The Biography of Whitney Houston
Whitney Elizabeth Houston was born on August 9, 1963 in what was then a middle-income neighborhood in Newark, New Jersey. She was the daughter of Army serviceman and entertainment executive John Russell Houston, Jr. (September 13, 1920 – February 2, 2003), and gospel singer Emily “Cissy” (Drinkard) Houston. Her elder brother Michael is a singer, and her elder half-brother is former basketball player Gary Garland.
Her parents were both African American. Through her mother, Houston was a first cousin of singers Dionne Warwick and Dee Dee Warwick. Her godmother was Darlene Love and her honorary aunt was Aretha Franklin, whom she met at age 8 or 9 when her mother took her to a recording studio. Houston was raised a Baptist, but was also exposed to the Pentecostal church.
After the 1967 Newark riots, the family moved to a middle-class area in East Orange, New Jersey, when she was four.
At the age of 11, Houston started performing as a soloist in the junior gospel choir at the New Hope Baptist Church in Newark, where she also learned to play the piano. Her first solo performance in the church was “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah”.
When Houston was a teenager, she attended Mount Saint Dominic Academy, a Catholic girls’ high school in Caldwell, New Jersey, where she met her best friend Robyn Crawford, whom she described as the “sister she never had”.
While Houston was still in school, her mother continued to teach her how to sing. Houston was also exposed to the music of Chaka Khan, Gladys Knight, and Roberta Flack, most of whom would have an influence on her as a singer and performer.
Houston spent some of her teenage years touring nightclubs where her mother Cissy was performing, and she would occasionally get on stage and perform with her.
In 1977, at age 14, she became a backup singer on the Michael Zager Band’s single “Life’s a Party”. In 1978, at age 15, Houston sang background vocals for Chaka Khan and Lou Rawls.
In the early 1980s, Houston started working as a fashion model after a photographer saw her at Carnegie Hall singing with her mother.
She appeared in Seventeen and became one of the first women of color to grace the cover of the magazine. She was also featured in layouts in the pages of Glamour, Cosmopolitan, Young Miss, and appeared in a Canada Dry soft drink TV commercial.
Her looks and girl-next-door charm made her one of the most sought after teen models of that time. While modeling, she continued her burgeoning recording career by working with producers Michael Beinhorn, Bill Laswell and Martin Bisi on an album they were spearheading called One Down, which was credited to the group Material. For that project, Houston contributed the ballad “Memories”, a cover of a song by Hugh Hopper of Soft Machine.
Robert Christgau of The Village Voice called her contribution “one of the most gorgeous ballads you’ve ever heard”. She also appeared as a lead vocalist on one track on a Paul Jabara album, entitled Paul Jabara and Friends, released by Columbia Records in 1983.
Houston had previously been offered several recording agencies (Michael Zager in 1980, and Elektra Records in 1981), but her mother declined the offers stating her daughter must first complete high school.
In 1983, Gerry Griffith, an A&R representative from Arista Records, saw her performing with her mother in a New York City nightclub and was impressed. He convinced Arista’s head Clive Davis to make time to see Houston perform.
Davis was impressed and immediately offered a worldwide recording contract which Houston signed. Later that year, she made her national televised debut alongside Davis on The Merv Griffin Show.
Houston signed with Arista in 1983, but did not begin work on her album immediately.
The label wanted to make sure no other label signed the singer away.
Davis wanted to ensure he had the right material and producers for Houston’s debut album.
Some producers had to pass on the project because of prior commitments.
Houston first recorded a duet with Teddy Pendergrass entitled “Hold Me” which appeared on his album, Love Language.
The single was released in 1984 and gave Houston her first taste of success, becoming a Top 5 R&B hit.
It would also appear on her debut album in 1985.
With production from Michael Masser, Kashif, Jermaine Jackson, and Narada Michael Walden, Houston’s debut album Whitney Houston was released in February 1985.
Rolling Stone magazine praised Houston, calling her “one of the most exciting new voices in years” while The New York Times called the album “an impressive, musically conservative showcase for an exceptional vocal talent”.
Arista Records promoted Houston’s album with three different singles from the album in the US, UK and other European countries. In the UK, the dance-funk “Someone for Me”, which failed to chart in the country, was the first single while “All at Once” was in such European countries as the Netherlands and Belgium, where the song reached the top 5 on the singles charts, respectively.
In the US, the soulful ballad “You Give Good Love” was chosen as the lead single from Houston’s debut to establish her in the black marketplace first. Outside the US, the song failed to get enough attention to become a hit, but in the US, it gave the album its first major hit as it peaked at No. 3 on the US Billboard Hot 100 chart, and No. 1 on the Hot R&B chart.
As a result, the album began to sell strongly, and Houston continued promotion by touring nightclubs in the US. She also began performing on late-night television talk shows, which were not usually accessible to unestablished black acts.
The jazzy ballad “Saving All My Love for You” was released next and it would become Houston’s first No. 1 single in both the US and the UK.
She was then an opening act for singer Jeffrey Osborne on his nationwide tour. “Thinking About You” was released as the promo single only to R&B-oriented radio stations, which peaked at number ten on the US R&B Chart. At the time, MTV had received harsh criticism for not playing enough videos by black, Latino, and other racial minorities while favoring white acts.
The third US single, “How Will I Know”, peaked at No. 1, and the video introduced Houston to the MTV audience. Houston’s subsequent singles from this, and future albums, would make her the first African-American woman to receive consistent heavy rotation on MTV.
