The cousin of Dionne Warwick and godchild of both Darlene Love and Aretha Franklin, mezzo-soprano Whitney Houston was born the daughter of gospel singer Cissy Houston (of The Sweet inspirations) in Newark, N.J. By age 11 she was playing piano and singing solo in the New Hope Baptist Church Junior Gospel Choir. Whitney began modeling as a teenager and, when not sharing a stage with her mother, found work as a backup singer for stars like Lou Rawls, Chaka Khan and Jermaine Jackson.
Whitney’s 1985 debut album topped Billboard’s LP charts and featured her first million-selling single, “You Give Good Love.” After that came a breathtaking seven #1 hits in a row – a feat unmatched by any other artist ever. They were: “Saving All My Love For You,” “How Will I Know,” “The Greatest Love of All,” “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” “Didn’t We Almost Have It All,” “So Emotional” and “Where Do Broken Hearts Go.” Four more chart-toppers would follow among her 41 career hits, including Houston’s cover of a tune Dolly Parton wrote as a farewell to her former singing partner, Porter Wagoner. Dolly had already scored two #1 country hits with “I Will Always Love You” before Whitney featured her own version in “The Bodyguard,” one of several movies she starred in (the others: “Waiting To Exhale,” “The Preacher’s Wife” and “Cinderella”). “I Will Always Love You” became Whitney’s signature smash and one of the best-selling singles ever released by any artist.
Among the most unusual Houston hits was “The Star Spangled Banner,” which she recorded live at the 25th Super Bowl in 1991. A platinum seller, it charted both that year and when reissued in 2001 the wake of the 9/11 attacks on the U.S.A. Whitney eventually picked up so many Grammys, Emmys and other citations that in 2009 the Guinness Book of World Records cited her as “the most awarded female act of all time.” She was also one of the most influential, affecting the styles of everyone from Celine Dion, Mariah Carey and Kelly Clarkson to Britney Spears, Toni Braxton and Christina Aguilera. Essence magazine called Whitney “the diva to end all divas.”
“I Will Always Love You” was released in 1992, the same year Houston married R&B singer Bobby Brown, who’d had several run-ins with the law and been ejected from New Edition (a group he’d helped found). After their marriage began, Whitney’s voice began to deteriorate. Although she’d always had a “good girl” image, Houston grew erratic and started missing concerts. Finally, in a 2009 interview with Oprah Winfrey, Whitney explained that she’d been doing drugs — mostly marijuana laced with rock cocaine — “every day” with her husband (whom she divorced in 2007). Sadly, it was that cocaine addiction plus heart disease which led to Houston’s accidental drowning in a Beverly Hills hotel bathtub at the age of 48.