this weird no-man’s land between mourning and celebration,” the rapper said.
The TV special also shows artists like Katy Perry, Bruce Springsteen, Paul McCartney and Bruno Mars struggling to continue rehearsals, old footage of Houston in her prime, and clips of Davis telling guests at his annual music industry party that the singer had been found dead hours earlier in a hotel room in the same building.