Whitney Elizabeth Houston (August 9, 1963 – February 11, 2012) was an American singer and actress. She was cited as the most awarded female artist of all time by Guinness World Records and remains one of the best-selling music artists of all time with 200 million records sold worldwide. She released seven studio albums and two soundtrack albums, all of which have been certified diamond, multi-platinum, platinum, or gold by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). Houston’s crossover appeal on the popular music charts—as well as her prominence on MTV, starting with her video for “How Will I Know“—influenced several African-American women artists who followed in her footsteps.
Houston began singing in church as a child and became a background vocalist while in high school. With the guidance of Arista Records chairman Clive Davis, she signed to the label at the age of 19. Her first two studio albums, Whitney Houston (1985) and Whitney (1987), both reached number one on the Billboard 200 in the United States and became two of the world’s best-selling albums of all time. She became the only artist to have seven consecutive number-one singles on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, from “Saving All My Love for You” in 1985 to “Where Do Broken Hearts Go” in 1988.
Houston made her screen acting debut in the romantic thriller film The Bodyguard (1992). She recorded seven songs for the film’s soundtrack, including “I Will Always Love You“, which received the Grammy Award for Record of the Year and became the best-selling single by a woman in music history. The soundtrack album received the Grammy Award for Album of the Year and remains the world’s best-selling soundtrack album of all time. Houston made other high-profile film appearances, including Waiting to Exhale (1995) and The Preacher’s Wife (1996). The theme song “Exhale (Shoop Shoop)” became her eleventh and final number-one single on the Hot 100 chart, while The Preacher Wife’s soundtrack became the best-selling gospel album in history.
Following the critical and commercial success of My Love Is Your Love (1998), Houston signed a $100 million contract with Arista Records. However, her personal struggles began overshadowing her career, and the album Just Whitney (2002) received mixed reviews. Her drug use and tumultuous marriage to Bobby Brown were widely publicized in media. After a six-year break from recording, Houston returned to the top of the Billboard 200 chart with her final studio album, I Look to You (2009).
On February 11, 2012, Houston was found dead in the Beverly Hilton, Beverly Hills, California. The coroner’s report showed that she had accidentally drowned in the bathtub, with heart disease and cocaine use as contributing factors. News of her death coincided with the 2012 Grammy Awards and featured prominently in international media.
Whitney 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. Her parents’ marriage later ended in divorce.
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“.
Houston attended Mount Saint Dominic Academy, a Catholic girls’ high school in Caldwell, New Jersey; there, she met her best friend, Robyn Crawford, whom she described as the “sister she never had”. Houston graduated from Mount Saint Dominic in 1981.
While Houston was still in school, her mother, Cissy, continued to teach her how to sing. Houston spent some of her teenage years touring nightclubs where Cissy was performing, and she would occasionally get on stage and perform with her. 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. 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.
In 1983, Gerry Griffith, an A&R representative from Arista Records, saw Houston performing with her mother in a New York City nightclub. 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. (Houston had been offered deals by recording agencies before—by Michael Zager in 1980, and by Elektra Records in 1981—but her mother declined them on the grounds that Whitney had yet to complete high school.) Later that year, Houston made her national television debut alongside Davis on The Merv Griffin Show.
Houston did not begin work on an album immediately. The label wanted to make sure no other label signed her away, and 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, “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.
Michael Masser, Kashif, Jermaine Jackson, and Narada Michael Walden, produced 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&Bchart. 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 22 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, she refused to work with 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 10 million total worldwide.
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, she 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.
Houston reportedly appeared “disheveled” and “erratic” in the days immediately prior to her death. 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 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., found Houston 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 that Houston’s death was caused by 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 (Benadryl), alprazolam (Xanax), cannabis and cyclobenzaprine (Flexeril). 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 shortly after 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.
- Whitney Houston (1985)
- Whitney (1987)
- I’m Your Baby Tonight (1990)
- My Love Is Your Love (1998)
- Just Whitney… (2002)
- One Wish: The Holiday Album (2003)
- I Look to You (2009)
- The Bodyguard (1992)
- Waiting to Exhale (1995)
- The Preacher’s Wife (1996)
- Whitney: Can I Be Me (2017)
- Whitney (2018)
- The Greatest Love World Tour (1986)
- Moment of Truth World Tour (1987–88)
- I’m Your Baby Tonight World Tour (1991)
- The Bodyguard World Tour (1993–94)
- My Love Is Your Love World Tour (1999)
- Nothing but Love World Tour (2010)