Award-winning singer Whitney Houston (born 1963) made her name with her powerful voice and emotional renditions of love songs, becoming one of rhythm and blues' most popular stars and selling hundreds of millions of albums. She later branched out into acting and eventually became a business mogul, setting up production and recording studios as she continued to deliver pop music performances.
Though her style is characteristic of the vocal athleticism of rhythm and blues music in the post-hip-hop era, Whitney Houston has a star quality that recalls the entertainment dynamos of a previous generation: elegant, professional, and versatile. Despite criticism from some corners that she conveys more technique than feeling in her music, Houston has scored enough commercial victories in the mercurial pop world to gladden the heart of any music executive.
From the beginning of her career-with the highest-selling solo debut album in history-Houston went on to sell millions of copies of her subsequent releases and win numerous music awards. In 1992 she made her acting debut in a major motion picture, The Bodyguard, which became one of the most successful films in its company's history; her contributions to the film's soundtrack were also phenomenally popular. If there remained any show-business frontiers for Houston to conquer, none seemed beyond her reach. Yet, in the wake of a high-profile marriage and well-publicized motherhood, the entertainer has remained philosophical. "I almost wish I could be more exciting," she told Entertainment Weekly, "that I could match what is happening out there to me."
Music Was In Her Roots
Houston was born in East Orange, New Jersey on August 9, 1963, the daughter of John R. Houston-who would one day manage her production company-and acclaimed gospel singer Cissy Houston. Music was very much a part of her childhood. Her cousin Dionne Warwick was another successful chanteuse, and Houston grew up around such star vocalists as Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight, and Roberta Flack. "When I used to watch my mother sing, which was usually in church, that feeling, that soul, that thing-it's like electricity rolling through you," she recalled to Anthony DeCurtis of Rolling Stone. "If you have ever been in a Baptist church or a Pentecostal church, when the Holy Spirit starts to roll and people start to really feel what they're doing, it's … it's incredible. That's what I wanted. When I watched Aretha sing, the way she sang and the way she closed her eyes, and that riveting thing just came out. People just … ooooh, it could stop you in your tracks."
Houston first sang publicly at the age of eight, performing "Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah" for a spellbound congregation at the New Hope Baptist Church. Four years later she was singing backups on recordings for such major stars as Chaka Khan and Lou Rawls. "I sound like my mother when my mother was my age," she told DeCurtis, "though I truly think my mother has a greater voice than me, because she's the master, I'm the student."
When she was 17, Whitney took a detour into modeling, appearing in magazines like Glamour and Seventeen. Her beauty and talent also got her acting jobs in episodes of two then-popular television programs, Silver Spoons and Gimme a Break. Houston ultimately found the fashion runway "degrading," as Ebony reported, and made her way back to music. She signed a management contract in 1981 and began seriously performing-both alone and with her mother. She was given the chance to sing the lead on the song "Life's a Party," which was recorded by the Michael Zager Band; Zager was so impressed by her voice that he offered her a record deal. Cissy declined the opportunity for her daughter, which turned out to be a wise decision. At a showcase performance in 1983, Arista Records president Clive Davis heard Houston perform and offered her a contract. This time Cissy's advise was to accept the offer, and Houston signed on.
First Album Reaped Awards
Davis took the new singer under his wing. Though she sang a duet with soul superstar Teddy Pendergrass that hit the charts in 1984, Houston would spend much of the next two years working with her mentor. Davis gathered successful songwriters and producers and helped put together the "package" that would make Houston a star. He calculated correctly: her self-titled debut album, released in March 1985, began a gradual ascent to the top of the charts. The first single, "You Give Good Love," made its way to the number three position and the second, a cover of the late-'70s hit "Saving All My Love for You," hit number one later that year. Houston received the 1986 Grammy award for best pop vocal performance and came home with five trophies from the US music awards as well. Two more singles also topped the charts: "How Will I Know" and "The Greatest Love of All."
Whitney Houston finally hit the top of the U.S. album chart a year after its release; a number of singles also topped the U.K. charts. Accolades for the singer continued: Houston received an Emmy for work in a television variety program and commenced touring. Her concerts sold out throughout both the U.S. and Europe. Though Houston was suddenly showered in acclaim, she had her share of detractors. Her choice of material was generally safe, critics complained. Houston's voice, though a remarkable instrument, failed to convey much emotion. As music commentator Nelson George opined to Newsweek, "There's not a wisp of soul on those singles."