By 1986, a year after its initial release, Whitney Houston topped the Billboard 200 albums chart and stayed there for 14 non-consecutive weeks. The final single, “Greatest Love of All”, a cover of “The Greatest Love of All”, originally recorded by George Benson in 1977, became Houston’s biggest hit at the time after peaking No. 1 and remaining there for three weeks on the Hot 100 chart, which made her debut the first album by a woman to yield three No. 1 hits.
Houston was No. 1 artist of the year and Whitney Houston was the No. 1 album of the year on the 1986 Billboard year-end charts, making her the first woman to earn that distinction. At the time, Houston released the best-selling debut album by a solo artist.
Houston then embarked on her world tour, Greatest Love Tour. The album had become an international success, and was certified 13× platinum (diamond) in the United States alone, and has sold 25 million copies worldwide.
At the 1986 Grammy Awards, Houston was nominated for three awards including Album of the Year.
She was not eligible for the Best New Artist category because of her previous hit R&B duet recording with Teddy Pendergrass in 1984.
She won her first Grammy Award for Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female for “Saving All My Love for You”.
Houston’s performance of the song during the Grammy telecast later earned her an Emmy Award for Outstanding Individual Performance in a Variety or Music Program.
Houston won seven American Music Awards in total in 1986 and 1987, and an MTV Video Music Award.
The album’s popularity would also carry over to the 1987 Grammy Awards when “Greatest Love of All” would receive a Record of the Year nomination, ten years after the original recording of “The Greatest Love of All” by George Benson, which was the main theme of the boxer Muhammad Ali biopic “The Greatest” in 1977.
Houston’s debut album is listed as one of Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time and on The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame’s Definitive 200 list. Houston’s grand entrance into the music industry is considered one of the 25 musical milestones of the last 25 years, according to USA Today.
Following Houston’s breakthrough, doors were opened for other African-American women such as Janet Jackson and Anita Baker to find notable success in popular music and on MTV.
With many expectations, Houston’s second album, Whitney, was released in June 1987. The album again featured production from Masser, Kashif and Walden as well as Jellybean Benitez. Many critics complained that the material was too similar to her previous album. Rolling Stone said, “the narrow channel through which this talent has been directed is frustrating”. Still, the album enjoyed commercial success.
Houston became the first woman in music history to debut at number one on the Billboard 200 albums chart, and the first artist to enter the albums chart at number one in both the US and UK, while also hitting number one or top ten in dozens of other countries around the world. The album’s first single, “I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me)”, was also a massive hit worldwide, peaking at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and topping the singles chart in many countries such as Australia, Germany and the UK.
The next three singles, “Didn’t We Almost Have It All”, “So Emotional”, and “Where Do Broken Hearts Go” all peaked at number one on the US Hot 100 chart, which gave her a total of seven consecutive number one hits, breaking the record of six previously shared by The Beatles and the Bee Gees. Houston became the first woman to generate four number-one singles from one album.
Whitney has been certified 9× Platinum in the US for shipments of over 9 million copies, and has sold a total of 20 million copies worldwide.
At the 30th Grammy Awards in 1988, Houston was nominated for three awards, including Album of the Year, winning her second Grammy for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance for “I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me)”.
Houston also won two American Music Awards in 1988 and 1989, respectively, and a Soul Train Music Award. Following the release of the album, Houston embarked on the Moment of Truth World Tour, which was one of the ten highest-grossing concert tours of 1987.
The success of the tours during 1986–87 and her two studio albums ranked Houston No. 8 for the highest earning entertainers list according to Forbes magazine.
She was the highest earning African-American woman overall and the third highest entertainer after Bill Cosby and Eddie Murphy.
Houston was a supporter of Nelson Mandela and the anti-apartheid movement. During her modeling days, the singer refused to work with any agencies who did business with the then-apartheid South Africa.
On June 11, 1988, during the European leg of her tour, Houston joined other musicians to perform a set at Wembley Stadium in London to celebrate a then-imprisoned Nelson Mandela’s 70th birthday.
Over 72,000 people attended Wembley Stadium, and over a billion people tuned in worldwide as the rock concert raised over $1 million for charities while bringing awareness to apartheid.
Houston then flew back to the US for a concert at Madison Square Garden in New York City in August.
The show was a benefit concert that raised a quarter of a million dollars for the United Negro College Fund. In the same year, she recorded a song for NBC’s coverage of the 1988 Summer Olympics, “One Moment in Time”, which became a Top 5 hit in the US, while reaching number one in the UK and Germany.
With her world tour continuing overseas, Houston was still one of the top 20 highest earning entertainers for 1987–88 according to Forbes magazine.
In 1989, Houston formed The Whitney Houston Foundation For Children, a non-profit organization that has raised funds for the needs of children around the world. The organization cares for homelessness, children with cancer or AIDS, and other issues of self-empowerment.
With the success of her first two albums, Houston was undoubtedly an international crossover superstar, the most prominent since Michael Jackson, appealing to all demographics. However, some black critics believed she was “selling out”. They felt her singing on record lacked the soul that was present during her live concerts.
At the 1989 Soul Train Music Awards, when Houston’s name was called out for a nomination, a few in the audience jeered. Houston defended herself against the criticism, stating, “If you’re gonna have a long career, there’s a certain way to do it, and I did it that way. I’m not ashamed of it.” Houston took a more urban direction with her third studio album, I’m Your Baby Tonight, released in November 1990.
