Whitney Houston generation: ‘Soundtrack’ of our lives

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Story highlights

Childhood fans of Whitney Houston reminisce

Houston provided a "vocal role model," one iReporter says

"Greatest Love of All" helped a young boy stay on the right path

CNN  — 

It was 1985. Belting out the words to Whitney Houston’s “The Greatest Love of All,” a 14-year-old girl in Dallas, Texas, stood in front of her bathroom mirror, believing the song’s message of strength and self-worth.

“This was daily,” says Deon Q. Sanders, 40, who now lives in Grand Prairie, Texas, and continues to sing Houston’s music at weddings and other events. She laughs when she remembers her early obsession. “I can remember my mom screaming, ‘Would you please hush!’”

There was something about Houston’s music that made children and teenagers want to learn the words and dance along. You didn’t have to know anything about the singer’s personal life to be inspired by the music. In the days after Houston was found dead in a Beverly Hills hotel, childhood fans reminisced on CNN iReport about the singer who provided the soundtrack to their young lives.

Her funeral is Saturday in Newark, New Jersey.

Fans remember Whitney Houston at the Newark, New Jersey, church where she grew up

Whitney Houston’s self-titled debut album generated three No. 1 singles – “Saving All My Love for You,” “How Will I Know” and “Greatest Love of All.” Her second, “Whitney,” came out two years later in 1987 with chart-topping singles “I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me),” “Didn’t We Almost Have It All,” “So Emotional” and “Where Do Broken Hearts Go.”

Houston would later struggle with drug addiction, health problems and a rocky marriage to Bobby Brown. But iReporters remember her at her prime.

The “Whitney Houston” cassette was often playing when Cory Surovek’s mom picked him up from school in her gold Mercedes Benz.

Surovek, now 29 and an architect in Los Angeles, says “How Will I know” would come on, and he and his mother would lip sync and dance in their seats.

“Whitney’s voice wailed over our conversations of my day in class and often provided the soundtrack of our impromptu dance parties at any given stoplight,” Surovek wrote in his iReport. Houston’s music was “essential to the earliest memories that I have of me being ‘me,’ with my mom, in that Benz, dancing, laughing, singing, loving.”

Dana Brenklin, then 9 years old and an aspiring singer, knew she had found her vocal role model when she first heard Houston singing “You Give Good Love” on the radio.

“She was just singing and singing and then she got to the bridge and she just soared, and I was like, ‘Oh my god, who is this person?’” says Brenklin, 36, who has won several singing contests with Houston numbers. “When you saw her on TV, she looked kind, she looked nice, she looked pretty and she seemed happy and bubbly. You see her, and you hear this and you just want to take the ride with her.”

Brenklin was in the studio audience a couple of years later when Houston taped the video for “Celebrate New Life” by BeBe & CeCe Winans. Brenklin’s memories of seeing Houston are hazy, but she still remembers “how nice she was and how pretty she was” in person.

To Tessa Jackson, a black teenager at a predominantly white high school, Houston was a style icon – “as beautiful as she was talented.” Jackson, who lives in New Orleans, Louisiana, remembers when the video for “You Give Good Love” first aired on MTV.

“I sat mesmerized in front of the TV watching her. She made me and other girls like me feel like we didn’t have to be blonde and blue-eyed to be beautiful and admired,” Jackson wrote. “I wish she knew how much she did for my and my friends’ self-esteem.”

Houston’s music appealed to children of all races, financial circumstances and family situations.

Maurice Daniel was a boy in Detroit, Michigan, trying to stay on the right path, and his middle school principal ended each morning’s announcements with “Greatest Love of All.” The song’s inspirational message, and the powerful voice that delivered it, made an impact.

“There was a lot of crime and a lot of negative things … I would cling to anything that would give me some type of inspiration because I didn’t want to live what I was seeing,” Daniel wrote. “It would stay in my head all day. It inspired me to [do] right and I have been doing right to this day at age 35.”

Daniel now works with the youngest children at a juvenile detention center in Detroit, putting the words of the song into practice:

“I believe the children are our future,
Teach them well and let them lead the way
Show them all the beauty they possess inside…”

“That song motivated me,” Daniel says. “There’s not too many songs out there right now that are doing any type of motivation.”

Kristen Parker’s two daughters were babies when Houston’s music hit the charts, but it played a big part in playtime. The girls and their mom would sing into hairbrushes and dance on the bed while the music blasted.

Years later, Houston’s voice offered a bright moment in the family’s darkest time.

Parker’s younger daughter, Ashley, was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2004. After a year in the hospital, when there was nothing more they could do, Ashley’s sister and her friends brought Houston’s CDs to New York’s Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.

Nearly 40 children, ranging from 5 to 19 years old, danced around the pediatrics floor to “I Wanna Dance With Somebody.”

“[Houston] had no idea the smiles she had put on these poor sick children’s faces,” Parker wrote. “Not one of those poor babies of ours survived their battle. … I know not any of us parents will forget, although it was only minutes, the smiles of our children dancing for the last time to Whitney’s amazing voice.”

Parker says she will hold that memory with her forever.