Whitney Houston dies at age 48
By Emily Langer,
Whitney Houston, the gospel-inspired pop singer who sold more than 140 million albums with her emotive renditions of such hits as “Greatest Love of All” and “I Will Always Love You,” and who struggled with drug abuse and a troubled marriage, died Feb. 11 in Beverly Hills, Calif. She was 48.
A police official told the Associated Press that Ms. Houston was pronounced dead Saturday afternoon in her room at the Beverly Hilton hotel and that no signs of “criminal intent” had been found. The Los Angeles Times reported that an investigation into the cause of death is pending.
Ms. Houston was scheduled to attend a gala at the hotel on the eve of Sunday’s Grammy Awards program. The party had been organized by Clive Davis, the record executive who discovered her in the mid-1980s.
With a choir-trained voice of vast power and brilliant tone, Ms. Houston, the winner of six Grammys, was widely recognized as one of the greatest pop vocalists. She was cited as a major influence on such top-selling artists as Mariah Carey, Christina Aguilera, Mary J. Blige, Boyz II Men and Beyonce, as well as the many “American Idol” contestants who tried to mimic her seemingly infinite vocal range.
Ms. Houston was 22 when her debut album, “Whitney Houston,” was released in 1985. By 1986, it had sold more than 5 million copies, topping sales records set by Tina Turner and Donna Summer.
With her “fire-and-steel voice,” Ms. Houston made “commercial ballads . . . transcend romantic cliches to become hymns of faith in a love that goes beyond the secular,” New York Times music critic Stephen Holden wrote of the album.
She was quickly recognized as the obvious and rightful successor to pop-gospel stars such as Aretha Franklin and Dionne Warwick.
To many observers of the entertainment industry, it was only fitting, if not foreordained, that Ms. Houston should attain such stature. She was born into musical aristocracy. Gospel singer Cissy Houston was her mother, Franklin was her godmother and Warwick was a first cousin.
Cissy Houston was the choirmaster at the Baptist church in New Jersey where Ms. Houston made her earliest public appearances. Cissy Houston also had sung backup to Franklin and other prominent soul artists of the time.
For Ms. Houston, Franklin was a role model. The older singer “brought such great emotion to her music,” Ms. Houston once told an interviewer. “I wanted to make people feel the same way about my music.”
At the outset of her career, Ms. Houston distinguished herself from pop stars whose renown seemed to spring, at least in part, from their wild-child behavior. She achieved her greatest popularity in the 1980s and early 1990s with inspirational and sometimes sentimental selections about overcoming adversity and undying romantic loyalty.
One of the songs on her debut album, “Greatest Love of All,” by Michael Masser and Linda Creed, remained a staple throughout her career. “No matter what they take from me,” goes the song’s memorable lyric, “they can’t take away my dignity.’’
“Sung by Miss Houston,” Holden wrote in 1986, “it becomes a compelling assertion of black pride, family loyalty and spiritual devotion, all at once.”
Other popular numbers from her early career included “Saving All My Love for You,” “I’m Your Baby Tonight,” and “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me).” She routinely hit No. 1 on the Billboard charts for singles and albums, selling millions of recordings. Few renditions of the national anthem were as a celebrated as hers at the 1991 Super Bowl, during the first Persian Gulf War.
However, some critics contended that she was betraying her great talent through her choice of songs.
“Whitney Houston has one of the most powerful and polished voices in popular music, . . . and she uses it to sell some of the blandest pap on the planet,” a reviewer wrote in the Rolling Stone Album Guide in 1992. “Imagine if Andrew Wyeth had abandoned oil painting on the assumption that there was more money to be had drawing Garfield cartoons, and you’ll have a sense of the waste in Houston’s career.”
In the 1990s, Ms. Houston parlayed her popularity as a singer into a run in the movie business. She starred with Kevin Costner in “The Bodyguard,” a 1992 movie about a love affair between a singer and her hired protector. The movie’s octave-stretching version of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” became another of Ms. Houston’s calling cards, and the soundtrack sold 17million copies in the United States.
In 1995, Ms. Houston appeared in“Waiting to Exhale,” a film directed by Forest Whitaker and based on Terry McMillan’s novel about the friendships and lives of four African American women. The next year, she starred with Denzel Washington in “The Preacher’s Wife,”a remake of the 1947 film “The Bishop’s Wife,” which featured Cary Grant and Loretta Young.
Over the years, Ms. Houston was pained by criticism that she played too much to white fans, a complaint that she angrily denied. “Don’t say I don’t have soul or what you consider to be ‘blackness,’ ” she told Ebony magazine in 1991. “I know what my color is. I was raised in a black community with black people. . . . Yes, I’ve gotten flak about being a pop success, but that doesn’t mean that I’m white.”
Ms. Houston married the R&B singer Bobby Brown in 1992. Her daughter, Bobbi Kristina, was born the following year; she survives, along with Cissy Houston.
Around the time of her daughter’s birth, Ms. Houston said, she began to use cocaine and marijuana heavily. In a widely watched 2002 television interview on ABC with Diane Sawyer, she denied having used crack.
“Crack is cheap,” she said. “I make too much money to ever smoke crack! Let’s get that straight, okay. We don’t do crack. We don’t do that. Crack is whack.”
In the same 2002 interview, she rebutted suggestions that she had an eating disorder and that her husband was controlling, as he appeared to many outsiders. But in a 2009 interview with Oprah Winfrey, she described the marital relationship as emotionally abusive and said her husband had spit on her.
“I was horrified,” she told Winfrey. “He spit on me, in my face.”
They divorced in 2007.
Ms. Houston had commercial successes with an album in 2002, “Just Whitney,” and another in 2009, “I Look to You,” but some who had heard her at her peak found her voice sadly diminished, particularly in live appearances.
Whitney Elizabeth Houston was born Aug. 9, 1963, in Newark. After getting her start at Newark’s New Hope Baptist Church, she sometimes joined her mother singing backup for artists including Chaka Khan.
She worked as a magazine model before recording advertising jingles and singing “Eternal Love” on the 1983 album “Paul Jabara and Friends.” That recording helped attract the attention of Davis, who persuaded her to sign with his company, Arista Records.
Davis, a skilled promoter, introduced Ms. Houston to a broad audience by arranging performances including one in 1985 on the Merv Griffin Show. That same year, she sang before a packed Carnegie Hall.
“Behind the delicacy and reserve,” Holden wrote in a New York Times review of the concert, “lurks a ferocious power that she can unleash with a sudden, almost blinding force.”
Over her career, Ms. Houston amassed six Grammys in four categories: three for best pop vocal performance by a woman and one each for best female R&B vocal performance, album of the year and record of the year .
When discussing her drug habit in the TV interview with Sawyer, Ms. Houston did not seek to deflect blame for her problems. She was herself, she said, “the biggest devil” that she faced.
“I’m either my best friend or my worst enemy,” she said. “And that’s how I have to deal with it.”
Staff writer Chris Richards contributed to this report.