She produced and chose producers for this album and as a result, it featured production and collaborations with L.A. Reid and Babyface, Luther Vandross, and Stevie Wonder. The album showed Houston’s versatility on a new batch of tough rhythmic grooves, soulful ballads and up-tempo dance tracks. Reviews were mixed. Rolling Stone felt it was her “best and most integrated album”. while Entertainment Weekly, at the time thought Houston’s shift towards an urban direction was “superficial”.
The album contained several hits: the first two singles, “I’m Your Baby Tonight” and “All the Man That I Need” peaked at number one on the Billboard Hot 100 chart; “Miracle” peaked at number nine; “My Name Is Not Susan” peaked in the top twenty; “I Belong to You” reached the top ten of the US R&B chart and garnered Houston a Grammy nomination; and the sixth single, the Stevie Wonder duet “We Didn’t Know”, reached the R&B top twenty. The album peaked at number three on the Billboard 200 and went on to be certified 4× platinum in the US while selling twelve million total worldwide.
In 1990, Houston was the spokesperson for a youth leadership conference hosted in Washington, D.C. She had a private audience with President George H. W. Bush in the Oval Office to discuss the associated challenges.
During the Persian Gulf War, Houston performed “The Star Spangled Banner” at Super Bowl XXV at Tampa Stadium on January 27, 1991. This performance was later reported by those involved in the performance to have been lip synced or to have been sung into a dead microphone while a studio recording previously made by Houston was played. Dan Klores, a spokesman for Houston, explained: “This is not a Milli Vanilli thing. She sang live, but the microphone was turned off.
It was a technical decision, partially based on the noise factor. This is standard procedure at these events.” A commercial single and video of her performance were released, and reached the Top 20 on the US Hot 100, making her the only act to turn the US national anthem into a pop hit of that magnitude (José Feliciano’s version reached No. 50 in November 1968). Houston donated all her share of the proceeds to the American Red Cross Gulf Crisis Fund. As a result, the singer was named to the Red Cross Board of Governors.
Her rendition was critically acclaimed and is considered the benchmark for singers. Rolling Stone commented that “her singing stirs such strong patriotism. Unforgettable” and the performance ranked No. 1 on the 25 most memorable music moments in NFL history list. VH1 listed the performance as one of the greatest moments that rocked TV.
Following the attacks on 9/11, it was released again by Arista Records, all profits going towards the firefighters and victims of the attacks. This time it peaked at No. 6 in the Hot 100 and was certified platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America.
Later in 1991, Houston put together her Welcome Home Heroes concert with HBO for the soldiers fighting in the Persian Gulf War and their families. The free concert took place at Naval Station Norfolk in Norfolk, Virginia in front of 3,500 servicemen and women. HBO descrambled the concert so that it was free for everyone to watch. Houston’s concert gave HBO its highest ratings ever. She then embarked on the I’m Your Baby Tonight World Tour.
Throughout the 1980s, Houston was romantically linked to American football star Randall Cunningham and actor Eddie Murphy. She then met R&B singer Bobby Brown at the 1989 Soul Train Music Awards. After a three-year courtship, the two were married on July 18, 1992. On March 4, 1993, Houston gave birth to their daughter Bobbi Kristina, the couple’s only child. Brown would go on to have several run-ins with the law, including some jail time.
With the commercial success of her albums, movie offers poured in, including offers to work with Robert De Niro, Quincy Jones, and Spike Lee, but Houston did not feel the time was right. Houston’s first film role was in The Bodyguard, released in 1992 and co-starring Kevin Costner.
Houston played Rachel Marron, a star who is stalked by a crazed fan and hires a bodyguard to protect her. USA Today listed it as one of the 25 most memorable movie moments of the last 25 years in 2007. Houston’s mainstream appeal allowed people to look at the movie color-blind.
However, controversy arose as some felt the film’s advertising intentionally hid Houston’s face to hide the film’s interracial relationship. In an interview with Rolling Stone in 1993, the singer commented that “people know who Whitney Houston is – I’m black. You can’t hide that fact.” Houston received a Razzie Award nomination for Worst Actress. The Washington Post said Houston is “doing nothing more than playing Houston, comes out largely unscathed if that is possible in so cockamamie an undertaking”, and The New York Times commented that she lacked passion with her co-star. Despite the film’s mixed reviews, it was hugely successful at the box office, grossing more than $121 million in the U.S. and $410 million worldwide, making it one of the top 100 grossing films in film history at its time of release, though it is no longer in the top 100 because of rising ticket prices since the time the film was released.
The film’s soundtrack also enjoyed big success. Houston executive produced and contributed six songs for the motion picture’s adjoining soundtrack album. Rolling Stone said it is “nothing more than pleasant, tasteful and urbane”. The soundtrack’s lead single was “I Will Always Love You”, written and originally recorded by Dolly Parton in 1974.
Houston’s version of the song was acclaimed by many critics, regarding it as her “signature song” or “iconic performance”. Rolling Stone and USA Today called her rendition “the tour-de-force”. The single peaked at number one on the Billboard Hot 100 for a then-record-breaking 14 weeks, number one on the R&B chart for a then-record-breaking 11 weeks, and number one on the Adult Contemporary charts for five weeks.
The single was certified 4× platinum by the RIAA, making Houston the first woman with a single to reach that level in the RIAA history and becoming the best-selling single by a woman in the US. The song also became a global success, hitting number-one in almost all countries, and the best-selling single of all time by a female solo artist with 20 million copies sold.
