The world was shell-shocked when over the weekend we received the tragic news that Whitney Elizabeth Houston had passed away – at just 48-years-old. The singer enjoyed a legendary career, defining and dominating the 80’s and 90’s with hits such as ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody’, ‘I Will Always Love You’ and countless others.
Music was as natural to Whitney as breathing. Trained in gospel, New Jersey-born Whitney was the daughter of the gospel star Cissy Houston, goddaughter of Aretha Franklin and Dionne Warwick’s cousin – she was quite literally born into a world of legends.
Her phenomenal talent meant that her career flew with the ease of a bird; however humble Whitney had no idea what kind of impact she was making. She released her debut album, self-titled ‘Whitney Houston’ in 1985, which featured ‘Saving All My Love For You’ and other classics, winning her her 1st Grammy. At the time, the New York Times said that Houston “possesses one of her generation’s most powerful gospel-trained voices.” Rolling Stone also chipped in, adding that she is “obviously headed for stardom”.
Houston had a knack of delivering draw dropping vocals with ease, not only jaw dropping in sound, but extreme in lyrical content. The singer set a trend by making her music epically inspiring; discussing love as if she could, and would, beat all the cruel odds of the world. Her love songs weren’t half hearted – Whitney gave it her all or nothing at all.
Whitney broke down many doors accidently by blowing them down with her voice. At a time when black artists were struggling to make it onto mainstream radio and TV, Whitney broke the mould and became the first black woman to regularly feature on MTV. A US magazine editor labelled her “the first black America’s sweetheart”. She opened the doors for artists we could imagine not having now – Mary J Blige, Destiny’s Child, Erykah Badu.
An unconscious feminist, Whitney also broke many records for women in a time where ladies were decidedly, and visibly, inferior. According to the Guinness Book of Records, she was the most awarded female artist of all time. Her bold attitude and voice also meant that she was credited for inventing the ‘pop diva’ culture that has continued to inspire female artists to this very day. In her sweet and turbulent life she won 415 Awards, 2 Emmys, 6 Grammys, 22 American Music Awards, 30 Billboard Awards and sold 300,000,000 albums.
With Houston breaking records and performing worldwide, she inevitably became very rich. 3 albums later, Whitney decided to embark on an acting career and starred in ‘The Bodyguard’ – one of the most famous films of the 90’s. It was at this time she married the love of her life, Bobby Brown and shortly afterwards gave birth to their only child, Bobbi Kristina Houston Brown. Her career continued without any glitches until the late 90’s, when Whitney would arrive hours late for shows and interviews and was seen in public looking gaunt and pale.
In 2002 things were still visibly unstable for Whitney, with rumours of domestic violence and drug abuse occurring within the celebrity marriage. Although Whitney said in a TV interview that “crack is wack” it was no secret in Hollywood that the couple were addicted to cocaine and marijuana. Whitney once described the union between the two as: “The princess marries the bad boy.”
She eventually kicked the habit and divorced Brown in 2006. She said her drug addiction came easy as “there was so much money” and she “didn’t think about the singing part anymore.” It was clear to see the abuse had affected her abilities, when her comeback tour in 2010 caused concern for the breathless Whitney we saw on stage – she wasn’t glowing the way she did prior to the substance abuse.
Whitney endured another period in rehab this year, and also featured in a remake of the 70’s movie ‘Sparkle’ with Jordin Sparks. Tragically and ironically, the film covers the effects of fame and drugs. It will still be released in August of this year.
The day before the Grammy Awards, on Saturday 11 February, Whitney Houston was getting ready for her mentor’s Clive Davis‘s pre-Grammy party which was happening downstairs, in the Beverly Hilton hotel in LA. Before the event, Whitney’s aunt Mary Jones went to check on Whitney, finding that she had passed away in the hotel’s bathtub.
Family sources told TMZ that although it has not been confirmed what caused her death, the L.A County Coroner officials have said it was not from drowning in the bath, but from a combination of Xanax and other prescription drugs mixed with alcohol.
Whitney Houston is survived by her mother, two brothers and daughter. Like she once said “We all die. The goal isn’t to live forever, the goal is to create something that will.” I pray that she rests in peace knowing that she certainly did achieve that.
This piece is an amended version of my feature on Whitney on MTV.co.uk, which can be read here.