Houston, Whitney 1963–
Whitney Houston 1963–
Though her style is characteristic of the vocal athleticism of R&B music in the post-Hip-Hop era, pop singer Whitney Houston has a star quality that recalls the entertainment dynamos of a previous generation: elegant, professional, and versatile. Despite criticism from some corners that she conveys more technique than feeling in her music, Houston has scored enough commercial victories in the mercurial pop world to gladden the heart of any music executive.
From the beginning of her career—with the highest-selling solo debut album in history—Houston went on to sell millions of copies of her subsequent releases and win numerous music awards. In 1992 she made her acting debut in a major motion picture, The Bodyguard, which became one of the most successful films in its company’s history; her contributions to the film’s soundtrack were also phenomenally popular. If there remained any show-business frontiers for Houston to conquer, none seemed beyond her reach. Yet, in the wake of a high-profile marriage and well-publicized motherhood, the entertainer has remained philosophical. “I almost wish I could be more exciting,” she told Entertainment Weekly, “that I could match what is happening out there to me.”
Houston was born in New Jersey in 1963, the daughter of John R. Houston—who would one day manage her production company—and acclaimed gospel singer Cissy Houston. Music was very much a part of her childhood; her cousin Dionne Warwick was another successful chanteuse, and she grew up around such star vocalists as Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight, and Roberta Flack. “When I used to watch my mother sing, which was usually in church, that feeling, that soul, that thing —it’s like electricity rolling through you,” she recalled to Anthony DeCurtis of Rolling Stone. “If you have ever been in a Baptist church or a Pentecostal church, when the Holy Spirit starts to roll and people start to really feel what they’re doing, it’s … it’s incredible. That’s what I wanted. When I watched Aretha sing, the way she sang and the way she closed her eyes, and that riveting thing just came out. People just… ooooh, it could stop you in your tracks.”
Houston-nicknamed “Nippy,” a moniker she would one day bestow on her production enterprise—first sang
At a Glance…
Born August 9, 1963, in East Orange, NJ; daughter of John R. and Cissy (a singer) Houston; married Bobby Brown (a singer), 1992; children: Bobbi Kristina (daughter). Education: Graduated from parochial high school in New Jersey.
Backup vocalist, 1975–; fashion model, c. late 1970s; signed with Arista Records, 1983; released debut album Whitney Houston, 1985; contributed to Olympics tribute One Moment in Time, 1988; starred in film The Bodyguard, 1992; owner of Nippy, Inc., (New Jersey-based production company).
Selected awards: Grammy Award for best pop vocal performance, 1988, for “Saving All My Love for You” and “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)”; Emmy Award for outstanding performance in a variety program, 1986; MTV Video Music Award, 1986; seven American Music Awards, 1986, for Whitney Houston; Grammy Award for best pop vocal performance, 1988; four American Music Awards, 1989, for Whitney distinguished achievement award, American Cinema Award Foundation, 1991; NAACP Image Award for entertainer of the year, 1994; seven American Music Awards, and three Grammy Awards, all 1994, all for The Bodyguard ; honorary doctorate from Grambling Slate University; United Negro College Fund Award for long-standing support and commitment to the black community.
Addresses: Home —Mendham, NJ. Record company—Arista Records, 6 West 57th St., New York, NY 10019.
publicly at the age of eight, performing “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah” for a spellbound congregation at the New Hope Baptist Church. Four years later she was singing backups on recordings for major stars like Chaka Khan and Lou Rawls. “I sound like my mother when my mother was my age,” she told DeCurtis, “though I truly think my mother has a greater voice than me, because she’s the master, I’m the student.”
When she was 17, “student” Whitney took a detour into modeling, appearing in magazines like Glamour and Seventeen. Her beauty and talent also got her acting jobs in episodes of two then-popular television programs, Silver Spoons and Gimme a Break. Houston ultimately found the runway “degrading,” as Ebony reported, and made her way back to music; she signed a management contract in 1981 and began seriously performing—both alone and with her mother. She was given the chance to sing the lead on the song “Life’s a Party,” which was recorded by the Michael Zager Band; Zager was so impressed by her voice that he offered her a record deal. Cissy declined the opportunity for her daughter, which turned out to be a wise decision. At a showcase performance in 1983, Arista Records’ president Clive Davis heard Houston perform and offered her a contract. This time Cissy’s advise was to accept the offer, and Houston signed on.
Davis took the new singer under his wing. Though she sang a duet with soul superstar Teddy Pendergrass that hit the charts in 1984, Houston would spend much of the next two years working with her mentor. Davis gathered successful songwriters and producers and helped put together the “package” that would make Houston a star. He calculated correctly: her self-titled debut, released in March of 1985, began a gradual ascent to the top of the charts. The first single, “You Give Good Love” made its way to the Number Three position and the second, a cover of the late-’70s hit “Saving All My Love for You,” hit Number One later that year. Houston received the 1986 Grammy for best pop vocal performance for the song—and came home with five trophies from the US music awards as well. And two more singles topped the charts: “How Will I Know” and “The Greatest Love of All.”
Whitney Houston finally hit the top of the U.S. album chart a year after its release; a number of singles also topped the U.K. charts. Accolades for the singer continued: Houston received an Emmy for work in a television variety program and commenced touring. Her concerts sold out throughout both the United States and Europe.
Though Houston was suddenly showered in acclaim, she had her share of detractors. Her choice of material was generally safe, critics complained, and Houston’s voice, though a remarkable instrument, failed to convey much emotion. As music commentator Nelson George opined to Newsweek, “There’s not a wisp of soul on those singles.” Entertainment Weekly would later pay her a backhanded compliment by remarking, “No one can oversing a song like Houston.”
The simultaneously belittling and affectionate term “Prom Queen of Soul”—a parody of the royal sobriquet earned by fellow singer Aretha Franklin—was hard for Houston to shake. Yet the vocalist had only begun her meteoric rise. Her sophomore effort, Whitney, appeared in 1987 and debuted at the Number One position on the Billboard chart—the first album by a female artist to do so. Its first single, “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me),” rocketed to the top, followed by three other Number-One hits: “Didn’t We Almost Have It All,” “So Emotional,” and “Where Do Broken Hearts Go.” The single “Love Will Save the Day” was a disappointment only when measured against Houston’s other hits; it only made it to Number Nine. Meanwhile, “One Moment in Time,” a ballad recorded by Houston for Arista’s 1988 Olympics tribute album of the same name, topped the charts after Whitney ended its run.
In addition to her activities in the musical arena, Houston has used her high public profile to aid causes she personally supports. She took time out of a busy schedule to headline at a birthday gala for South African leader Nelson Mandela at London’s W