The beatific voice of a generation known as Whitney Houston passed away on the afternoon of February 11 in Beverly Hills, California at 3:55 pm PST at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. The loss of Houston comes on the heels of the passing of the late Don Cornelius ten days prior. Her passing came as earth shattering news to the world and many are still reeling from the after effects.
One of the greatest talents to grace planet earth indelibly changed the sound of popular music upon her arrival to the music scene in the early 1980s. There have been a plethora of singers in the history of music, but she belongs on the Mount Rushmore of great voices to ever be recorded. Her vocal range extended as far as the skies and the power contained inside could make a heart melt and a tear fall from an eye.
The world has lost a rare gift that falls from above only once every few lifetimes. An accomplished model before a world renowned singer, she demolished conventional thinking and the blueprints of a successful pop artist were redesigned once she took center stage in the world of music.
Whitney Elizabeth Houston was born on August 9, 1963 in Newark, New Jersey to John Russell Houston, Jr., an entertainment executive and Cissy Houston, a legendary gospel singer. Houston spent her formative years in East Orange, New Jersey. At the tender age of 11, she began singing in her hometown church in New Jersey and by the time she reached high school, Houston was performing background vocals on records for Michael Zager’s Band, Chaka Khan, Lou Rawls and Jermaine Jackson.
At the age of 15, one of her first big breaks would be singing background vocals on “I’m Every Woman” by Chaka Khan. It was during this juncture where she traveled alongside her mother as she would perform in night clubs across the country.
After being spotted by a photographer at one her performances at Carnegie Hall, Houston quickly embarked on a modeling career. By the early 1980s, she became one of the first African-American women to be featured on the cover of Seventeen magazine. Her model physique landed her in the pages of Glamour and Cosmopolitan magazines respectively and on television commercials.
She recorded her first song entitled “Memories” in 1982 with Bill Lasell for his album, One Down, which garnered the attention of legendary music critic Robert Christgau. He praised it and her road to success was being paved as she continued to work as a model.
During one of her performances with her mother, Houston caught the eye of Arista Records A&R executive, Jerry Griffiths. Griffiths told label impresario Clive Davis about this new talent and upon seeing Houston perform, he wanted to sign her to a record deal. As the story goes, Davis believed Houston had the crossover appeal to become a superstar. He signed her to Arista Records in 1983, but wouldn’t release her solo effort until two years later.
A duet with prominent soul singer Teddy Pendergrass gave Houston her first taste of success. “Hold Me” was released in 1984 and it peaked at #5 on the Billboard R&B Singles Chart. This song would be packaged on her massive self-titled debut album Whitney Houston, released in 1985. Under the tutelage of the Clive Davis, her music would evolve into a more pop/R&B friendly direction.
Davis enlisted the help of legendary producers Narada Michael Walden, Kashif Saleem, Michael Masser and Jermaine Jackson to help announce Houston as the single biggest act in the recording industry. Houston’s soul stirring vocals were showcased on a stellar mixture of up tempo songs and ballads. As a result, Houston became a force to reckon with on the Pop and R&B music charts. The iconic songs released from this classic album were “You Give Good Love,” “Saving All My Love For You,” “How Will I Know,” and “Greatest Love of All.”
Due to heavy promotion and Houston’s awe inspiring talent, the album went on to sell over 25 million copies ranking it among the all-time highest selling albums in music history. Each of the aforementioned singles assisted in making the album reach multiplatinum status in five countries and platinum status in 12 countries. The album went on to win seven American Music Awards, eight Billboard Awards, one Emmy, Grammy and MTV Music award.
Whitney Houston came from a musical family steeped in the Soul and Gospel musical traditions. Her mother, Cissy Houston was a singer for then well-known Soul group The Sweet Inspirations on Atlantic Records. Cissy Houston was also a much sought after recording session and background vocalist for many high profile artists in the 1960s and 1970s. Whitney Houston’s cousins Dionne and Dee Dee Warwick had achieved superstar status in their respective careers. Houston’s Godmother Aretha Franklin and her mother were quite instrumental in teaching her the gift of song.
