With her incredible vocal range and purity, runway good looks and girl-next-door charm,Whitney Houston was an out-of-the-box superstar when she arrived on the music scene in 1985. Her meteoric rise included record-setting hits, groundbreaking videos and a promising film career.
But by the mid-1990s, rumors of marital woes and drug abuse began to tarnish her image and she took a downward spiral that saw her name emblazoned in sordid tabloid headlines rather than glowing reports of musical success.
Word of the 48-year-old singer’s death broke early Saturday evening as the industry gathered in Los Angeles for the official Pre-Grammy Gala hosted by her mentor Clive Davis, chief creative officer of Sony Music Worldwide.
Beverly Hills police Lt. Mark Rosen told KABC-TV that Houston was pronounced dead at 3:55 p.m. (local time) in her room on the fourth floor of the Beverly Hilton. Her body remained in the hotel and Beverly Hills detectives were investigating.
Houston’s publicist, Kristen Foster, said Saturday that the cause of her death was unknown.
In recent years, Houston had struggled to regain her past glory. In 2009, she released I Look to You, her first studio album in seven years and first since going through rehab and divorcing Bobby Brown, her husband of 14 years, in 2006. While the album did debut at No. 1 and sold more than 1 million copies, it failed to produce any massive hit singles, or receive hoped-for Grammy Awards nominations. Her subsequent overseas tour met with mixed reviews, with disappointed fans demanding refunds.
It was a sad end for the once incandescent star who paved the way to pop success for other African-American singers such as Janet Jackson, Anita Baker, Mariah Carey andMary J. Blige, and has been cited by the likes of Beyoncé, Alicia Keys, Jennifer Hudson,Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and Leona Lewis for inspiring them to become singers. The gospel-trained Houston was the daughter of singer Cissy Houston, goddaughter of Aretha Franklin and cousin of Dionne and Dee Dee Warwick
Houston was already an up-and-coming magazine model (she was one of the first women of color to grace the cover of Seventeen) when record mogul Clive Davis signed her to his Arista Records label in 1983. In an interview accompanying the 2010 reissue of her debut album, Whitney Houston: The Deluxe 25th Anniversary Edition, Davis recalls first seeing her backing up her mother at the New York City club Sweetwater’s.
“She did two solo numbers, one of which was the song The Greatest Love Of All. Whitney sang the song with such fervor, with such a natural vocal gift, with such passion, that I was stunned. I knew really right then and there that this was a special talent and I was blown away by her,” Davis recalled. “There was no hesitation. I wanted to sign Whitney.”
Together, they would make music history. Davis spent more than a year grooming Houston, lining up producers and collecting the right material. Her first hit, Hold Me, a duet with Teddy Pendergrass for his 1984 Love Language album, went to No. 5 on the R&B chart. It was a precursor to Whitney Houston, which arrived in 1985 to rave reviews.
First single You Give Good Love was a top 5 pop hit, and its follow-up, Saving All My Love for You, was even bigger. It went to No. 1, as did How Will I Know, the video for which became one of the first by an African-American female to get heavy rotation on MTV. The Greatest Love of All also spent three weeks at the top of the charts andWhitney Houston wound up selling 13 million copies domestically.
She earned three nominations at the 1986 Grammy Awards, including one for album of the year. Saving All My Love for You won for female pop vocal, and her performance of the song on the show would win her an Emmy Award later that year. The Greatest Love of All would also be nominated for record of the year at the following year’s Grammys.
Houston’s superstardom was solidified in 1987 with the release of Whitney, which sold 9 million copies in the USA and spawned four No. 1 singles: I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me),Didn’t We Almost Have It All, So Emotional and Where Do Broken Hearts Go. That gave her a record seven chart-toppers in a row. A fifth single,Love Will Save the Day, was a Top 10 hit. Thanks to her record sales and concert grosses for 1986 and 1987, Forbes ranked her as the eighth-highest-earning entertainer at the time.
Her crossover success was unprecedented for an African-American woman, but she soon found herself defending it against critics, who claimed her hits lacked soul. Her third album, 1990’s I’m Your Baby Tonight, took her in a more urban direction thanks to production from the likes of L.A. Reid and Babyface, Stevie Wonder and Luther Vandross, but it’s acceptance was less spectacular. The album peaked at No. 3 while selling 4 million copies, though singles I’m Your Baby Tonight and All The Man That I Need topped both the pop and R&B charts.
Still, big things and big changes were on the horizon for Houston, whose 1991 Super Bowl performance of The Star Spangled Banner remains the yardstick by which other singers are judged. Two things happened in 1992 that would have profound affects on her career. She made a move into acting and making soundtracks with The Bodyguard, and after a three-year courtship, she married R&B singer and former New Editionmember Bobby Brown.
