Houston, Whitney Elizabeth (9 Aug. 1963-11 Feb. 2012), actress and pop singer, was born in Newark, New Jersey, the daughter of John Russell Houston, Jr. whose diverse employment included artists' management, and Emily Drinkard, who sang professionally as Cissy Houston. Whitney's musical heritage was substantial. Her mother achieved fame both in gospel music and as a vocal accompanist (backup singer) with pop stars. One such backup group, the Sweet Inspirations, included Cissy's niece--Whitney's cousin--Dionne Warwick, who subsequently became a pop star in her own right. (But the widely reported identification of Aretha Franklin as Whitney's godmother is evidently a promotional fiction.)
Whitney was known to her family and friends as Nippy, a nickname given to her as a toddler by her father; Nippy was a comic strip character who was always getting in trouble. In Newark she attended Benjamin Franklin Elementary School and shared in the family's deep involvement in the New Hope Baptist Church. After the race riots of 1967, they moved to East Orange, New Jersey, but Cissy retained her devotion to the gospel choir at New Hope Baptist Church. Whitney first sang there in childhood and from the age of eleven appeared as a soloist with the choir.
Her parents separated in 1977 and later divorced. While attending Mount Saint Dominic Academy, a Catholic girls high school in Caldwell, New Jersey, Whitney routinely came to venues where Cissy was singing, mainly nightclubs, and occasionally joined her mother, singing on stage. Their appearance in 1979 at Carnegie Hall led to Whitney's discovery by the fashion industry. She was beautiful, vivacious, and charismatic, and at this point in her career she conveyed innocence and enthusiasm. She signed with the Click agency and then graced the covers of Seventeen, Cosmopolitan, and other magazines. During this same period, from 1977 into the early 1980s, she recorded as a backup singer for Chaka Khan, Lou Rawls, Jermaine Jackson, and others, but Cissy required that her daughter graduate from high school before embarking on a career as a soloist.
In 1981 Whitney graduated from Mount Saint Dominic. There she had formed a lifelong friendship with Robyn Crawford, who by various accounts subsequently took steps to manage and control her career, in the process alienating many in her circle of family and friends. She was coming to be recognized as a singer of immense talent, and she began to be courted by record companies. In 1983 she signed with Arista, under the direction of the powerful recording executive Clive Davis, who crafted an aggressive, sustained promotional campaign. In February 1985 Arista released Whitney Houston, an instantaneous hit. This album would ultimately sell more than 25 million copies. It yielded chart-topping singles, including "Saving All My Love for You," "How Will I Know?," and "Greatest Love of All," and Houston became the first African-American woman to be given heavy exposure on the MTV channel. On the strength of that album she toured worldwide in 1986 and won numerous awards. At this point John Houston took an active role in the management of her career, founding a new company, Nippy, Inc.
Her second album, Whitney, introduced more hit songs: "I Wanna Dance with Somebody," "Didn't We Almost Have It All," "So Emotional," and "Where Do Broken Hearts Go?" She garnered further awards and continued touring. In London in June 1988 she participated in a concert that called attention to apartheid by celebrating the seventieth birthday of Nelson Mandela. She created a nonprofit agency, the Whitney Houston Foundation for Children, in 1989.
In January 1991 Houston sang "The Star Spangled Banner" at halftime for Super Bowl XXV. Her performance was so compelling that Arista released it as a single, and this had the unique consequence of the national anthem reaching into the top twenty on the pop charts. At this time she transferred her attention to movies and became a star actress as immediately as she had become a star singer. She was featured in The Bodyguard alongside Kevin Costner, released in 1992. That soundtrack yielded further hits, including "I'm Every Woman," "I Have Nothing," "Run to You," and, above all, "I Will Always Love You." She sang for Mandela again in Washington, DC and South Africa in 1994 and then took lead roles in the films Waiting to Exhale, released in 1995, with Angela Bassett, and The Preacher's Wife, 1996, alongside Denzel Washington.
Despite these achievements Houston's life was in a self-destructive downward spiral from the late 1980s onward. She began to use cocaine. She became unreliable, cancelling or showing up late for concerts, ceremonies, and other appointments. The quality of her voice declined. In a seeming act of post-teenage rebellion, she discarded her sweet image and in 1992 married the controversial R&B star Bobby Brown; they had a daughter, Bobbi Kristina Brown. Later Houston made failed attempts at both drug and alcohol rehabilitation; in a 2009 interview for The Oprah Winfrey Show she admitted to having used cocaine on a daily basis since 1996. For all of these reasons she came to be hounded by the tabloids, a permanent further distress.
Houston moved to Alpharetta, Georgia, a suburb of Atlanta, in 2002, and also maintained a home in Los Angeles. The descent continued. She became involved in a huge dispute with her management, but that was set aside with her father's death in 2003. In 2005 the Browns acted out their relationship in public for the dismal reality television show, Being Bobby Brown. In 2007 they divorced, and she sold the home in Alpharetta. On 11 February 2012 she was found submerged in a bathtub at the Beverly Hilton hotel in Beverly Hills, California, and pronounced dead. The coroner's report indicated that Houston had drowned, and that her drug use and heart disease were significant factors in her death. In January 2015, her daughter Bobbi Kristina Brown, age 22, was also found submerged in a bathtub. She was kept in a medically induced coma and died six months later.
Possessing a huge range and uniformly gorgeous tone, Houston applied techniques of African American gospel music to pop ballads, and she became one of the most popular singers in the world. Capitalizing on her beauty, she then transferred her skills into the movies. Because she was more successful in general markets than in African American circles, Houston epitomized, or perhaps altogether bypassed, the notion of a crossover artist whose cultural production moves from the margin to the mainstream. Her life and career raise complex questions concerning women and the American dream, celebrity culture and the construction of personal image, and postmodern racial identity.
Cissy Houston with Lisa Dickey, Remembering Whitney (2013) provides a family history. Narada Michael Walden produced many of Houston's hits; his Whitney Houston (2012), coauthored with Richard Buskin, offers detailed recollections of recording sessions and vivid descriptions of the immensity of her talent. There is no scholarly biography; the numerous celebrity, insider, and unauthorized biographies of Houston are superficial, lacking in documentation, and sometimes vicious. An exceptional scholarly insight into representations and interpretations of Houston's career resides in an unpublished thesis available from the Pennsylvania State University Libraries, Michele T. Carlson, "Whitney Houston, the New South Africa, and Black Culture in the Diaspora (1995). Richard Rischar analyzes racial, social, and musicological aspects of vocal technique in pop ballads by Houston, Mariah Carey, and others in "A Vision of Love," American Music 22 (2004): 407-443. Two distinct obituaries of Whitney Houston appear in the New York Times (11 and 13 Feb. 2012).
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Barry Kernfeld. "Houston, Whitney Elizabeth";
American National Biography Online April 2016 Update.