The soundtrack topped the Billboard 200 chart and remained there for 20 non-consecutive weeks, the longest tenure by any Arista album on the chart in the Nielsen SoundScan era (tied for 10th overall by any label), and became one of the fastest selling albums ever. During Christmas week of 1992, the soundtrack sold over a million copies within a week, becoming the first album to achieve that feat under Nielsen SoundScan system.
With the follow-up singles “I’m Every Woman”, a Chaka Khan cover, and “I Have Nothing” both reaching the top five, Houston became the first woman to ever have three singles in the Top 11 simultaneously. The album was certified 17× platinum in the US alone, with worldwide sales of 44 million, making The Bodyguard the biggest-selling album by a female act on the list of the world’s Top 10 best-selling albums, topping Shania Twain’s 40 million sold for Come On Over.
Houston won three Grammys for the album in 1994, including two of the Academy’s highest honors, Album of the Year and Record of the Year. In addition, she won a record 8 American Music Awards at that year’s ceremony including the Award of Merit, 11 Billboard Music Awards, 3 Soul Train Music Awards in 1993–94 including Sammy Davis, Jr. Award as Entertainer of the Year, 5 NAACP Image Awards including Entertainer of the Year, a record 5 World Music Awards, and a BRIT award.
Following the success of the project, Houston embarked on another expansive global tour, The Bodyguard World Tour, in 1993–94. Her concerts, movie, and recording grosses made her the third highest earning female entertainer of 1993–94, just behind Oprah Winfrey and Barbra Streisand according to Forbes magazine. Houston placed in the top five of Entertainment Weekly’s annual “Entertainer of the Year” ranking and was labeled by Premiere magazine as one of the 100 most powerful people in Hollywood.
In October 1994, Houston attended and performed at a state dinner in the White House honoring newly elected South African president Nelson Mandela. At the end of her world tour, Houston performed three concerts in South Africa to honor President Mandela, playing to over 200,000 people.
This would make the singer the first major musician to visit the newly unified and apartheid free nation following Mandela’s winning election. The concert was broadcast live on HBO with funds of the concerts being donated to various charities in South Africa. The event was considered the nation’s “biggest media event since the inauguration of Nelson Mandela”.
In 1995, Houston starred alongside Angela Bassett, Loretta Devine, and Lela Rochon in her second film, Waiting to Exhale, a motion picture about four African-American women struggling with relationships. Houston played the lead character Savannah Jackson, a TV producer in love with a married man. She chose the role because she saw the film as “a breakthrough for the image of black women because it presents them both as professionals and as caring mothers”.
After opening at number one and grossing $67 million in the US at the box office and $81 million worldwide, it proved that a movie primarily targeting a black audience can cross over to success, while paving the way for other all-black movies such as How Stella Got Her Groove Back and the Tyler Perry movies that became popular in the 2000s.
The film is also notable for its portrayal of black women as strong middle class citizens rather than as stereotypes. The reviews were mainly positive for the ensemble cast. The New York Times said: “Ms. Houston has shed the defensive hauteur that made her portrayal of a pop star in ‘The Bodyguard’ seem so distant.” Houston was nominated for an NAACP Image Award for “Outstanding Actress in a Motion Picture”, but lost to her co-star Bassett.
The film’s accompanying soundtrack, Waiting to Exhale: Original Soundtrack Album, was written and produced by Babyface. Though he originally wanted Houston to record the entire album, she declined. Instead, she “wanted it to be an album of women with vocal distinction”, and thus gathered several African-American female artists for the soundtrack, to go along with the film’s message about strong women. Consequently, the album featured a range of contemporary R&B female recording artists along with Houston, such as Mary J. Blige, Brandy, Toni Braxton, Aretha Franklin, and Patti LaBelle.
Houston’s “Exhale (Shoop Shoop)” peaked at No. 1, and then spent a record eleven weeks at the No. 2 spot and eight weeks on top of the R&B Charts. “Count On Me”, a duet with CeCe Winans, hit the U.S. Top 10; and Houston’s third contribution, “Why Does It Hurt So Bad”, made the Top 30. The album debuted at No. 1, and was certified 7× Platinum in the United States, denoting shipments of seven million copies.
The soundtrack received strong reviews; as Entertainment Weekly stated: “the album goes down easy, just as you’d expect from a package framed by Whitney Houston tracks… the soundtrack waits to exhale, hovering in sensuous suspense” and has since ranked it as one of the 100 Best Movie Soundtracks. Later that year, Houston’s children’s charity organization was awarded a VH1 Honor for all the charitable work.
In 1996, Houston starred in the holiday comedy The Preacher’s Wife, with Denzel Washington. She plays a gospel-singing wife of a pastor (Courtney B. Vance). It was largely an updated remake of the film The Bishop’s Wife (1948), which starred Loretta Young, David Niven and Cary Grant. Houston earned $10 million for the role, making her one of the highest-paid actresses in Hollywood at the time and the highest earning African-American actress in Hollywood.
The movie, with its all African-American cast, was a moderate success, earning approximately $50 million at the U.S. box offices. The movie gave Houston her strongest reviews so far. The San Francisco Chronicle said Houston “is rather angelic herself, displaying a divine talent for being virtuous and flirtatious at the same time”, and she “exudes gentle yet spirited warmth, especially when praising the Lord in her gorgeous singing voice”. Houston was again nominated for an NAACP Image Award and won for Outstanding Actress in a Motion Picture.
