Record-breaking soul singer whose stellar career was blighted by marital disharmony and drug abuse
Published 19/02/2012 | 05:00
WHITNEY Houston, who has died aged 48, was one of the most commercially successful singers of all time, combining what has been described as the "Rolls-Royce of soul voices" with radiant good looks and emotionally charged tunes; by the time she was 36, she had sold more than 100 million records.
Her debut album, Whitney Houston, sold 13 million copies, making it the best selling first album by a female solo artist, and included three No 1 hits: the touching ballad Saving All My Love For You, which related the feelings of a girl in love with a married man (though the video implied infatuation rather than a full-blown affair); How Will I Know, which took its inspiration from disco music; and The Greatest Love of All.
Further success was to follow. Whitney, released in 1987, was the first album ever to enter the charts at No 1. She then broke records previously held by The Beatles when seven of the songs on the album, released consecutively, reached No 1 in the American charts.
The songs included Where Do Broken Hearts Go? and I Wanna Dance With Somebody.
In 1991, during the first Gulf War, she sang The Star-Spangled Banner at the Super Bowl, marking her status as one of America's most popular singers, and the following year enjoyed her greatest success with I Will Always Love You, written by Dolly Parton. Houston sang the song in The Bodyguard (1992), in which she starred opposite Kevin Costner and which made $400 million. I Will Always Love You became the song most played at weddings and funerals, and the album became the biggest-selling soundtrack of all time.
Houston also attracted much attention for her colourful private life, though only later in life, after her marriage. Indeed, at the start of her career she was known as the "Prom Queen of Soul" for her wholesome image. Although she was wooed by Robert de Niro and linked romantically to Jermaine Jackson, Eddie Murphy and the American footballer Randall Cunningham, reports of romantic adventures were rare.
Her image changed, however, after she met the R&B singer Bobby Brown. To the shock of many of her fans, they married in 1992 at her luxurious mansion in Menham, New Jersey. All the guests wore purple -- her favourite colour -- and tucked into a cake that was 10ft high. At the moment that the couple were pronounced man and wife, seven white doves and seven swans were released.
A former member of the teenage boy band New Edition, Brown had a reputation for wild behaviour, and introduced Whitney Houston to a life of parties and late nights. She later said: "You're supposed to be partying in your twenties. I was on tour and making records. I sacrificed those years. When Bobby came along, I started having a ball. He taught me how to have fun."
But rumours soon arose involving violence and hard drugs. Houston denied such reports, stating: "Ain't nothing up my sleeve." But in 2000, on returning from a holiday in Hawaii with Brown, she was arrested for possession of 15 grams of cannabis. Furthermore, her increasingly strange behaviour on and offstage, and her emaciated appearance, indicated that the fun had got out of control.
In 2000, Houston was due to perform at the Oscars ceremony, directed by Burt Bacharach. But her behaviour raised suspicions that she was under the effects of drugs -- she was playing an imaginary piano, singing to herself and wandering around with her eyes half-closed -- and her performance was cancelled. She also called off a sold-out performance in San Francisco 15 minutes before the start.
She also acquired a reputation for being a prima donna. She turned up two hours late for a dinner at the White House for Nelson Mandela, who had expressed a desire to meet her after watching her sing on a video of a concert in his honour.
For her performances, she would insist that the temperature on stage remain between 72 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit, and that there be no draughts on stage. Once she made staff hose down a hotel room in which she was staying with bottled mineral water; and she took her own washing machine on a tour of South Africa.
Whitney Elizabeth Houston was born at Newark, New Jersey, on August 9, 1963 into a family that was steeped in soul and gospel music. Her mother, Cissy Houston, had been a backing singer for such artists as her niece, Dionne Warwick, and Aretha Franklin. She was also director of the choir of the New Hope Baptist church.
Whitney showed an early interest in performing. She joined the choir aged 11, and was soon moving members of the congregation to tears with the remarkable emotional and tonal range of her solo performances.
Her father was the manager of a music company and later worked as her business manager. She had two brothers, one of whom became her road manager, the other one of her backing singers. Aretha Franklin was her godmother, and Whitney later traced her ambition to become a singer back to the occasions when she had attended Aretha Franklin's recording sessions.
As a teenager, Whitney worked as a backup singer for Chaka Khan and Lou Rawls, and won a modelling contract after being spotted in the street. Luther Vandross offered to produce her as a solo act when she was 15, but her parents insisted that she first finish school.
At the age of 18 she was spotted in a Manhattan dining club by Clive Davis, the head of Arista Records. He signed her in 1985, and proceeded to groom her for success.
Although acting was always secondary to singing for Houston, she later starred in Waiting to Exhale (1995), a film based on the novel by Terry McMillan about a group of successful black women in America. Its soundtrack included songs by Aretha Franklin, Patti Labelle and Chaka Kahn as well as by Houston. She did not, however, sing in the film itself, a fact that she was proud of.
Her status as a serious actress was confirmed by her fee of $10 million for her role in her third film, The Preacher's Wife, in which she starred opposite Denzel Washington. The gospel music soundtrack recalled her roots -- Whitney often liked to make the point that her success never took her away from the black community in which she grew up, and that she continued to support her old church in Newark. Her other screen appearances included Scratch the Surface (1997), and a television film of Cinderella.
In 1997 Houston and Brown aroused press speculation after she returned from a holiday with him in Capri with cuts on her face; few were convinced by her claims that she had cut her face on a rock. In the years that followed, Brown was arrested on a variety of charges, including drink driving and urinating in a police patrol car.
Houston's career appeared to suffer during this period. In 1998 she produced My Love is Your Love, her first serious album in eight years, which she was reported to have recorded in six weeks. It entered the American charts at No 13. Her behaviour during a tour in 1999, which included performances at Wembley Stadium in London and at the Birmingham NEC, was met with bemusement by critics.
But she had the sense to enlist the talents of such musicians as Wyclef Jean and Lauren Hill, and her single It's Not Right, But It's OK, released in 2000, was greeted with critical as well as popular acclaim, and put paid to rumours that she had lost her touch.
She had not, however, conquered her demons. She twice went into rehab clinics for treatment, and in 2007 her marriage to Bobby Brown, with whom she had a daughter, was dissolved. Her erratic behaviour and frayed voice during a comeback tour of Europe suggested that she was back on drugs. In 2009, in an interview with Oprah Winfrey, she claimed to have kicked her habit.
Then, in May last year, it was reported that she was once again receiving treatment. She had recently been filming a remake of the movie Sparkle, which is due to be released later this year.
She was found dead in the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Los Angeles. She had been due to make an appearance at a party for the Grammy Awards, of which she won six during the course of her career.