Whitney Houston had taken some knocks (and would take some more), but she got some respect at the first annual BET Awards, which took place at the Paris Hotel in Las Vegas on June 19, 2001—18 years ago this week. Houston was the recipient of a lifetime achievement award, which was presented by Babyface and Mary J. Blige.
It was a moment of validation for the singer, who was famously booed at the third annual Soul Train Music Awards in April 1989. There were more bad headlines at Oscar rehearsals in March 2000. Houston was slated to join other stars to perform a medley of classic film songs, but either pulled out or was pushed out just two days before the telecast.
So when Houston came out to perform at BETs, her performance and manner were carefully scrutinized. She sang well, if she strained occasionally to hit the high notes. She was noticeably looser and more self-assured on stage than she had been in the early years. The phenomenal singer was now also a confident performer. She looked good, much better than she did less than three months later when she appeared worryingly gaunt at Michael Jackson‘s 30th anniversary celebration at Madison Square Garden.
Houston began her acceptance speech by singing the hook phrase “I’m a survivor” from Destiny’s Child‘s then-current hit “Survivor,” to the delight of the members of the trio, who were in the audience. She thanked her mentor Clive Davis, who had recently left his post at Arista, and also saluted his successor, L.A. Reid. “To my new Arista family, the best is yet to come,” she promised. She thanked her mother, Cissy Houston, and eight-year-old daughter, Bobbi Kristina, who stood behind her. She also thanked her husband. “Now let’s give it up to the R&B king, Mr. Bobby Brown. There’s a lot of copies, but there’s only one original.”
The same, of course, could be said of Houston. Christina Aguilera‘s performance that night of “Run to You,” one of Houston’s many hits from The Bodyguard, showed how deep Houston’s influence was on a generation of singers. Houston praised the performance. “First of all, I would like to thank Miss Christina…You’ve done the best rendition of ‘Run to You’ besides myself.” The line got a laugh, even from Aguilera, because, well, who would argue?
Houston was just 37 at the time, making her a little young for a lifetime achievement award. But, as it turned out, she had already accomplished most of what she would accomplish in her dazzling, but all too brief, career. Houston died on Feb. 11, 2012 after drowning in a bathtub. She was 48. Even more heartbreaking, Bobbi Kristina died three years later after being found under similar circumstances and lingering in a medically-induced coma for months. She was just 22.
From the start, the BET Awards have put a spotlight on artists who don’t always get their due at other award shows. Of the 19 artists who have received lifetime achievement awards at the BETs, only three (James Brown, Al Green and Smokey Robinson) had previously received lifetime achievement awards from the Recording Academy.