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"She was 5 years old when she was singing like that," recalled Gregory."I stayed in the background when we sang in the mirror." Word of Whitney Houston’s death in Hollywood at age 48 shocked the world on Saturday.

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EAST ORANGE — Toni Gregory has sweet memories of her childhood in Dodd Town, the neighborhood in East Orange where she and her friend Nippy Houston used to dress up in outfits that Nippy’s mom wore on stage — two little girls pretending to be nightclub singers, smoking crayon cigarettes and vamping for an imaginary audience.

"We used to put on her mom’s costumes and her shawls and everything, with the jewelry hanging down to our feet, the vacuum cleaner as a microphone, and sing into the mirror," recalled Gregory, 47, who now lives in Newark and works for the city’s Department of Neighborhood Services.

Millions of others came to know Nippy by her given name, Whitney.

And even as a kindergartner, it was obvious that Cissy Houston’s daughter was destined for bigger venues than her mother’s bedroom on Dodd Street.

Reverend Jesse Jackson addresses the media outside the New Hope Baptist Church following an early morning prayer service in honor of Whitney Houston who died Saturday at age 48.

Jackson says he knew the singer her whole life and was "traumatized" by he death.(Video by Jennifer Brown ) But nowhere did the shock hit closer to home than among the diaspora of Dodd Street, where Houston grew up the youngest of three children in a house that was a second home to Toni Gregory, her brothers and sisters and other kids in the 300 block."If anyone asked you who was a part of your childhood, we would automatically say them, and they would say us, it was just that type of growing up," said Toni’s older sister, Pam Gregory Hodge, 54, who now lives in Newark with her mother, Alberta Gregory, a close friend of Cissy Houston’s.Hodge’s aunt, Alma Beatty, also a Houston family friend, learned of the singer’s death from her sister."When Alberta called me, she said I want you to sit up because Nippy just died," said Beatty, 70, a vice president at Beth Israel Medical Center in Newark. She was just a sweet, sweet person, and she had love for everybody." Whitney’s dad, John Houston, a former Newark official who died several years ago, was a father figure to the Hodge kids, whose own father died prematurely.The Houstons had a pool —a popular attraction for the neighborhood kids.

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  1. "She was 5 years old when she was singing like that," recalled Gregory.

  2. "I stayed in the background when we sang in the mirror." Word of Whitney Houston’s death in Hollywood at age 48 shocked the world on Saturday.

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