(August 15, 2021). Some musicians are so iconic that when they leave us, the news hits us like a ton of bricks and we may never forget where we were or what we were doing when we first heard it.
When three of the biggest superstars in Black music history all died suddenly within seven years of one another – and all before the age of 60 – the memories of their tragic deaths and how I learned of them became locked in my mind like few other events in history have.
With Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson and Prince all in the news again for various reasons – Houston the subject of a new posthumous hologram concert tour in Las Vegas and of a new “Superstar” docuseries episode courtesy of ABC News, Prince’s latest posthumously released album, Welcome 2 America, debuting at No. 4 on this week’s Billboard 200 chart, and MJ’s legacy on the verge of a revival thanks to some high profile court victories involving his estate and the relaunch of the Cirque de Soleil show Michael Jackson: One this month in Las Vegas – the events of the days of each artist’s passing came flooding back like indelible memories often do, just as vividly as they were the day they unfolded.
I remember those days as vividly as I do 9/11 or, more recently, the events of January 6. Specifically, I recall where I was and what I was doing when I learned the news in each case and the profound impact each artist’s departure had on me as a fan.
I thought I’d share my stories with readers who might have similar indelible memories of these three or maybe a different artist’s untimely demise. I invite you to share your personal stories about the artist’s passing in the comment section below the article or in any of the social media feeds where the article is posted.
Michael Jackson: June 25, 2009.
Not long after arriving at work that morning – I remember it was a Thursday – I received a text from my roommate Marcus that Jackson had experienced a heart attack. I didn’t think it was much more than a minor cardiac issue (or maybe even an exaggeration), so I recall not being initially fazed by the news. I do remember hearing that actress and model Farrah Fawcett had died earlier that day, so perhaps that news contributed to my downplaying the news of MJ as a temporary setback.
As the day progressed, I continued my normal job routine at my job in King of Prussia, PA. As I still had an older cell phone – not a smart device – I wasn’t receiving any regular updates on Jackson’s condition and I hadn’t been following any news that day. Later in the afternoon, around 3pm, my younger brother calls me for an unrelated reason. Sensing that I hadn’t heard the news on Jackson (since it hadn’t come up in our conversation) and knowing how big an MJ fan I was, he asks in a concerned voice “are you okay?”
I said, “yeah, why?”
He asks had I been following the news that day, and I replied no. He then advises, “well don’t get on the Internet, it’s not good.”
I immediately recalled the earlier text from my roommate and put two and two together. “Is it about Michael Jackson?” I asked, growing instantly concerned and fearing the worst. He said, “yeah.”
Of course, I immediately go to the Internet where the news of MJ having been rushed to the hospital and going into cardiac arrest (but still being alive) was on every outlet. As my work day was nearing its end, I returned home where I could actually watch the news. It was bad and getting worse.
As CNN, MTV and the regular networks’ news teams all gave full-time coverage to MJ’s demise, my cell phone started blowing up. I don’t remember who all called, but I recall one phone call in particular – that of my friend Marlene. She was as big an MJ fan as I was. We talked for what must have been hours as the afternoon turned to evening and it became official: Michael Jackson was dead.
I recall feeling numb immediately afterwards as Marlene and I continued to talk. Other family/friends and I eventually discussed it that night as well. Among them was my mother, who’d told me she was reluctant to call because she knew how much of a fan I’d been practically since I was three years old and Jackson and his brothers first hit the scene with “I Want You Back.”
Speaking of the music, the next several days were filled with impromptu MJ tributes. As I rolled through the streets of Philly, every corner was booming with Jackson’s songs. It seemed that the number and span of people paying their respects were limitless. Even the hardest of tough guys in the roughest areas of Philly were wearing t-shirts bearing Jackson’s images.
My favorite haunt at the time was a dive bar called Top Shelf Lounge in West Philly. The DJ there devoted his entire setlist to MJ that Saturday night, with songs ranging from the King of Pop’s early J-5 days up to the 2000’s.
I also remember the first song that brought tears to my eyes upon first hearing it played posthumously, and that was (oddly enough) “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing).” It wasn’t because the song was sad, but because it reminded me of such a happier time – presumably – in Jackson’s younger life when he was on top of the world and nothingcould stop him.
Whitney Houston: February 11, 2012
This story may involve the most irony of the three featured in this article.
In February 2012, I was in the middle of a temporary, three-month assignment in Atlanta, GA. I was staying at the Marriott Marquis hotel on Peachtree St. and one night I met up with a friend of mine, Derrick, at the Metro Café down the street.
We were having one of our classic discussions and somehow the subject of female singers came up. As we were debating about which popular singers from the past had better withstood the test of time, the name Whitney Houston, along with several of her contemporaries such as Madonna, Mariah Carey and Janet Jackson, were among those being discussed.
As we went deeper and deeper into the conversation, I happened to glimpse at my phone as a Breaking News alert flashed on the screen: “Superstar entertainer Whitney Houston found dead at Beverly Hills hotel. She was 48.”
In complete shock, the only words I could muster to Derrick were “you won’t believe this.” Not yet having seen it on his own phone, he replied, “what?”.
I then showed him my phone and the news alert. “Nooo….we were just talking about her,” he said, unable to conceal his own surprise. We both then scanned our respective phones for more news and I recall one of us mentioning it to a nearby table of folks who’d seen our reactions.
