Many years ago, I studied voice with a woman who had a friend who was putting together a gospel chorus for a performance at St. Peter’s Church. (That’s the one that Citicorp wraps around.)
It was a one-shot deal, but it sounded like fun.
We were asked to wear something long and white and the rehearsal was just a few hours before the performance, so we were to come to it in our performance clothes.
Pants were okay, so I found a white turtleneck and white pants with only a faint beige check, and went off to St. Peter’s.
There were about fifty or sixty of us, all strangers to me except for my teacher who sang in a different section.
One beautiful, tall and very slender young African-American woman stood out. Unlike most of us, she was actually wearing a long white robe.
People said she was the daughter of a well-known gospel singer (whom I had never heard of, not being into gospel), and a really good singer in her own right.
I had the impression her mother had been invited but couldn’t be there so sent her daughter.
The others said this girl, Whitney, was extremely religious and believed that drinking and smoking were wrong and against God’s will.
There was some discussion about a gig she had performing in a small club in the village. Obviously there was drinking and smoking going on there, but Whitney wasn’t doing any of it. However, in spite of her religious views, she was comfortable performing for those who did.
Our gospel performance was okay and uneventful. My husband came to it and I loved the fact that he had to pay $5 to hear me sing even though he couldn’t actually hear me.
Brian and I always enjoyed seeing people perform with whom we had even the vaguest connection, so a few nights later we went down to the village to a tiny little bar with perhaps 30 seats to hear this girl sing.
She tore the roof off the place. A great voice, a huge presence and incredibly dynamic, even at that early age. .
At the time she still had a boyish figure, and at one point her sparkly tube top slipped, showing us a little more of Whitney than she probably wanted us to see, but she pulled it back up again with great aplomb.
It was clear she owned the audience and knew it.
She was standing by the door as we left and I told her how fantastic her performance had been and that I was exhausted by it, meaning that she used so much energy I was tired just from watching her.
But I guess that was the wrong thing, because her smile went away. I said thanks again, and we left.
I was never in the least surprised that she became a superstar. But I was very saddened to see the stories in the tabloids about her problems with drugs and alcohol.
She traveled a long way from St. Peter’s, and from that little club.
May she rest in peace.