Whitney Houston was an American singer and actress whose first four albums, released between 1985 and 1992, amassed global sales in excess of 86 million copies.
Born August 9, 1963 in Newark, New Jersey, Whitney Houston almost seemed destined from birth to become a singer. Her mother Cissy Houston, cousin Dionne Warwick and godmother Aretha Franklin were all legendary figures in American gospel and soul music.
Cissy Houston was the choir minister at New Hope Baptist Church, and it was there that a young Whitney got her start. Even as a child, Whitney was able to wow audiences; she later told interviewer Diane Sawyer that a rapturous response from the congregation at New Hope had a powerful effect upon her: “I think I knew then that (my singing ability) was an infectious thing that God had given me.”
By the time she turned 15, Whitney was performing often with her mother and trying to get a record deal of her own. Around the same time, she was discovered by a photographer who was awed by her natural beauty. She soon became an extremely sought–after teenage model, one of the first African American women to appear on the cover of Seventeen magazine. But music remained her true love.
When she was 19, Whitney Houston was discovered in a nightclub by the renowned Clive Davis of Arista Records, who signed her immediately and took the helm of her career as she navigated from gospel to pop stardom. In 1983, Houston made her debut on national television, appearing on The Merv Griffin Show to sing “Home” from the musical The Wiz.
She and Davis spent the next two years working on her debut album, finding the best producers and songwriters available to showcase her amazing vocal talent.
In 1985, she released her debut album Whitney Houston and almost immediately became a smash pop sensation. Over the next year, her hit singles “Saving All My Love for You” and “How Will I Know” helped the album reach the top of the charts, where it stayed for fourteen non-consecutive weeks.
Houston won a Grammy in 1986 for “Saving All My Love for You” the award was presented to the singer by her cousin Dionne Warwick. Houston followed the monumental success of her first album with a second release, Whitney, in 1987. That record, too, went platinum many times over and won more Grammy Awards, leading to a successful world tour.
During this time, the singer also appeared at a concert for Nelson Mandela's birthday and founded the Whitney Houston Foundation for Children, a nonprofit organization that funds projects to help needy children over the world.
By 1992, Whitney Houston was on top of the world, but her life was about to get very complicated very quickly. That year she married the R&B singer Bobby Brown, formerly of New Edition, after a three-year engagement. At first the marriage was passionate and loving, but things turned sour as the decade progressed and both Brown and Houston battled substance abuse and increasingly erratic behavior.
In spite of these growing personal troubles, Whitney Houston continued to progress in her career, crossing over successfully into acting in 1992 by starring opposite Kevin Costner in the wildly popular The Bodyguard. With this movie, she set a trend for her films to follow: in each film she also released a hit single, creating sensational record sales for the soundtracks.
Her smash single from The Bodyguard, a cover of Dolly Parton's 1974 “I Will Always Love You,” proved to be Houston's biggest hit ever, spending a record-breaking fourteen weeks atop the U.S. charts. The soundtrack album went on to win Houston three Grammys, including Album of the Year and Record of the Year. Later in the 1990s, Houston also starred in The Preacher's Wife and Waiting to Exhale, both accompanied by hit soundtracks as well.
In 1998, Houston released My Love Is Your Love, her first non-soundtrack studio album in many years, and it earned her another Grammy but could not top the chart performance of her previous albums. However, her collaboration with Mariah Carey in the animated film The Prince of Egypt produced a single, “When You Believe,” which won an Academy Award.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Houston's increasingly rocky marriage, struggles with drugs and health problems threatened to derail her career. Several concert cancellations and a notorious TV interview with Diane Sawyer in 2002 in which Houston appeared far too thin and in very poor health led many to speculate that she was on the verge of a breakdown.
In 2004, Bobby Brown began filming a reality show for Bravo entitled Being Bobby Brown; Houston received substantial airtime. The show aired during the worst years of the couple's crumbling marriage; drug use, lifestyle excess and bad behavior were all caught on tape and Houston's reputation sunk to new lows.
Houston tried to ignore the controversy, charging ahead with her music by releasing Just Whitney… to combat her detractors, but it did not match the success of her earlier works. In spite of her troubled relationship, Houston was still celebrated as a singer, being named the most-awarded female artist of all time by Guiness World Records in 2006.
Over the next few years, Houston attempted to repair her marriage and to break her drug habit, but after several relapses her mother, Cissy, had to step in. As Whitney Houston explained to Oprah Winfrey in 2009: “(My mother) walks in with the sheriff and she says: ‘I have a court injunction here. You do it my way or we're not going to do this at all. You're going to go on TV, and you're going to retire. And say you're going to give this up because it's not worth it.’” Whitney took a break from her career, divorced Bobby Brown in 2007, and won sole custody of their child, Bobbi Kristina Houston Brown.
After almost a decade of struggling with her personal life, Houston seemed to be pulling herself together. She released a new album, I Look To You, in 2009. “The songs themselves will speak to you and you'll understand where I am and some of the changes I've gone through for the better,” Houston told Entertainment Tonight.
The recording received a warm welcome from music fans, making to the top of album charts. Her live shows, however, garnered mixed reviews with some complaining about the quality of her voice.
Death and Legacy
In early 2012, Houston rumored to be experiencing financial trouble, but she denied this claim. She, in fact, seemed to be poised for a career upswing.
Houston worked on a new musical film Sparkle with Jordin Sparks, a remake of the 1976 movie about an all-girl musical group similar to the Supremes. She had reportedly been approached to join the singing competition The X Factor as a judge. Unfortunately, Houston did not live long enough to see the latest comeback reach fruition.
Whitney Houston died on February 11, 2012, in Los Angeles. Houston had been seen out in the days before her death, including at one of the pre-Grammy Award parties. According to a report released by the Los Angeles County coroner's office on March 22, 2012, the official cause of her death was accidental drowning.
The effects of heart disease and cocaine found in her system were contributing factors. With her passing, the music world has lost one of its most legendary stars. Her longtime supporter and mentor Clive Davis once said that Houston “is in the great tradition of great, great singers, whether it's Lena Horne or Ella Fitzgerald or Sarah Vaughn or Gladys Knight.”
August 9, 1963
February 11, 2012
- Her father, John Houston, gave her the nickname “Nippy” when she was a baby. Her nickname led to the management company, Nippy Inc.
- She always knew she wanted to be a singer. “I think I knew then that (my singing ability) was an infectious thing that God had given me,” she later said in an interview with Diane Sawyer.
- She used to be a model. She started out as a fashion model in the early 1980s, becoming one of the first African American women to cover Seventeen magazine.
- Her extraordinary mezzo-soprano belting voice is credited with influencing singers ranging from Mariah Carey to Celine Dion, Alicia Keys and Beyoncé.
- Whitney Houston appeared in four movies in her career, The Bodyguard, Waiting to Exhale, The Preacher's Wife and Sparkle.
- In October 1994, Houston attended and performed at a state dinner in the White House honoring newly elected South African president Nelson Mandela.
- Houston won six Grammy's, 30 Billboard awards and 22 American Music Awards in a 25-year career. According to the Guinness Book of Records, she was the most-honored female singer with more than 400 awards.