Houston recorded and co-produced, with Mervyn Warren, the film’s accompanying gospel soundtrack. The Preacher’s Wife: Original Soundtrack Album included six gospel songs with Georgia Mass Choir that were recorded at the Great Star Rising Baptist Church in Atlanta. Houston also duetted with gospel legend Shirley Caesar, The album sold six million copies worldwide and scored hit singles with “I Believe in You and Me” and “Step by Step”, becoming the largest selling gospel album of all time. The album received mainly positive reviews.
Some critics, such as that of USA Today, noted the presence of her emotional depth, while The Times said, “To hear Houston going at full throttle with the 35 piece Georgia Mass Choir struggling to keep up is to realise what her phenomenal voice was made for”. She won Favorite Adult Contemporary Artist for the Preacher’s Wife at the 1997 American Music Awards for the Preacher’s Wife Soundtrack.
In 1997, Houston’s production company changed its name to BrownHouse Productions and was joined by Debra Martin Chase. Their goal was “to show aspects of the lives of African-Americans that have not been brought to the screen before” while improving how African-Americans are portrayed in film and television. Their first project was a made-for-television remake of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella. In addition to co-producing, Houston starred in the movie as the Fairy Godmother along with Brandy, Jason Alexander, Whoopi Goldberg, and Bernadette Peters.
Houston was initially offered the role of Cinderella in 1993, but other projects intervened. The film is notable for its multi-racial cast and no stereotypical message. An estimated 60 million viewers tuned into the special giving ABC its highest TV ratings in 16 years. The movie received seven Emmy nominations including Outstanding Variety, Musical or Comedy, while winning Outstanding Art Direction in a Variety, Musical or Comedy Special.
Houston and Chase then obtained the rights to the story of Dorothy Dandridge. Houston was to play Dandridge, the first African American actress to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress. Houston wanted the story told with dignity and honor. However, Halle Berry also had rights to the project and got her version going first. Later that year, Houston paid tribute to her idols, such as Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross, and Dionne Warwick, by performing their hits during the three-night HBO Concert Classic Whitney: Live from Washington, D.C.. The special raised over $300,000 for the Children’s Defense Fund. Houston received the Quincy Jones Award for outstanding career achievements in the field of entertainment at the 12th Soul Train Music Awards.
After spending much of the early and mid-1990s working on motion pictures and their soundtrack albums, Houston’s first studio album in eight years, the critically acclaimed My Love Is Your Love, was released in November 1998. Though originally slated to be a greatest hits album with a handful of new songs, recording sessions were so fruitful that a new full-length studio album was released.
Recorded and mixed in only six weeks, it featured production from Rodney Jerkins, Wyclef Jean and Missy Elliott. The album debuted at number thirteen, its peak position, on the Billboard 200 chart. It had a funkier and edgier sound than past releases and saw Houston handling urban dance, hip hop, mid-tempo R&B, reggae, torch songs, and ballads all with great dexterity.
From late 1998 to early 2000, the album spawned several hit singles: “When You Believe” (US No. 15, UK No. 4), a duet with Mariah Carey for 1998’s The Prince of Egypt soundtrack, which also became an international hit as it peaked in the Top 10 in several countries and won an Academy Award for Best Original Song; “Heartbreak Hotel” (US No. 2, UK No. 25) featured Faith Evans and Kelly Price, received a 1999 MTV VMA nomination for Best R&B Video, and number one on the US R&B chart for seven weeks; “It’s Not Right but It’s Okay” (US No. 4, UK No. 3) won Houston her sixth Grammy Award for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance; “My Love Is Your Love” (US No. 4, UK No. 2) with 3 million copies sold worldwide; and “I Learned from the Best” (US No. 27, UK No. 19).
These singles became international hits as well, and all the singles, except “When You Believe”, became number one hits on the Billboard Hot Dance/Club Play chart. The album sold four million copies in America, making it certified 4× platinum, and a total of eleven million copies worldwide.
The album gave Houston some of her strongest reviews ever. Rolling Stone said Houston was singing “with a bite in her voice” and The Village Voice called it “Whitney’s sharpest and most satisfying so far”. In 1999, Houston participated in VH-1’s Divas Live ’99, alongside Brandy, Mary J. Blige, Tina Turner, and Cher. The same year, Houston hit the road with her 70 date My Love Is Your Love World Tour. The European leg of the tour was Europe’s highest grossing arena tour of the year.
In November 1999, Houston was named Top-selling R&B Female Artist of the Century with certified US sales of 51 million copies at the time and The Bodyguard Soundtrack was named the Top-selling Soundtrack Album of the Century by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). She also won The Artist of the Decade, Female award for extraordinary artistic contributions during the 1990s at the 14th Soul Train Music Awards, and an MTV Europe Music Award for Best R&B.
In May 2000, Whitney: The Greatest Hits was released worldwide. The double disc set peaked at number five in the United States, reaching number one in the United Kingdom. In addition, the album reached the Top 10 in many other countries. While ballad songs were left unchanged, the album features house/club remixes of many of Houston’s up-tempo hits. Included on the album were four new songs: “Could I Have This Kiss Forever” (a duet with Enrique Iglesias), “Same Script, Different Cast” (a duet with Deborah Cox), “If I Told You That” (a duet with George Michael), and “Fine”, and three hits that had never appeared on a Houston album: “One Moment in Time”, “The Star Spangled Banner”, and “If You Say My Eyes Are Beautiful”, a duet with Jermaine Jackson from his 1986 Precious Moments album.
