Five days before her untimely death (cause as yet unknown, but a lethal combination of drugs and alcohol is suspected), Whitney Houston was in the recording studio working on new music. The song, "Celebrate," was written by R. Kelly and slated to play over the end credits to Sparkle, Sony Pictures' forthcoming feature about a girl group formed by three teenage sisters, one played by "American Idol" winner Jordin Sparks, who duets with Houston on the track (though they did not record it together).
On Tuesday, Feb. 7, she arrived at producer Harvey Mason Jr.'s North Hollywood studio at around 5:30 p.m. ready to work. "She's doesn't lounge around," Mason tells The Hollywood Reporter, still speaking in the present tense some 72 hours after Houston's body was removed from her hotel room at the Beverly Hilton. "The last session we did on Tuesday night, after we finished, we were dancing around the booth and laughing and just having a good time listening to what we had accomplished. Her demeanor the last two weeks was very upbeat. She was in a good place."
Houston recorded two songs for "Sparkle," the other a gospel standard called "His Eye is On The Sparrow," and her voice, observed by many as shaky in recent years, was holding up for the most part during Tuesday's four-hour session. "Certain days are better than others," says Mason. "On Tuesday it was pretty good. We had been working on that song for a couple days. It took extra work because it's a duet. We weren't so much worried about the singing. We were spending more time on making sure the flow was right between the two artists and that each had their moment in the song."
Indeed, Mason, who had worked with Houston since 1998, says that unlike most superstar artists, especially the so-called "divas," Houston was happy to share the spotlight. "She was really adamant about making sure Jordin had enough time to shine," he says. "She kept saying, 'Let Jordin shine, that's her moment.' I thought that was pretty cool. She loves the new crop of singers. She's not the kind of girl who's competitive and mean to other singers."
But if another attempt at a musical comeback was in the works, you could say Houston was looking at another uphill battle. While 2009's "I Look To You" sold well, with almost 1 million copies purchased in the U.S., landing at No. 29 on the year-end Billboard 200 chart, Houston's inconsistent live performances made it difficult to stage a proper promotional blitz and a hit single did not emerge from the 11-song collection.
Still, Mason defends the album's performance. "Anytime you can go platinum and sell a million copies, you've accomplished something spectacular," he says. "I have a plaque on my wall from that record that I'm very proud of. I can't compare it to 'The Bodyguard's' 20 million or some of those older records. It's such a different time. But if you're asking me, did it accomplish everything we set out to do? I would say that I think it's a great record. I'm not in control of what happens to the music once we turn it in to the label. Creatively, we did a great job. She did amazing work on the record. She was proud of it, and so was I."
As 2012 rolled around, Houston was amped about new projects. She was keen on nabbing a seat on the X Factor judges' panel, for one. According to a show insider, Houston had reached out to "X Factor" brass that same week expressing her interest in the position. A meeting with Simon Cowell was set up for Monday, Feb. 13, two days after she died.
She was also excited about "Sparkle," the movie in which she acted, sang and was an executive producer. There was also talk of a sequel to "Waiting to Exhale" and a new solo album. "She wanted to talk to Clive [Davis] about that," says Mason, referring to Sony Music's chief creative officer and Houston's lifelong mentor. "That's something I recognize coming away from this production -- she really had a lot coming up and a lot of things that she was looking forward to."
Their time in the studio last week, says Mason, was just like any other of the many sessions he had done with the diva. "She comes in, warms up, does a couple vocal exercises, usually says a prayer, listens to the song, asks me what I need and then she goes in the booth and we just work," says the producer, who has also worked with the likes of Mary J. Blige and Beyonce. "She's always a sweetheart to me," he says, shifting into present tense again. "We get along great. We sometimes argue in the studio, but we always have a good time. She's fun-loving and we laughed a lot. We listened to a lot of music. She's such an amazing singer and always has been one of the best singers we'll ever know. My whole objective is to make her shine."
Mason heard the news while he was at home having dinner with his daughter Saturday night. That's when he received a call from A&R executive Larry Jackson, who had worked with Houston and Mason extensively over the years. "I spent Saturday messed up over it," Mason recalls, still affected. "Sunday I was so bummed, I didn't really want to talk about it. Then I was taking my kid somewhere and one of the radio stations was doing a tribute. They played Whitney Houston songs all day. They weren't talking about anything, not her history or how she passed, they were playing her music. So I listened to her music for probably eight hours on Sunday. All the songs, all the vocals, the feeling you get when you hear them, all the memories they bring, the experiences you've had in your life while listening to those songs… That's what her legacy is going to be. No matter what anyone says, it will be the lasting memory of her for me and for probably most everybody."
Mason's last image of Houston was of the superstar singer dancing in the studio, looking happy and full of life. It's an appropriate farewell for a singer who, he says, "cared so much about making great music" and loved her fans. "I remember she was always, like, 'I've got to do something better. I can't disappoint the people who buy my music.' Whitney had so much passion and energy and love for what she did… The best. The best."