While still sketchy, the details surrounding her sudden death were becoming clearer. She had been found in her hotel room in the bathtub by a personal assistant who had been in the room with her only minutes before but had stepped out to run an errand. We’d later find out that Houston’s tragic death was caused by drowning and cocaine intoxication.
My first thoughts were about her daughter, Bobbi Kristina, who was still a teenager at the time. Because many of the later years and troubles of Whitney’s life had been made so public, I started thinking about the other celebrities in her orbit, including her ex-husband, Bobby Brown, her mother Cissy Houston and her cousin Dionne Warwick. My heart went out to them.
That weekend’s Grammy Awards ceremony would be the next night. Whitney was in town to attend and, in fact, was slated to appear at industry mogul (and Whitney mentor) Clive Davis’ pre-Grammy gala the day she died. That event went on as planned – perhaps controversially – in the same hotel where she had drowned.
As with Michael two-and-a-half years earlier, Whitney news coverage and tributes were everywhere. The one everyone anticipated – aside from her own memorial service – was the Grammys. Singer/actress Jennifer Hudson was tapped to pay tribute and she performed Houston’s biggest hit, the cover of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You,” which Whitney had clearly made her own nearly two decades earlier.
I also recall the impact that Whitney’s death had on the Billboard charts in the ensuing weeks. Billboard had only recently changed its chart rules to allow older titles to return to the singles charts if they had sufficient point totals to rank in the upper half. That allowed Whitney to return to the Hot 100’s top tier with “I Will Always Love You,” which reached No. 3 – its highest rank since 1993. At one point, 43 of the 100 most downloaded songs on iTunes were by Whitney Houston. The compilation Whitney: The Greatest Hits climbed to No. 2 while her iconic Bodyguard soundtrack and her self-titled debut album also returned to the top ten, making her the only female in history to have three concurrent top-10 albums.
But the thing that likely impacted me the most – and which may have indirectly served as impetus for this blog site’s launch three years later – was her memorial service in Née Jersey, where the legendary Stevie Wonder performed his 1976 classic, “Love’s In Need of Love Today,” from the Songs in the Key of Life album. Wonder’s performance had been so amazing that it was what inspired me to attend his concert in Atlanta at the end of 2014. It was that concert – a full re-enactment of the Songs album – that prompted me to write my first article on Facebook, a concert review that would later inspire djrobblog.
Prince Rogers Nelson: April 21, 2016.
I was just returning to my desk around noon from a meeting on another floor in our Lisle, IL building when my administrative assistant sees me and says, “Darrell, do you know the artist named Prince?”
I thought it was an oddly worded question for such an iconic figure but immediately remembered that assistant had immigrated from Romania and hadn’t been exposed to much of American pop culture. “Yes,” I replied to her.
“Well, he was just found dead,” she says rather curtly. Not having seen any phone news alerts I said, “no way, are you sure?” She says yes before turning her computer monitor towards me to reveal what she had been seeing.
I immediately questioned the translation of what she’d read, as the reports were of “a body” having been found at his Paisley Park studio in Chanhassen, MN, but that the identity of the deceased had not been confirmed. “It doesn’t say Prince died,” I told her, hoping that it wasn’t true. I recall that he had just days earlier flown back to the Midwest from Atlanta and that, while there had been reports of an undisclosed illness on the flight that required medical attention, he would otherwise be fine.
I then returned to my office and began searching for reports on the Internet. I spent nearly all of my lunch hour that day following the news hoping against hope that it wasn’t true. Eventually the reports were confirmed and so was the body’s identification: Prince Rogers Nelson had died at age 57 after collapsing in an elevator at his Paisley Park Studios.
Just like the two prior icons Michael and Whitney, news coverage of Prince’s death was non-stop. Impromptu tributes and spiking music sales characterized the weeks following his passing. No fewer than five of his albums returned to the Billboard top ten at the same time, which was a record for the most by any artist. At least one Prince album ranked in the top ten for the entire month of May 2016.
Two things have stood out for me since Prince’s untimely passing. First was a tour of Paisley Park, where I surreally roamed the very halls where Prince took his last breath and, upon approaching an elevator in the building, asked the tour guide “is this the elevator where Prince died?”
Her short response was “we don’t like to discuss that.”
The other standout moment for me was when I attended the Chosen Few DJs Music Festival in Chicago about three months after Prince’s passing. Fully expecting to be greeted with nothing but house music upon my arrival, instead there was a DJ’s tribute to Prince. First up was “Anotherloverholenyohead” from his 1986 Parade: Under the Cherry Moon album. I recall the venue’s speakers were jamming that song so loud and that the base was so impressive, that I immediately downloaded the track from iTunes so I could further enjoy it on my return home later.
A major difference for me personally between Prince’s death and those of MJ and Whitney was that this blog was now up and running, and a tribute article was expected and required. I spent the next two evenings after Prince’s death writing three tributes, including this ranking of what I considered to be Prince’s 57 greatest tunes.
To this day, Prince easily stands as my most blogged about artist, with 14 articles on this site covering his legacy (including reviews of various album releases, that guided tour of his Paisley Park studios, and other news) since 2016.
So do you recall where you were and what you were doing when these or other iconic musicians passed away? If so, feel free to share your story either in the below comment section or on any of the social media feeds where the article is posted.
May they each continue to Rest In Peace.
DJRob (he/him) is a freelance music blogger from somewhere on the East Coast who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff! You can follow him on Twitter at @djrobblog.
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