Whitney Houston: Gospel Singer to Global Diva

Whitney Houston: Gospel Singer to Global Diva

Whitney Houston, the multimillion-selling singer who emerged in the 1980s, was a church-choir teen in a poor working-class neighborhood in New Jersey who went on to become one of her generation’s greatest R & B voices.

Ms. Houston’s untimely death in February 2011, at the age of 48, came as the music industry descended on Los Angeles for the annual celebration of the Grammy Awards. At her time of passing, Ms. Houston was — for all her difficulties over the years — one of pop’s queens. She was found drowned in her bathtub at the Beverly Hilton hotel, where she had been staying to attend a pre-Grammy party being hosted by her mentor Clive Davis, founder of Arista Records.

From the start of her career in the mid-1980s, Ms. Houston had the talent, looks and pedigree of a pop superstar. She was the daughter of Cissy Houston, a gospel and pop singer who had backed up Aretha Franklin, and the cousin of Dionne Warwick. (Ms. Franklin is Ms. Houston’s godmother.)

Ms. Houston’s range spanned three octaves, and her voice was plush, vibrant and often spectacular. She could pour on the exuberant flourishes of gospel or peal a simple pop chorus; she could sing sweetly or unleash a sultry rasp.

Dressed in everything from formal gowns to T-shirts and tank tops, she cultivated the image of a fun-loving but ardent good girl, the voice behind songs as perky as “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)” and as torchy as what became her signature song, a version of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You.”

But by the mid-1990s, even as she was moving into acting with films like “The Bodyguard” and “The Preacher’s Wife,” she became what she described, in a 2009 interview with Oprah Winfrey, as a “heavy” user of marijuana and cocaine. By the 2000s she was struggling; her voice grew smaller, scratchier and less secure, and her performances grew erratic.

All of Ms. Houston’s studio albums were million-sellers, and two have sold more than 10 million copies in the United States alone: her 1985 debut album and the 1992 soundtrack to “The Bodyguard,” which includes “I Will Always Love You.”

But her marriage to the singer Bobby Brown — which was, at one point, documented in a Bravo reality television series, “Being Bobby Brown” — grew miserable, and in the 2000s, her singles slipped from the top 10. Ms. Houston became a tabloid subject: the National Enquirer ran a photo of her bathroom showing drug paraphernalia. And each new album — “Just Whitney” in 2002 and “I Look to You” in 2009 — became a comeback.

At Central Park in 2009, singing for “Good Morning America,” her voice was frayed, and on the world tour that followed the release of the album “I Look to You” that year, she was often shaky.

Whitney Houston was born on Aug. 9, 1963, in Newark. She sang in church, and as a teenager in the 1970s and early 1980s, she worked as a backup studio singer and featured vocalist with acts including Chaka Khan, the Neville Brothers and Bill Laswell’s Material.

Mr. Davis signed her after hearing her perform in a New York City nightclub, and spent two years supervising production of the album “Whitney Houston,” which was released in 1985. It placed her remarkable voice in polished, catchy songs that straddled pop and R & B, and it included three No. 1 singles: “Saving All My Love for You,” “How Will I Know” and “The Greatest Love of All.”

Because Ms. Houston had been credited on previous recordings, including a 1984 duet with Teddy Pendergrass, she was ruled ineligible for the best new artist category of the Grammy Awards; the eligibility criteria have since been changed. But with “Saving All My Love for You,” she won her first Grammy award, for best female pop vocal performance, an award she would win twice more.

Her popularity soared for the next decade. Her second album, “Whitney,” in 1987, became the first album by a woman to enter the Billboard charts at No. 1, and it included four No. 1 singles. She shifted her pop slightly toward R & B on her third album, “I’m Your Baby Tonight,” in 1990, which had two more No. 1 singles.

For much of the 1990s, she turned to acting, bolstered by her music. She played a pop diva in “The Bodyguard,” and its soundtrack album — including the hits “I Will Always Love You,” “I’m Every Woman,” “I Have Nothing” and “Run to You” — went on to sell 17 million copies in the United States. It won the Grammy for album of the year, and “I Will Always Love You” won record of the year (for a single). After making the films “Waiting To Exhale” in 1995 and “The Preacher’s Wife” in 1996 — which gave her the occasion to make a gospel album — Ms. Houston resumed her pop career with “My Love Is Your Love” in 1998.

Ms. Houston married Mr. Brown in 1992, and in 1993 they had a daughter, Bobbi Kristina, who survives her. Ms. Houston’s 2009 interview with Ms. Winfrey portrayed it as a passionate and then turbulent marriage, marred by drug use and by his professional jealousy, psychological abuse and physical confrontations. They divorced in 2007.

Her albums in the 2000s advanced a new persona for Ms. Houston. “Just Whitney,” in 2002, was defensive and scrappy, lashing out at the media and insisting on her loyalty to her man. Her most recent studio album, “I Look to You,” appeared in 2009, and it, too, reached No. 1. The album included a hard-headed breakup song, “Salute,” and a hymnlike anthem, “I Didn’t Know My Own Strength.” Ms. Houston sang, “I crashed down and I tumbled, but I did not crumble/I got through all the pain,” in a voice that showed scars.

Neil R. Portnow, president of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, which bestows the Grammys, called her “one of the world’s greatest pop singers of all time, who leaves behind a robust musical soundtrack.”

“A light has been dimmed in our music community today,” he said.

Even after the news of Ms. Houston’s death had been released, celebrities and other partygoers continued to arrive for the Davis event, which went on as planned, while fans stood behind a rope trying to take pictures. Dressed in evening gowns and tuxedos, people stepped out of limousines at curbside and streamed into the hotel.

A number of fans came to mourn Ms. Houston and to show their support. “I was in utter, total disbelief,” Lavetris Singleton said. “Who was not a fan of Whitney Houston at some point?”

“I want to show support because she inspired a lot of people and nobody’s perfect,” she said. “But if we’re not out here then she’ll be forgotten. We are her legacy.”

Performers at the Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles, where the Grammys are to be held, heard about Ms. Houston’s death just as Rihanna and Coldplay were about to rehearse their number for the awards.

The show’s producer, Ken Ehrlich, debated about how to acknowledge Ms. Houston’s death. After the initial shock, Mr. Ehrlich said he called Jennifer Hudson and asked her to come and sing one of Ms. Houston’s songs during the televised show on Sunday as a simple memorial. “We are going to do something very simple, not elaborate,” he said. “We just want to keep it respectful.”

“My feeling was it’s too early to do an extended tribute,” Mr. Ehrlich added, “but we really wanted to remember her because she was so closely tied to the Grammys.”

  • Jon Pareles and Adam Nagourney for New York Times


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