Whitney Houston enjoys a coming-out party
Whitney Houston did not have to sing a note Thursday night to spark a rousing ovation from a crowd of celebrities and record-industry heavyweights.
Houston -- whose hugely successful singing and acting career has been shadowed in the last several years by tabloid headlines, including her tumultuous marriage to singer Bobby Brown and allegations of substance abuse -- made a triumphant appearance at the Beverly Hilton at the end of a preview of her upcoming comeback album, scheduled for release Sept. 1.
As the throbbing beat of her up-tempo version of Leon Russell's usually intimate ballad "A Song for You" filled the standing-room-only ballroom, Houston emerged from behind a curtain, smiling and clapping as some audience members danced in front of her.
Looking slim and wearing an elegantly simple knee-length black dress, Houston seemed genuinely moved by the reception from the audience -- an eclectic mix from the worlds of movies (Jane Fonda, Halle Berry and Penny Marshall, the last of whom directed Houston in 1996's "The Preacher's Wife"), music (Stevie Wonder, Barry Manilow and Brian McKnight), industry honchos (Suzanne De Passe, Diane Warren and Richard Perry) and sports (Magic Johnson).
Also in attendance were several family members, including her teenage daughter, Bobbi Kristina, and a newly adopted son.
"God bless you all," Houston said, blowing kisses and stretching her hands out to the crowd. "I am humbled. Thank you all for coming." She seemed particularly excited when she spotted Berry and Fonda ("I almost croaked when I found out Jane Fonda was coming to my listening party. How cool am I?")
Coming after Houston's six-year absence from the studio, the album, "I Look to You," has long been enveloped by speculation about whether Houston has lost the vocal prowess and charisma that made her one of the most successful female singers of the last two decades.
That speculation has been fueled by some appearances in the past in which her singing voice sounded scratched and strained.
But music mogul Clive Davis -- who discovered Houston and has been spearheading her comeback, including a performance at his pre-Grammy party in February -- said the album should leave little doubt that Houston is still "one of the all-time great vocalists."
He said the album took more than three years to complete "because we kept wanting to set the bar high, in the tradition of the great vocalists, such as Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan and Lena Horne."
"I took my time," Houston later added.
Thursday night's unveiling came on the heels of listening parties in London and New York.
Before Davis presented the songs, a clip was shown of Houston performing some of her most popular hits, including "I Will Always Love You," "I Wanna Dance With Somebody" and "One Moment in Time."
Her new album, based on the nine "unfinished versions" previewed, appears to be a mix of dance tunes, mid-tempo songs and power ballads, with state-of-the-art production surrounding Houston's confident, smooth stylings.
Writers and producers who worked on the album include Warren, David Foster, Akon and Alicia Keys. R. Kelly, who has his own notorious past, contributed two songs, including the title track, an ode to spirituality and a higher power.
Many of the songs were greeted enthusiastically, with the Keys-written "Million Dollar Bill" generating one of the loudest ovations.
Some of the songs appeared to subtly reference Houston's struggles. Warren's "I Didn't Know My Own Strength" contains the line "I was not built to break," and the singer said she related to the song because of her struggles as a single mother. In "Nothin' but Love," Houston maintains she has nothing but love for "the family that raised me, the teachers that praised me" and "even the ones who tried to break me."
She mentioned her troubled history during her remarks later that evening, when she paid an emotional tribute to Davis. "Those years when we were apart, I was lost," Houston said to Davis. "But now I'm home, where I belong."
MUSIC SUPERSTARS: Sony exec Clive Davis, left, Whitney Houston and Stevie Wonder at the Beverly Hilton. Houston paid emotional tribute to Davis at the album preview. Both photos Associated Press.