Along with the album, an accompanying VHS and DVD was released featuring the music videos to Houston’s greatest hits, as well as several hard-to-find live performances including her 1983 debut on The Merv Griffin Show, and interviews. The greatest hits album was certified 3× platinum in the US, with worldwide sales of 10 million.
Though Houston was seen as a “good girl” with a perfect image in the 1980s and early 1990s, by the late 1990s, her behavior changed. She was often hours late for interviews, photo shoots and rehearsals, and canceling concerts and talk-show appearances. With the missed performances and weight loss, rumors about Houston using drugs with her husband circulated.
On January 11, 2000, airport security guards discovered marijuana in both Houston’s and husband Bobby Brown’s luggage at a Hawaii airport, but the two boarded the plane and departed before authorities could arrive. Charges were later dropped against them, but rumors of drug usage between the couple would continue to surface. Two months later, Clive Davis was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Houston had been scheduled to perform at the event, but failed to show up.
Shortly thereafter, Houston was scheduled to perform at the Academy Awards but was fired from the event by musical director and longtime friend Burt Bacharach. Her publicist cited throat problems as the reason for the cancellation. In his book The Big Show: High Times and Dirty Dealings Backstage at the Academy Awards, author Steve Pond revealed that “Houston’s voice was shaky, she seemed distracted and jittery, and her attitude was casual, almost defiant”, and that while Houston was to sing “Over the Rainbow”, she would start singing a different song. Houston later admitted to having been fired. Later that year, Houston’s long-time executive assistant and friend, Robyn Crawford, resigned from Houston’s management company.
In August 2001, Houston signed one of the biggest record deals in music history, with Arista/BMG. She renewed her contract for $100 million to deliver six new albums, on which she would also earn royalties. She later made an appearance on Michael Jackson: 30th Anniversary Special. Her extremely thin frame further spurred rumors of drug use. Houston’s publicist said, “Whitney has been under stress due to family matters, and when she is under stress she doesn’t eat.”
The singer was scheduled for a second performance the following night but canceled. Within weeks, Houston’s rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” would be re-released after the September 11 attacks, with the proceeds donated to the New York Firefighters 9/11 Disaster Relief Fund and the New York Fraternal Order of Police. The song peaked at No. 6 this time on the US Hot 100, topping its previous position.
In 2002, Houston became involved in a legal dispute with John Houston Enterprise. Although the company was started by her father to manage her career, it was actually run by company president Kevin Skinner. Skinner filed a breach-of-contract lawsuit and sued for $100 million (but lost), stating that Houston owed the company previously unpaid compensation for helping to negotiate her $100 million contract with Arista Records and for sorting out legal matters. Houston stated that her 81-year-old father had nothing to do with the lawsuit. Although Skinner tried to claim otherwise, John Houston never appeared in court. Houston’s father later died in February 2003. The lawsuit was dismissed on April 5, 2004, and Skinner was awarded nothing.
Also in 2002, Houston did an interview with Diane Sawyer to promote her then-upcoming album. During the prime-time special, Houston spoke on topics including rumored drug use and marriage. She was asked about the ongoing drug rumors and replied, “First of all, let’s get one thing straight. Crack is cheap. I make too much money to ever smoke crack. Let’s get that straight. Okay? We don’t do crack. We don’t do that. Crack is whack.” The line was from Keith Haring’s mural which was painted in 1986 on the handball court at 128th Street and 2nd Avenue. Houston did, however, admit to using other substances at times, including cocaine.
In December 2002, Houston released her fifth studio album, Just Whitney. The album included productions from then-husband Bobby Brown, as well as Missy Elliott and Babyface, and marked the first time that Houston did not produce with Clive Davis as Davis had been released by top management at BMG.
Upon its release, Just Whitney received mixed reviews. The album debuted at number 9 on the Billboard 200 chart and it had the highest first week sales of any album Houston had ever released. The four singles released from the album did not fare well on the Billboard Hot 100, but became dance chart hits. Just Whitney was certified platinum in the United States, and sold approximately three million worldwide.
On a June 2003 trip to Israel, Houston said of her visit, “I’ve never felt like this in any other country. I feel at home, I feel wonderful.”
In late 2003, Houston released her first Christmas album One Wish: The Holiday Album, with a collection of traditional holiday songs. Houston produced the album with Mervyn Warren and Gordon Chambers. A single titled “One Wish (for Christmas)” reached the Top 20 on the Adult Contemporary chart, and the album was certified gold in the US. Having always been a touring artist, Houston spent most of 2004 touring and performing in Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and Russia. In September 2004, she gave a surprise performance at the World Music Awards in a tribute to long-time friend Clive Davis. After the show, Davis and Houston announced plans to go into the studio to work on her new album.
In early 2004, husband Bobby Brown starred in his own reality TV program, Being Bobby Brown on the Bravo network, which provided a view into the domestic goings-on in the Brown household. Though it was Brown’s vehicle, Houston was a prominent figure throughout the show, receiving as much screen time as Brown.
The series aired in 2005 and featured Houston in, what some would say, not her most flattering moments. The Hollywood Reporter said it was “undoubtedly the most disgusting and execrable series ever to ooze its way onto television”.