Second Album Debuted at Number One
The simultaneously belittling and affectionate term "Prom Queen of Soul"-a parody of the royal sobriquet earned by fellow singer Aretha Franklin-was hard for Houston to shake. Yet the vocalist had only begun her meteoric rise. Her sophomore effort, Whitney, appeared in 1987 and debuted at the number one position on the Billboard chart-the first album by a female artist to do so. Its first single, "I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)," rocketed to the top, followed by three other number-one hits: "Didn't We Almost Have It All," "So Emotional," and "Where Do Broken Hearts Go." The single "Love Will Save the Day" was a disappointment only when measured against Houston's other hits; it only made it to number nine. Meanwhile, "One Moment in Time," a ballad recorded by Houston for Arista's 1988 Olympics tribute album of the same name, topped the charts after Whitney ended its run. She continued to rack up awards, taking home the 1988 Grammy for "I Wanna Dance With Somebody" and, in January 1989, garnering both the female pop and soul/rhythm and blues vocal honors at the American Music Awards.
In addition to her activities in the musical arena, Houston has used her high public profile to aid causes she personally supports. She took time out of a busy schedule to headline at a birthday gala for South African leader Nelson Mandela at London's Wembley Arena.
Married Bobby Brown
It was at the Soul Train Music Awards in 1989 that Houston crossed paths with someone who would have a lasting effect on her life. She made the acquaintance of singer Bobby Brown, a popular "New Jack Swing" performer in his own right. The two didn't hit it off immediately. Houston later recalled in the interview with DeCurtis: "I always get curious when somebody doesn't like me. I want to know why." She invited Brown to a party; he accepted. As they got to know each other better, they realized their feelings surpassed mere friendship. "After a year or so, I fell in love with Bobby," Houston explained after detailing her rebuff of his first proposal. "And when he asked to marry me the second time, I said yes." The couple was married in July 1992.
Prior to this, Houston recorded and released I'm Your Baby Tonight. The album was a slight disappointment; it didn't perform as well as its predecessors and stopped climbing when it reached the number three position. Even so, I'm Your Baby, which featured the chart-topping single "All the Man That I Need," achieved triple platinum status. She received the 1990 Hitmaker Award at the Songwriters Hall of Fame and an invitation to the White House from President George Bush.
Around the same time, Houston was approached about a movie called The Bodyguard. Actor Kevin Costner, who planned to star in the film, was set on Houston for his female costar. He felt so certain that Houston was right for the role of imperiled singer Rachel Marron that he agreed to wait as long as she wanted-as long as she'd agree to do the film. "There are certain singers that occupy that territory that includes a world-class voice, real elegance, and a physical presence," Costner explained to Ebony. "Diana Ross and Barbra Streisand are two. Whitney Houston is another." But Houston would keep Costner waiting for quite some time.
Meanwhile, the singer was busy with other things. She sang the national anthem at the 1991 Super Bowl, a performance that crystallized strong patriotic sentiment during the period of U.S. involvement in the Persian Gulf War. There was a great demand for both a single and video of her rendition. She later sang the "Star Spangled Banner" again for returning troops at Norfolk Naval Air Station. However, Houston's prestige and success as an entertainer didn't protect her from rumors she found infuriating. These included speculation that she and Brown had a less-than-harmonious marriage. He had gained a reputation as "the bad boy of the business," and she was known as "the good girl."
Bodyguard Combined Acting and Singing
After two years, Houston went ahead with plans to star in The Bodyguard. "I kind of waited too long for Kevin," she told DeCurtis, recalling her decision to appear in the film. "He called one day and said, 'Listen, are you going to do this movie with me or not?' I told him about my fears. I said: 'I don't want to go out there and fall.' His response was: 'I promise you I will not let you fall. I will help you.' And he did." In exchange for help with her acting, Houston gave her costar tips on singing.
The Bodyguard is about a singer (played by Houston) who requires the protection of a bodyguard (Costner) after being harassed by an obsessive fan; a romance then develops between the star and her protector. Although Entertainment Weekly included The Bodyguard in a list of films exploring "interracial romance," color mattered little to the audience and was not even addressed in the film. "Whitney, in a sense, is to music and now to film what [actor-comedian Bill] Cosby was to television," noted Entertainment Weekly's Sheldon Platt. "The American middle class looks upon her as a person, and they extinguish other ethnic or racial boundaries." Houston herself observed, "I don't think it's a milestone that a black person and a white person made a movie together. I think for people to look at this color-blind is a milestone."
Critical response to the film was mixed. "Houston, the Olympian pop-soul diva, has moments of quickness and humor; she shows more thespian flair than many musicians," stated Owen Gleiberman in Entertainment Weekly. "Her presence, though, is defined by the same glassy perfection that makes her singing, for all its virtuosity, seem fundamentally anonymous. Whitney Houston is a diamond without flaws: Her cat-faced Mayan beauty is like a mask, and beneath it one never senses a glimmer of vulnerability, pain, doubt." Houston rebuffed such evaluations in Rolling Stone:" People loved this movie-the critics dogged it, but people loved it." Houston was pregnant for most of the period of the film's media blitz, and becoming a mother overshadowed any negative reviews. "There's been nothing more incredible in my life than having her," she declared of her daughter, Bobbi Kristina.
