Whitney Houston, his close friend and protégé, whose career he’d mentored and fostered since she was just a teenager, had died in her hotel room upstairs at age 48. Houston was supposed to be attend the party as a guest – instead Davis never saw her alive again.
“I miss her,” he tells PEOPLE exclusively. “I miss her personally, and I miss her as staggering performer.”
Three years later, a similar tragedy has struck the Houston family again as Whitney’s only child, Bobbi Kristina, remains on life support after being discovered unresponsive in her home on Jan. 31. “It’s very painful and heartbreaking to see the family go through such pain again,” Davis says.
Though it’s been over 30 years since Davis first discovered Houston, he says he recalls the first time he ever saw her perform as though it were yesterday.
“It was at a club called Sweet Water, in 1983,” he says. “She was doing back up singing for her brother and mother Cissy, and then did two solo songs that were essentially her ‘audition’ for me,” he says.
One of the solo songs? “The Greatest Love of All,” which had previously been recorded by George Benson. “To see this young 19-year-old find meaning in that song … she was bringing it to a whole other level that I had never heard before,” Davis says He signed her immediately. “I said, ‘She will be for the next generation what Lena Horne was for her generation.’ ”
In fact, the record exec believes Whitney is one of the top three singers of all time, along with Aretha Franklin and Barbara Streisand.
“If you ever saw her live, it was so overpowering,” he says. “Never has a voice so effortlessly or emotionally been able to bring the songs home. She received standing ovations time and time again.” (In November, Davis released the album and DVD, Whitney Houston Live which shot to the Top 40 on the Billboard 200.)
Whitney’s personal life eventually took a dark turn after she married singer Bobby Brown, and she openly struggled with drug and alcohol addiction. At times she was better known in the media for her bizarre antics than she was for her powerful voice. But Davis says the one thing that’s never written about her was her utter passion for music.
“She listened to music from morning to night,” Davis says. “She was so aware of everything going on musically, and while she had gospel roots, she had an innate understanding of pop.”
Davis says if anyone unfamiliar with her career wants to understand how great she truly was, to watch the Whitney Houston Live DVD of her performances. “You rediscover that she was not only good, she was f—ing great.”
“She was charming, she was funny, she loved music. She had no boundaries,” he says. “She could do everything.”