Despite the perceived train-wreck nature of the show, the series gave Bravo its highest ratings in its time slot and continued Houston’s successful forays into film and television. The show was not renewed for a second season after Houston stated that she would no longer appear in it, and Brown and Bravo could not come to an agreement for another season.
After years of controversy and turmoil, Houston separated from Bobby Brown in September 2006, filing for divorce the following month. On February 1, 2007, Houston asked the court to fast track their divorce. The divorce was finalized on April 24, 2007, with Houston granted custody of the couple’s daughter. On May 4, Houston sold the suburban Atlanta home featured in Being Bobby Brown for $1.19 million. A few days later, Brown sued Houston in Orange County, California court in an attempt to change the terms of their custody agreement.
Brown also sought child and spousal support from Houston. In the lawsuit, Brown claimed that financial and emotional problems prevented him from properly responding to Houston’s divorce petition. Brown lost at his court hearing as the judge dismissed his appeal to overrule the custody terms, leaving Houston with full custody and Brown with no spousal support. In March 2007, Clive Davis of Arista Records announced that Houston would begin recording a new album. In October 2007, Arista released another compilation The Ultimate Collection outside the United States.
Houston gave her first interview in seven years in September 2009, appearing on Oprah Winfrey’s season premiere. The interview was billed as “the most anticipated music interview of the decade”. Whitney admitted on the show to using drugs with former husband Bobby Brown, who “laced marijuana with rock cocaine”. She told Oprah that before The Bodyguard her drug use was light, but after the film’s success and the birth of her daughter it got heavier, and by 1996 “[doing drugs] was an everyday thing… I wasn’t happy by that point in time. I was losing myself.”
Houston released her new album, I Look to You, in August 2009. The album’s first two singles were the title track “I Look to You” and “Million Dollar Bill”. The album entered the Billboard 200 at No. 1, with Houston’s best opening week sales of 305,000 copies, marking Houston’s first number one album since The Bodyguard, and Houston’s first studio album to reach number one since 1987’s Whitney.
Houston also appeared on European television programs to promote the album. She performed the song “I Look to You” on the German television show Wetten, dass..?. Three days later, she performed the worldwide first single from I Look to You, “Million Dollar Bill”, on the French television show Le Grand Journal.
Houston appeared as guest mentor on The X Factor in the United Kingdom. She performed “Million Dollar Bill” on the following day’s results show, completing the song even as a strap in the back of her dress popped open two seconds into the performance. She later commented that she “sang [herself] out of [her] clothes”.
The performance was poorly received by the British media, and was variously described as “weird” and “ungracious”, “shambolic” and a “flop”. Despite this reception, “Million Dollar Bill” jumped to its peak from 14 to number 5 (her first UK top 5 for over a decade), and three weeks after release I Look to You went gold. Houston appeared on the Italian version of The X Factor, also performing “Million Dollar Bill”, this time to excellent reviews. Houston was later awarded a Gold certificate for achieving over 50,000 CD sales of I Look to You in Italy.
In November, Houston performed “I Didn’t Know My Own Strength” at the 2009 American Music Awards in Los Angeles, California. Two days later, Houston performed “Million Dollar Bill” and “I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me)” on the Dancing with the Stars season 9 finale. As of December 2009, I Look to You has been certified platinum by the RIAA for sales of more than one million copies in the United States. On January 26, 2010, her debut album was re-released in a special edition entitled Whitney Houston – The Deluxe Anniversary Edition.
Houston later embarked on a world tour, entitled the Nothing but Love World Tour. It was her first world tour in over ten years and was announced as a triumphant comeback. However, some poor reviews and rescheduled concerts brought some negative media attention. Houston canceled some concerts because of illness and received widespread negative reviews from fans who were disappointed in the quality of her voice and performance. Some fans reportedly walked out of her concerts.
In January 2010, Houston was nominated for two NAACP Image Awards, one for Best Female Artist and one for Best Music Video. She won the award for Best Music Video for her single “I Look to You”. On January 16, she received The BET Honors Award for Entertainer citing her lifetime achievements spanning over 25 years in the industry. The 2010 BET Honors award was held at the Warner Theatre in Washington, D.C. and aired on February 1, 2010.
Jennifer Hudson and Kim Burrell performed in honor of her, garnering positive reviews. Houston also received a nomination from the Echo Awards, Germany’s version of the Grammys, for Best International Artist. In April 2010, the UK newspaper The Mirror reported that Houston was thinking about recording her eighth studio album and wanted to collaborate with will.i.am (of The Black Eyed Peas), her first choice for a collaboration.
Houston also performed the song “I Look to You” on the 2011 BET Celebration of Gospel, with gospel–jazz singer Kim Burrell, held at the Staples Center, Los Angeles. The performance aired on January 30, 2011. Early in 2011, she gave an uneven performance in tribute to cousin Dionne Warwick at music mogul Clive Davis’ annual pre-Grammy gala. In May 2011, Houston enrolled in a rehabilitation center again, as an out-patient, citing drug and alcohol problems. A representative for Houston said that it was a part of Houston’s “longstanding recovery process”.
In September 2011, The Hollywood Reporter announced that Houston would produce and star alongside Jordin Sparks and Mike Epps in the remake of the 1976 film Sparkle. In the film, Houston portrays Sparks’ “not-so encouraging” mother. Houston is also credited as an executive producer of the film.
