Whitney Houston: The Diva and Her Dark Side

Inside the singer's meteoric rise, chaotic life and tragic final days

March 15, 2012
whitney houston
Whitney Houston on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Michael Comte/Corbis Outline

E arly in the evening of February 7th, Whitney Houston was ready to reclaim her place in music. Wearing black pants and a matching black sweater, she rolled into producer Harvey Mason Jr.'s North Hollywood studio with her sister-in-law and manager Patricia Houston. Whitney had just finished filming a role in an upcoming movie, Sparkle, and tonight she would lay down her part for a song on its soundtrack, "Celebrate," a duet with co-star Jordin Sparks written by R. Kelly.

After singing a few warm-up scales, Houston hit the mic. Her voice was no longer the brawny, octave-spanning instrument heard on her platinum hits of the Eighties and Nineties. She'd already spent several days with Mason working on her part, and still wasn't finished. "Whitney had days when she sounded amazing; she had days when she sounded decent; and she had days when she sounded not so great," Mason says. "But she was really working to improve." This session was better than most; after she'd taken her last pass, Houston excitedly asked Mason, "You got it, you got it?" When Mason told her he did, she exclaimed, "Now play it!" The two danced in front of the speakers as the booming party anthem shook the studio. For a short while, the troubles that had plagued Houston for more than a decade evaporated.

Photos: Whitney Houston Through the Years

Sparkle, a remake of a 1976 music-business cautionary tale, would mark Houston's return to the big screen for the first time in 16 years; she was cast as the mother of a fledgling singer, played by Sparks. As a teenager, Houston had loved the original movie, which followed an R&B trio – one member winds up dead from an overdose, while another becomes a star. "I would go every Saturday for, like, four months straight, and I'd watch the matinee to evening show," Houston told a group of reporters in November. "It was a positive reinforcement for young African-American women, that anyone who wants to can pursue their dream or their desires."

Aretha Franklin, a longtime family friend, had attended a preview of the remake and was relieved at what she saw. "Like a lot of artists, Whitney lost her way, but she found it again," Franklin says. "I thought she looked absolutely stunning in the movie. She looked fresh and healthy and all of that."

But in the days that followed the session with Mason, Houston's demons rose up again. She was spotted at Hollywood nightspots acting spacey and probably drunk. She made a surprise appearance at a press conference hosted by her mentor, Clive Davis, smelling of cigarettes and alcohol. On Saturday, February 11th, Houston was planning to attend Davis' annual pre-Grammy party at the Beverly Hilton, where she was also staying. She'd flown in from her home in Alpharetta, Georgia, for the party and to work on the Sparkle songs. But later that afternoon, after she'd spent an inordinate amount of time in the bathroom of her fourth-floor room, members of her entourage burst in to find her submerged in her bathtub. Houston was declared dead at age 48. At press time, the cause of death was still undetermined, since toxicology reports haven't yet been released, but Beverly Hills detectives announced that a small amount of prescription drugs, which reportedly included Xanax, were discovered in her room.

Diligent professional one moment, wild child the next: Those were the opposing sides of Houston in her last days – and, it turns out, much of her life. Blessed with a peerless combination of bravura lung power, model-perfect looks, and an image that was both warm and regal, Houston was that pop rarity: a genuine crossover star, juggling music and film, audiences young and old, black and white. "Because of her cousin Dionne [Warwick], she understood all those pretty-ass melodies from Burt Bacharach," says Narada Michael Walden, one of Houston's many producers. "But because she was young and from the era of Michael Jackson, Prince and Madonna, she had soul in her too – those rhythms. She had both sides. Plus, she was so damn gorgeous. You couldn't say no to her."

But after she peaked with her 1991 version of "The Star-Spangled Banner" and 1992's The Bodyguard, her fans watched as, year by year, Houston's demons were revealed to the world: Her voice grew huskier, her looks hardened. Her records, when they appeared, didn't sell as well as they once had; her live performances revealed a performer physically and vocally rusty.

People who worked with her still find it hard to comprehend her dark side. "A lot of us talked about that, and no one could come up with an answer," says Gerry Griffith, the A&R man who brought Houston to Davis' attention around 1982. "Where is that rebellion coming from? It didn't come out for a while." When it did, it came out in force, nearly destroying her personal life, career and music.

From the start, Whitney Houston was a child of both the church and the charts. Her mother, Cissy, was a Newark, New Jersey-born soprano powerhouse who sang backup on classic records by Franklin ("Ain't No Way," "Chain of Fools") and Van Morrison ("Brown Eyed Girl"), and toured with Elvis Presley (when she was a member of the Sweet Inspirations). Her cousin Warwick had crossed over to pop in the Sixties and Seventies with hits like "Walk On By" and "Do You Know the Way to San Jose?" Whitney, born in 1963, inherited her voice from her mother, and her elegant good looks and strong will from her father, John Houston, who worked variously as a truck driver and for the city of Newark, and who would later manage his daughter's career.

