As the daughter of gospel and soul singer Cissy Houston and the cousin of Dionne Warwick, Whitney Houston was better connected than most young vocalists when she embarked on a recording career in the mid-1980s. Nothing, however, could have prepared the model-turned-singer from East Orange, N.J., for the superstardom which greeted her. Thanks to MTV ubiquity an incredibly commanding voice, Houston became one of the most successful female recording artists of all time, redefining the image of a female soul icon and inspiring singers ranging from Mariah Carey to Rihanna. Several years into her career, however, releases became more infrequent as her personal life became more troubled, and though she appeared to have gotten back on track by the end of the 2000s, she was no longer a trend-setter.
Born in 1963, as a child, Houston sang in her family's church choir. At 15 she began performing in her mother's nightclub act. While attending a Catholic high school, the lithe beauty signed with a modeling agency and posed for magazines including Glamour and Vogue. After graduating, she continued to model and sing, backing up Lou Rawls and Chaka Khan before Arista president Clive Davis spotted her at a Manhattan showcase. Having previously steered the careers of Warwick and Houston family friend Aretha Franklin, Davis signed the 19-year-old and started choosing songs for her self-titled debut album, which featured duets with established stars Jermaine Jackson and Teddy Pendergrass and her first hit, "Hold Me" (Number 46 pop, Number 5 R&B, 1984). Arista budgeted the disc at $250,000, an extraordinarily hefty sum for an unproven artist.
Released in 1985, Whitney Houston proved a worthwhile investment. It shot to Number One and generated the smash singles "You Give Good Love" (Number Three pop, 1985), her first Number One "Saving All My Love for You" (1985), "How Will I Know" (Number One, 1985), and a new version of the George Benson hit "Greatest Love of All" (Number One, 1986). In 1987, the pop-oriented Whitney solidified Houston's success, reaching Number One and spawning the peppy "I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)" (Number One, 1987), "Didn't We Almost Have It All" (Number One, 1987), "So Emotional" (Number One, 1987), "Where Do Broken Hearts Go" (Number One, 1988), and "Love Will Save the Day" (Number Nine, 1988). Houston also recorded "One Moment in Time," NBC-TV's theme song for the Summer Olympics (Number Five, 1988). In 1989 she teamed up with Aretha Franklin on the R&B hit "It Isn't, It Wasn't, It Ain't Never Gonna Be." All of a sudden, Whitney Houston owned pop.
The new superstar went to work with songwriters L.A. & Babyface, singing alongside Luther Vandross and Stevie Wonder on her third album, which displayed a slick R&B edge. In 1990 the title track to I'm Your Baby Tonight's topped the pop and R&B charts, as did "All the Man That I Need." There were more hits in 1991 — "Miracle" (Number Nine), "My Name Is Not Susan" (Number 20), and "I Belong to You" (Number 10 R&B) — but, peaking at Number Three, Baby proved disappointing after its predecessors. Houston bounced back in a big way with the 1992 film The Bodyguard, in which she made her acting debut opposite Kevin Costner to mixed reviews and huge box office success. The movie's soundtrack proved even more successful, hitting Number One and producing a monster single. Houston's cover of Dolly Parton's "I Will Always Love You" (1992) remained at the top of the chart for an unprecedented 14 weeks. She also released a cover of Chaka Khan's 1978 hit "I'm Every Woman" (Number Four pop) as well as "I Have Nothing" (Number Four pop, 1993). In 1992 Houston married singer Bobby Brown; their first child, Bobbi Kristina, was born the next year, and Houston sang alongside Brown on his single „Something in Common.
Houston's next move was to attempt to duplicate the success of The Bodyguard‚s movie/soundtrack twofer with 1995's Waiting to Exhale. The melodrama was popular with female audiences, and resulted in a few more hit singles, most notably "Exhale (Shoop Shoop)" (Number One, 1995) and a duet with CeCe Winans, "Count on Me" (Number Eight pop, 1996). In 1996 Houston starred with Denzel Washington and Courtney B. Vance in the comedy The Preacher's Wife, a box-office disappointment whose soundtrack nevertheless gave her another charting ballad, a cover of The Four Tops‚ "I Believe in You and Me" (Number Four).
