Of the performances featured on We Will Always Love You: A Grammy Salute to Whitney Houston—a new DVD of songs and remembrances from, among others, Jennifer Hudson, Celine Dion and Britney Spears—Usher’s is perhaps the most stirring.
And that’s not just because his rendition of “I Believe in You and Me” is note-perfect. The 34-year-old confirms that the bittersweet emotions he conveyed while singing Houston’s 1997 ballad were utterly real, inspired by his personal connection to the star.
“I knew her through Bobby,” the singer explains, referring to Houston’s former husband, Bobby Brown (right, with Brown in 2004). “Not many people are aware of this, but his bodyguard, A.J. Alexander, was the guy who discovered me. I was just a little knuckleheaded kid from Georgia, trying to find my way, but whenever I was with Whitney and Bobby, they always made sure that I felt right at home.”
Indeed, Usher had the opportunity to work with Houston (below, with Houston in 2006) and Brown at the beginning of his career, when he was only 15. “I’d just signed a deal with L.A. Reid,” he recalls, “and he asked me to come to the studio at his house to sing backup on [their 1992 duet] ‘Something in Common.’ After the choir left, Whitney called me into the booth and gave me my own moment; she kind of directed me, while I sang background on her song.” In a twist that seems too good to be true, Usher himself subsequently bought that house, which he says was the first place he equated with musical success. “Now, every time I’m in that studio, I think of that moment and about the rich history of that room.”
This spring, Usher—who dropped his last name, Raymond, in 1994, when he released his self-titled debut—will serve as a mentor to his own team of young artists when he takes over Cee Lo Green’s spot on TV’s The Voice. (Christina Aguilera is also taking the season off; she’ll be temporarily replaced on the singing competition’s panel by Shakira.)
“I’m a coach, not a judge,” he says. “That’s the difference between this show and the others. I’m going to be inspiring and nurturing talent.” Of course, it won’t be the first time he’s played that role: In 2008, he famously signed Justin Bieber (below, with Bieber at this year’s Billboard Music Awards) to his management company, and he played an instrumental part in the surprisingly complex multiyear process that turned the clean-cut Canadian tween into a credible, platinum-selling star. (Bieber’s so-called swagger coach, for example, was Usher’s former assistant.)
But don’t assume the singer-songwriter has ceded the airwaves—or, more to the point, iTunes and YouTube—to the next generation. His seventh album, Looking 4 Myself, topped the Billboard 200 when it was released in June, and he just picked up another Grammy nomination, his 18th, for the deceptively sweet-sounding breakup song “Climax.” In fact, he’s already thinking about the follow-up. “I’m still promoting this record, but I’m also in the studio, picking up my bass, sitting at the piano, working out melodies,” he says. “I have so much inspiration that I have to get rid of it. Otherwise, I’ll drive myself crazy.”
Photos (top to bottom): KMazur/WireImage; M. Caulfield/WireImage; Christopher Polk/Billboards2012/Getty Images for ABC