When Whitney was four, her parents moved her and her two brothers to suburban East Orange, New Jersey, where many black families relocated after the Newark riots. Houston was a shy kid; her grade-school principal recalls Houston standing in line, tightly holding her classmates' hands, her head down. When Houston's godmother, singer Darlene Love, would stay at the family's home while on tour, she shared a bed with "Nippy," as Whitney was called. "I was pregnant at the time and she'd go, What do you want, what do you want?'" Love recalls. "There was a store on the corner where she'd run down the street and buy fruit for me. So charming from Day One."

By the time Houston started high school at Mount Saint Dominic Academy, an all-girls school in nearby Caldwell, she'd become more popular; it didn't hurt that the Houstons had one of the few pools in the neighborhood. She blossomed into a lanky, beautiful girl with a wide smile. A local friend, Richard Gregory, took her to her prom, but only after talking her into it – she wasn't a heavy dater. It was her voice that caught everyone's attention. Cissy was the musical director of Newark's New Hope Baptist Church, one of the oldest black churches in the country; Whitney joined the choir when she was 11. "When I used to watch my mother sing in church, that feeling, that soul, that thing – it's like electricity rolling through you," Houston told Rolling Stone in 1993. "If you have ever been in a Baptist church, when the Holy Spirit starts to roll and people start to really feel what they're doing, it's incredible. That's what I wanted."

Houston was exposed to more than gospel. "Cissy brought her to one of my recording sessions," Franklin recalls of their first meeting. "She was around nine or 10. I think Cissy had instructed her to be very quiet because she didn't say too much after that. She was just very quiet and very attentive." By the late Seventies, Cissy's solo career was in middling shape, and she tried cutting disco records. During a session for disco producer Michael Zager, one of the backup singers called in sick. When Cissy suggested her 14-year-old daughter fill in, Zager thought Cissy was joking. "Nippy" showed up wearing her white-and-blue school uniform and flawlessly sang the parts that Zager taught her. "I almost fell out of my chair," Zager recalls. Houston was so impressive that Zager gave her a prominent part on his disco hit "Life's a Party."

Her few stabs at rebellion amounted to wearing different-colored socks to her Catholic school. When Whitney accompanied her mother to recording studios, Cissy would remind her daughter why they were there. During one session with Zager, Whitney began cracking jokes. "Everyone was laughing," Zager says. "After an hour, Cissy yelled at Whitney, 'Get it together and start recording!' Cissy was all business."

The Houstons were in no hurry to have Whitney turn pro; Cissy kept her away from a record deal until she finished high school. Still, she began a career as a backup singer on albums like Chaka Khan's Naughty, and word of her raw, emerging talent spread fast. Houston also began a teen-modeling career, after a rep from an agency spotted her on the street near Carnegie Hall; before long, Houston was posing for photos in bathing suits, preppy pleated skirts, arid ice-skating outfits in magazines like YM and Seventeen.

During now-legendary shows at clubs like Sweetwater's, Cissy would often give a solo spot to her daughter, who sported a short Afro and would step out on covers of pop hits like Stephanie Mills' "Home." Whitney still very much deferred to Cissy, even during these first real moments in the spotlight. As Darlene Love recalls, "It was, 'OK, now, go on back in the background – this is Mommy's show. OK, go sit down now. Don't be trying to take over.'"

Arista A&R man Griffith heard about the younger Houston and made his way to Cissy's shows. "I had worked with Aretha, Minnie Riperton and Phoebe Snow," says Griffith. "So to see Whitney incorporate all of what they had at one time just freaked me out. She was a natural. It flowed so easily."

At Griffith's urging, his boss, Arista head Clive Davis, went to one of Houston's Manhattan showcases. "I was stunned when she did 'The Greatest Love of All,'" says Davis. "It was a song I'd commissioned 10 years earlier for a movie about the life of Muhammad Ali. Signing her was one of those no-brainers."

"Clive wasn't jumping crazy like when Marvin Gaye was free and he was calling every five seconds, 'Have you heard back?'" recalls Roy Lott, one of Davis' vice presidents. "This was still a new artist." But Davis was impressed enough to out-maneuver a competing label, Elektra, for her talents.

At the signing day in 1983, Houston, in a Levi's sweatshirt and jeans, was very much a work in progress. "Just a regular kid," recalls Lott. "Not squeaky-clean, but a regular kid." Everyone knew Houston could sing, but expectations were modest for someone so young. Talent agent Ben Bernstein, hired to set up tours and personal appearances for Houston, says everyone would've been thrilled to sell a few hundred thousand albums.

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