After the release of her debut album, her profound impact led to sweeping changes in television video formats. Houston, alongside Michael Jackson, laid the groundwork in forever changing the way MTV broadcasted their videos to their viewing audience. As solo black recording artists, Houston and Jackson became barrier breakers due to their overwhelming successes in pop music. It allowed their fellow contemporaries to reach newfound audiences.
Following up on the success of her self-titled debut album, Whitney would be released in 1987. Whitney Houston once again graced the music masses with her vibrant presence and astounding vocal abilities. This formidable combination led to the creation of an album that would redefine music industry standards for a recording artist and ultimately her legacy.
Houston returned to the studio determined to capitalize on her newfound stardom as a solo recording artist on one of the most prominent music labels in the country. Her show stopping talents were on full display and she more than lived up to the extraordinary expectations placed on her after her groundbreaking debut effort. This album would see Houston’s career ascend to heights unknown by not only a female recording artist, but a Black recording artist.
Clive Davis enlisted the same producers with the exception of Jermaine Jackson. Jellybean Benitez would come into the fold and lend his expertise on the project. Some of the timeless songs released from Whitney were “I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me),” “So Emotional,” “Where Do Broken Hearts Go,” “For the Love of You,” and “Love Will Save the Day.” Like its predecessor, this album launched Houston into international superstardom as it sold over 19 million copies putting her in a distinguish class of artistry. It went onto win four American Music Awards, two Billboard Music Awards, one Grammy and Soul Train Music Award.
Between the release of her second and third albums, Houston capitalized on her vast influence by becoming an advocate for numerous issues plaguing different sectors of society. As a staunch supporter of then incarcerated Nelson Mandela, Houston refused to work with businesses who conducted its affairs with South Africa. On his 70th birthday, she performed at a concert held in Wembley Stadium where the proceeds went to causes fighting against apartheid. Building on her charitable efforts, Houston founded the Whitney Houston Foundation For Children in 1989. The non-profit was dedicated to raising funds for children’s issues around the globe.
Around this same time, she was perceived as leaving her urban roots by Black music audiences. As a result, her third album, I’m Your Baby Tonight was released in 1990 and it showcased a more contemporary urban dynamic with its overall sound. It featured the titanic production duo L.A. Reid & Babyface, Michael Masser, Ricky Minor, Narada Michael Walden, Luther Vandross, and Houston herself. Houston asserted more control over this album. This album failed to live up to the two previous albums results, but it continued to propel Houston’s legacy as one of the all-time recording giants. It went onto to reach platinum status in 11 countries and multiplatinum status in three countries.
As 1991 arrived, Houston found herself on top of the world and the United States was in the middle of fighting in the Persian Gulf War. During Super Bowl XXV, Houston gave the greatest rendition of the Star Spangled Banner next to Marvin Gaye’s 1983 version. This performance catapulted Houston into a new realm of artist worship. She became the only recording act ever to have her recording of a country’s national anthem land in the Top 20 music charts.
Later on that year, she planned the Homes for Heroes concert for soldiers fighting in the war and their families. A year later, she would marry R&B singer Bobby Brown and shortly thereafter give birth to their only child, Bobbi Kristina Brown. Due to her overwhelming success as a artist, offers for movie roles became more prevalent. Her first major film, The Bodyguard would prove to be a triumph for her newly found acting career.
Her remake of Dolly Parton’s 1974 classic, “I Will Always Love You” landed her atop the Billboard Hot 100 Chart for a then record 14 consecutive weeks. The next two singles, a remake of Chaka Khan’s 1978 classic, “I’m Every Woman” and “I Have Nothing” gave her the prestigious honor of having three songs in the Top 10, which would be the first for a recording artist. The movie went onto to $410 million worldwide and the album went onto to sell 44 million copies worldwide. For her efforts, she won 11 Billboard Music Awards, five World Music Awards, three Soul Train Music Awards and one BRIT Award.