Mixed reviews didn't affect The Bodyguard's box-office success. It grossed $390 million worldwide by mid-1993. The soundtrack album, which featured six Houston performances, sold about 24 million copies. The biggest single generated from the soundtrack-and the longest-running number one single ever-was her rendition of Dolly Parton's "I Will Always Love You," which earned Houston two of her three Grammys in 1994.
In addition to her impressive showing at the Grammys, Houston took several other honors in 1994, including two Soul Train Awards, entertainer of the year honors at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's Image Awards, and seven American Music Awards. Entertainment Weekly had rated Houston number five among the top "Entertainers of the Year" for 1993. At the height of her professional game and happy with her new family, Houston was, in the magazine's phrase, "enjoying a success so relentless that nothing but sledge-hammered shards of conventional wisdom are left in its wake."
Success Tainted by Rumors
Despite success, Houston's life was not pure bliss in 1994. Redbook declared it her "toughest year of all." She had experienced a miscarriage while engaged in a demanding 22-city tour, weathered a barrage of criticism about how she was raising her daughter, and had to deal with a persistent stalker. In addition, some media pieces questioned her relationship with her female assistant, wondering if the two were sexually involved. Reports highlighted some of her allegedly impatient and odd behavior, such as snapping at fans that sought autographs. Rumblings of marital difficulties continued into 1995, compounded by the fact that Brown had spent time at the Betty Ford Clinic for alcohol abuse.
In late 1995, Houston starred in Waiting to Exhale, an adaptation of a popular novel by Terry McMillan about four black women struggling to find harmony in their lives. The soundtrack featured three songs by Houston and was produced by Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds. Both the movie and its soundtrack were popular, with Houston holding her own in an ensemble cast also featuring Angela Bassett, Lela Rochon, and Loretta Devine. The following year she starred in The Preacher's Wife, about a young woman who is having difficulty in her marriage to a minister as they try to build a new church together. Though it was not critically well-received, she earned an NAACP Image Award in 1997 as outstanding lead actress for this role.
Houston announced in November of 1996 that she was pregnant again, but suffered another miscarriage that December. The following year saw her play the Fairy Godmother in a pet project of hers, the highly-rated CBS television movie Cinderella, which won an Emmy Award. However, the scrutiny of her behavior continued, spotlighting the fact that she canceled an appearance on the Rosie O'Donnell Show in November of 1997. She blamed her absence on a bout of stomach flu, but was seen out and about with her husband later that day. Also that year, she and Brown separated for about a month, but were soon back together. The next year, rumors escalated about possible drug use on the part of both of them, which Houston denied.
Despite having to bear more than an average share of celebrity gossip, Houston kept her career sailing nicely into the late 1990s. In late 1998, she recorded a new album while managing to run a record label, Better Place Records, and a film production company, Whitney's Brown House Productions. In the meantime, she kept up with television appearances and charity events-she formed the Whitney Houston Foundation for Children in 1989 and also lent her support to the United Negro College Fund, the Children's Diabetes Foundation, St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital, and various AIDS-related causes. The performer reflected on the years she invested in her craft in an Upscale magazine piece: "I started out working in little night clubs-sometimes getting paid, sometimes not-sometimes performing for 200 people, other times working in front of ten. Today, it's like people just want to jump out there and immediately become stars, but it takes time and it takes not giving up. It takes believing in one's self in spite of negativity and what people say."
Further Reading on Whitney Houston
Contemporary Musicians, edited by Julia Rubiner, Volume 8, Gale, 1993.
Rock Movers and Shakers, edited by Dafydd Rees and Luke Crampton, Billboard Books, 1991.
Ebony, January 1993, p. 118; December 1998, p. 156.
Entertainment Weekly, April 10, 1992, p. 8; December 4, 1992, pp. 42-43; December 25, 1992, p. 104; February 5, 1993, pp. 17-21; October 22, 1993, p. 40; December 31, 1993, p. 27; February 18, 1994, pp. 32-33; March 18, 1994, p. 103; January 10, 1997, p. 14; November 14, 1997, p. 6.
Essence, May 1997, p. 85.
Good Housekeeping, January 1997, p. 62.
Los Angeles Times, March 17, 1994, p. F10.
Newsweek, July 21, 1986, pp 60-61; November 23, 1998, p. 76.
Redbook, May 1995, p. 84.
Rolling Stone, June 10, 1993, pp. 46-49; January 27, 1994, p. 40.
Time, October 2, 1995, p. 89; December 4, 1995, p. 77.
Upscale, December 1993.
Internet Movie Database, March 3, 1999. http://us.imdb.com.