Houston moved to the small screen in 1997, producing and playing the Fairy Godmother to Brandy's Cinderella in a Wonderful World of Disney remake of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella. In 1998, she released her first studio album since 1990. My Love Is Your Love (Number 13) was an uncharacteristic move. Aside from a handful of ballads, including her Oscar-winning duet with fellow diva Mariah Carey, "When You Believe" (Number 15, 1998), from The Prince of Egypt, and the Diane Warrenˆpenned torch song "I Learned From the Best" (Number 13 R&B, 1999), the album showcased a new, savvy street savvy that had previously come through only in her later interviews and her private life with Brown. Hip-hop personalities and producers such as Wyclef Jean, Lauryn Hill, Rodney Jerkins, Missy Elliott, and Faith Evans collaborated with the vocalist on various tracks. The public loved the new Whitney, giving her hits with the sultry "Heartbreak Hotel" (Number Two, 1999), the kick-him-out anthem "It's Not Right But It's Okay" (Number Four, 1999), and the reggae-inflected title track (Number Four, 1999).
While Houston was back in the spotlight, reports of her diva behavior became more prevalent in 1999 and 2000: She was often hours late for interviews, photo shoots, and rehearsals; concerts and talk-show appearances were cancelled. In what would be the start of a string of tabloid stories questioning her state of mind, Houston dodged arrest for marijuana possession at a Hawaii airport in January 2000 (charges were later dismissed). In the months that followed that incident, Houston was a surprising no-show at her mentor Clive Davis' induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and was allegedly booted out of Academy Awards rehearsals for an all-star tribute to Burt Bacharach. Rumors about her tumultuous marriage to Brown resurfaced, particularly when he was briefly imprisoned in mid-2000 for a parole violation. Yet Houston delivered a powerful performance at an Arista Records anniversary party that also served as a tribute to Davis, and the release of a two-disc collection Whitney: The Greatest Hits equally highlighted her ballads and dance-club remixes. Whitney featured four new songs, three of which were duets with Deborah Cox, Enrique Iglesias, and George Michael. But after renewing her Arista contract with the biggest record deal in history ($100 million for a promise of six new albums), she performed on Michael Jackson's Thirtieth Anniversary television special looking thin and frail.
It turned out Houston had been struggling with a drug problem. The following year, she spoke frankly about her involvement with alcohol, marijuana and cocaine in a special edition of ABC's Primetime with Diane Sawyer that coincided with the release of her comeback album, Just Whitney (Number Nine, 2002). The album —which included production work by Missy Elliott and Babyface and a second duet with Brown— was Houston's first work without the involvement of Davis. Just Whitney was not well received: critics bashed it, the singles failed to reach the Top Forty and sales of the album were lower than any of her previous works. She followed up with a holiday disc, One Wish: The Holiday Album (Number 49, 2002), which sold even fewer copies.
In spring of 2004 Houston entered rehab for the first time; later that year, she toured as part of the Soul Divas along with her cousin Dionne Warwick and Natalie Cole. That September, Houston received a standing ovation when she sang a tribute to Davis at the World Music Awards. She and Davis subsequently announced they would be working together on a new album. Houston returned to rehab in 2005 and the following year filed for divorce from Brown (after some of the couple's trails and travails were aired on the MTV reality show "Being Bobby Brown" in 2005). Houston's divorce from Brown was finalized in April 2007 with her winning sole custody of the couple's daughter. In December 2007 an apparently sober Houston performed an entire show before a crowd of 10,000 at the Live and Loud Festival in Malaysia.
Houston released her seventh album I Look to You (Number One, 2009), executive produced by Clive Davis, in August 2009. The disc had been nearly half-a-decade in the making. The R. Kelly–penned title track and lead single (Number 70) was very much in the vein of her previous triumphant ballads, and contributions from Alicia Keys and Akon gave the album‚s mature moments a contemporary R&B kick. Houston embarked on a rigorous promotional tour that included closely-scrutinized performances on The Oprah Winfrey Show and the U.K.‚s X-Factor, and she announced a tour in support of the album that is due to kick off in London in April 2010.
Portions of this biography appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001). Jim Macnie contributed to this article.