The following is an excerpt of the Whitney Houston cover story in the March 15th, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone, on stands March 2nd.
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 Clive 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.”