Over the next few years, Houston would find herself in prominent starring roles in Waiting to Exhale in 1995, The Preacher’s Wife in 1996, and Cinderella in 1997. The Waiting to Exhale movie soundtrack became one of the highest selling movie soundtracks of the 1990s. The album oozed with R&B sensibility led by the musical accompaniment of the legendary R&B producer Babyface. It went onto to sell over 8 million copies and the movie grossed $81 million worldwide. Houston netted $10 million for her role in The Preacher’s Wife and the movie ended up grossing $50 million worldwide. The movie soundtrack became the highest selling gospel album of all-time by selling over 6 million copies worldwide. Cinderella garnered the highest viewing audience in 16 years on ABC when 60 million viewers tuned in to watch the premiere.
Eight years after releasing her last full length studio album, Houston released My Love is Your Love in 1998. The album featured production from up and coming producers Missy Elliott, Rodney Jerkins, Jerry Wonder and Wyclef Jean. Some of the more notable singles from the album were “When You Believe (a duet with Mariah Carey),” “Heartbreak Hotel,” “It’s Not Right But It’s Okay,” “I Learned from the Best,” and “My Love is Your Love.” The album went onto to sell over 11 million copies worldwide and go platinum in 11 countries. It cemented her legacy as one of the megastars in the world.
At the end of the 1990s, she had sold more than 51 million albums worldwide. She was also named as the top selling R&B Female Artist of the Century in 1999. As the millennium approached, reports of Houston’s drug abuse started to emerge after her appearances at a few live award shows and her absences at important events. Two compilation albums Whitney: The Greatest Hits in 2000 and Love, Whitney in 2001 would be released to pay homage to Houston’s groundbreaking hit records during the mid 1980s through the mid 1990s.
She signed the most lucrative deal for a recording artist in music history when she signed $100 million contract with Arista Records for a six-album deal in 2001. Her fifth studio album, Just Whitney was released in 2002. It featured production from previous collaborators Babyface, Missy Elliott and newcomers Gordon Chambers, Troy Taylor and her then husband Bobby Brown. It went onto to sell more than 3 million copies worldwide. It was the first time where Clive Davis didn’t have any influence over the album.
During this same year, she became embroiled in controversy. She was dealing with a lengthy lawsuit as well as the memorable interview with Diane Sawyer where she came clean about her demons and battles with drug abuse. The following year she released her only Christmas album to date, One Wish: The Holiday Album. She co-starred with her husband in the unforgettable TV series, Being Bobby Brown, which rose suspicions again regarding her past drug abuse.
After taking a break from the spotlight for close to two years, she finally divorced her husband, Bobby Brown in 2006. A year later, Arista Records released The Ultimate Collection, which contained all of the essential Whitney Houston recordings from the past two decades.
Houston would release her final studio album, I Look to You in 2009. It would land on the Billboard 200 Music Chart at #1 making it the first album since The Bodyguard soundtrack in 1992 to hit #1 and the first studio album to hit #1 since Whitney in 1987. It went onto sell 2.5 million copies worldwide and reached platinum distinction in seven countries, giving credence to her enduring legacy as one of the most profitable and viable acts of the past 25 years.
Throughout the 2000s, Houston battled her struggles with drug addiction by going in and out of drug rehabilitation centers. As of 2011, she was in talks to produce and co-star in the remake of the 1976 classic movie Sparkle before her untimely passing.
The influence of Houston can be found in current Pop/R&B/Soul artists such as Christina Aguilera, Mariah Carey, Toni Braxton, Brandy, Monica, Marsha Ambrosius, Ledisi, Jennifer Hudson among others.
Her vivacious spirit and effortless vocals moved a generation to bask in her God-given talent. She was unapologetic, relentless, and passionate about the culture she helped to create and proud to see its evolution. It is evident without her contributions that the traditional Pop/R&B format would cease to exist. Her dominance over the music industry was unquestioned.
She was the recipient of 30 Billboard Music Awards, 22 American Music Awards, six Grammy Awards, two Emmy Awards and 415 career achievements, making her the most awarded female act in the history of music. She sold more than 170 million albums worldwide, proving her legacy will be left intact for generations to come.
With seven albums to her credit, one can only wonder what could have been if she had more time to record material during her prime. At the height of her success, there wasn’t anyone within distance of her star. She was the brightest star in our constellation.