In The Bodyguard, she starred as a singer who was being protected by Kevin Costner‘s title character from a stalker fan. The film grossed more than $121 million at the box office, and the soundtrack had an even bigger impact for Houston. Her cover of Dolly Parton’s 1974 hit, I Will Always Love You, distinguished by Houston’s a cappella intro, stayed at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 for a then-record 14 consecutive weeks and had significant stints atop the R&B and adult contemporary charts as well. The album also spawned Top 5 hits I’m Every Woman (a Chaka Khan hit on which Houston had sung background when she was 15) and I Have Nothing. The album sold 17 million copies in the U.S., won three Grammys including album and record of the year, plus a slew of other awards.
Two years later, Houston performed at a state dinner at the White House honoring newly elected South African President Nelson Mandela, and would later be the first major artist to perform in that country, playing three shows to 200,000 people.
Her next film, 1995’s Waiting to Exhale starring Angela Bassett, was also a hit with a huge soundtrack. This time, she teamed with Babyface to co-produced the star-studded album and contributed to its success with Exhale (Shoop Shoop), Why Does It Hurt So Bad and Count On Me, a duet with CeCe Winans. She earned $10 million for her next role, 1996’s The Preacher’s Wife, which starred Denzel Washington and Courtney B. Vance. While it didn’t do as well at the box office as the previous two films, Houston got her best review yet as an actress. The soundtrack saw Houston cutting loose in a gospel setting. It featured six songs with the Georgia Mass Choir including He’s All Over Me with gospel legend Shirley Caesar. I Believe in You and Me and Step By Step were both radio hits.
Houston branched off into TV in 1997, producing a remake of Rodgers & Hammerstein’sCinderella starring Brandy with Houston as Fairy Godmother. The highly rated ABC special earned seven Emmy nominations. That set the stage for Houston’s first studio album in eight years, My Love Is Your Love. The album sold 4 million copies in the U.S., and spawned a successful world tour, but peaked at No. 13 on the Billboard 200, making it her first album not to at least reach No. 3. Still, with production from the likes of Wyclef Jean, Missy Elliott and Rodney Jerkins, it had the hits When You Believe with Mariah Carey, Heartbreak Hotel, It’s Not Right But It’s Okay, My Love Is Your Love and I Learned From the Best.
As the ’90s closed, Houston’s popularity was beginning to wane just as rumors about drug use with Brown swirled and reports began surfacing about erratic behavior and weight loss, along with missed interviews and canceled concerts. On Jan. 11, 2000, marijuana was discovered in Houston and Brown’s luggage as they passed through security at a Hawaii airport, though they boarded the plane and left before police arrived.
Two months later, she was conspicuously missing when Clive Davis was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She was also to have performed on the Academy Awards, but was fired by musical director Burt Bacharach.
She signed a $100 million, six-album deal with Arista/BMG in 2001, but after appearing on the Michael Jackson: 30th Anniversary Special, her extremely thin frame fueled more rumors of drug abuse. Those rumors were confirmed a year later when she did an interview with Diane Sawyer to promote her upcoming album Just Whitney. She admitted using drugs in the highly watched TV interview, which included her infamous declaration, “Crack is cheap. I make too much money to ever smoke crack. Let’s get that straight. OK? We don’t do crack. We don’t do that. Crack is wack.”
Just Whitney was her poorest-selling album to date and none of its singles made the Hot 100’s top 40. She got positive reviews for 2003’s One Wish: The Holiday Album, but only modest sales.
Houston’s image took further pummeling on the sordid 2005 Bravo reality series Being Bobby Brown, which gave an inside look into their family life. Critics savaged the show, but morbidly fascinated viewers tuned in to see just how low they could sink. The show was canceled after Houston decided to no longer participate. She separated from Brown in September 2006 and the divorce was finalized in 2007, with Houston gaining custody of the couple’s daughter, Bobbi Kristina.
In a 2009 interview with Oprah Winfrey to promote her just out album, I Look To You, Houston blamed an emotionally abusive and jealous Brown for many of her problems, confessed that she laced her marijuana with rock cocaine, and revealed the she had spent time in rehab and had undergone an intervention by her mother.
The album debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 with a career-best opening week of 305,000 copies sold. It was her first chart-topping album since 1992’s The Bodyguardand would go on to sell 1 million copies. But the title track and the Alicia Keys-pennedMillion Dollar Bill had only modest success, and she received none of the expected Grammy nominations.
Her post-release TV appearances were also spotty. Though the fans responded warmly, she had to apologize for her voice cracking at a three-song Good Morning Americaconcert in New York’s Central Park . It came not long after the Oprah interview, which she says wore out her vocal cords. She gave a much-better-received performance of I Didn’t Know My Own Strength on the American Music Awards two months later.
She received similarly mixed reviews on her current tour. But the re-release in January ofWhitney Houston was a stark reminder of the gorgeous voice she once had, and how much had been lost to years of drug abuse and personal turmoil.