Debra Martin Chase, producer of Sparkle, stated that Houston deserved the title considering she had been there from the beginning in 2001, when Houston obtained Sparkle production rights. R&B singer Aaliyah – originally tapped to star as Sparkle – died in a 2001 plane crash. Her death derailed production, which would have begun in 2002. Houston’s remake of Sparkle was filmed in the fall of 2011 over a two-month period, and was released by TriStar Pictures.
On May 21, 2012, “Celebrate”, the last song Houston recorded with Sparks, premiered at RyanSeacrest.com. It was made available for digital download on iTunes on June 5. The song was featured on the Sparkle: Music from the Motion Picture soundtrack as the first official single. The movie was released on August 17, 2012 in the United States. The accompanying music video for “Celebrate” was filmed on May 30, 2012. The video was shot over 2 days, and a sneak peek of the video premiered on Entertainment Tonight on June 4, 2012.
On Thursday, February 9, 2012, Houston visited singers Brandy and Monica, together with Clive Davis, at their rehearsals for Davis’ pre-Grammy Awards party at The Beverly Hilton hotel in Beverly Hills. That same day, she made her last public performance, when she joined Kelly Price on stage in Hollywood, California, and sang “Jesus Loves Me”.
Two days later, on February 11, Houston was found unconscious in Suite 434 at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, submerged in the bathtub. Beverly Hills paramedics arrived at approximately 3:30 p.m. and found the singer unresponsive and performed CPR. Houston was pronounced dead at 3:55 p.m. PST. The cause of death was not immediately known. Local police said there were “no obvious signs of criminal intent”.
On March 22, 2012, the Los Angeles County coroner’s office reported the cause of Houston’s death was drowning and the “effects of atherosclerotic heart disease and cocaine use”. The office stated the amount of cocaine found in Houston’s body indicated that she used the substance shortly before her death. Toxicology results revealed additional drugs in her system: diphenhydramine, alprazolam, cannabis and cyclobenzaprine. The manner of death was listed as an “accident”
An invitation-only memorial service was held for Houston on Saturday, February 18, 2012, at the New Hope Baptist Church in Newark, New Jersey. The service was scheduled for two hours, but lasted four. Among those who performed at the funeral were Stevie Wonder (rewritten version of “Ribbon in the Sky”, and “Love’s in Need of Love Today”), CeCe Winans (“Don’t Cry”, and “Jesus Loves Me”), Alicia Keys (“Send Me an Angel”), Kim Burrell (rewritten version of “A Change Is Gonna Come”), and R. Kelly (“I Look to You”).
The performances were interspersed with hymns by the church choir and remarks by Clive Davis, Houston’s record producer; Kevin Costner; Rickey Minor, her music director; her cousin, Dionne Warwick; and Ray Watson, her security guard for the past 11 years. Aretha Franklin was listed on the program and was expected to sing, but was unable to attend the service.
Bobby Brown, Houston’s ex-husband, was also invited to the funeral but he left before the service began. Houston was buried on February 19, 2012, in Fairview Cemetery, in Westfield, New Jersey, next to her father, John Russell Houston, who died in 2003. In June 2012, the McDonald’s Gospelfest in Newark became a tribute to Houston.
Houston was the most awarded female artist of all time, according to Guinness World Records, with two Emmy Awards, six Grammy Awards, 30 Billboard Music Awards, 22 American Music Awards, among a total of 415 career awards as of 2010. She held the all-time record for the most American Music Awards of any female solo artist and shared the record with Michael Jackson for the most AMAs ever won in a single year with eight wins in 1994.
Houston won a record 11 Billboard Music Awards at its fourth ceremony in 1993. She also had the record for the most WMAs won in a single year, winning five awards at the 6th World Music Awards in 1994.
In May 2003, Houston placed at number three on VH1’s list of “50 Greatest Women of the Video Era”, behind Madonna and Janet Jackson. She was also ranked at number 116 on their list of the “200 Greatest Pop Culture Icons of All Time”.
In 2008, Billboard magazine released a list of the Hot 100 All-Time Top Artists to celebrate the US singles chart’s 50th anniversary, ranking Houston at number nine. Similarly, she was ranked as one of the “Top 100 Greatest Artists of All Time” by VH1 in September 2010.
In November 2010, Billboard released its “Top 50 R&B/Hip-Hop Artists of the Past 25 Years” list and ranked Houston at number three who not only went on to earn eight number-one singles on the R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart, but also landed five number ones on R&B/Hip-Hop Albums.
Houston’s debut album is listed as one of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time by Rolling Stone magazine and is on Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s Definitive 200 list. In 2004, Billboard picked the success of her first release on the charts as one of 110 Musical Milestones in its history. Houston’s entrance into the music industry is considered one of the 25 musical milestones of the last 25 years, according to USA Today in 2007.
It stated that she paved the way for Mariah Carey’s chart-topping vocal gymnastics. In 1997, the Franklin School in East Orange, New Jersey was renamed to The Whitney E. Houston Academy School of Creative and Performing Arts. In 2001, Houston was the first artist to be given a BET Lifetime Achievement Award.
Houston is one of pop music’s best-selling music artists of all-time, with an estimated 170–200 million records sold worldwide. She was ranked as the fourth best-selling female artist in the United States by the Recording Industry Association of America, with 55 million certified albums sold in the US, and held an Honorary Doctorate in Humanities from Grambling State University, Louisiana.
Houston was inducted into the New Jersey Hall of Fame in 2013. In August 2014, Houston was inducted to the official Rhythm and Blues Music Hall of Fame in its second class.