Sign up below to be added to our mailing list for the latest news updates, access to exclusive contests, and more!
Whitney Elizabeth Houston was born in Newark, New Jersey, on August 9, 1963. Her mother was gospel/R&B singer Cissy Houston, and her cousin was Dionne Warwick. By age 11, Houston was performing as a soloist in the junior gospel choir at her Baptist church; as a teenager, she began accompanying her mother in concert (as well as on the 1978 album Think It Over), and went on to back artists like Lou Rawls and Chaka Khan. Houston also pursued modeling and acting, appearing on the sitcoms Gimme a Break and Silver Spoons. Somewhat bizarrely, Houston's first recording as a featured vocalist was with Bill Laswell's experimental jazz-funk ensemble Material; the ballad "Memories," from the group's 1982 album One Down, placed Houston alongside Archie Shepp. The following year, Arista president Clive Davis heard Houston singing at a nightclub and offered her a recording contract. Her first single appearance was a duet with Teddy Pendergrass, "Hold Me," which reached number five on the R&B chart in 1984.
Houston's debut album, Whitney Houston, was released in February 1985. "You Give Good Love," its second single, became Houston's first hit, topping the R&B chart and hitting number three on the Hot 100. Houston's next three singles -- the Grammy-winning romantic ballad "Saving All My Love for You," the brightly danceable "How Will I Know," and the inspirational "The Greatest Love of All" -- all topped the Hot 100, and a year to the month after its release, Whitney Houston hit number one on the Billboard 200. It eventually sold over 13 million copies in the U.S., making it the best-selling debut ever by a female artist. Houston cemented her superstar status on her next album, Whitney. It became the first album by a female artist to debut at number one, and sold over ten million copies in the U.S. Its first four singles -- "I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me)" (another Grammy winner), "Didn't We Almost Have It All," "So Emotional," and "Where Do Broken Hearts Go" -- all hit number one, an amazing, record-setting run of seven straight. In late 1988, Houston scored a Top Five hit with the non-LP single "One Moment in Time," recorded for an Olympics-themed compilation album.
Houston returned with her third album, I'm Your Baby Tonight, in 1990. A more R&B-oriented record, it immediately spun off two number one hits in the title track and "All the Man That I Need" and sold over four million copies. Houston remained so popular that she could even take a recording of "The Star Spangled Banner" (performed at the Super Bowl) into the Top 20 -- though, of course, the Gulf War patriotism had something to do with that. Appeal across mediums fueled Houston as she began focus on an acting career, which she hadn't pursued since her teenage years. Her first feature film, a romance with Kevin Costner called The Bodyguard, was released in late 1992, just after she married singer Bobby Brown. It performed well at the box office, helped by an ad campaign that seemingly centered around the climactic key change in Houston's soundtrack recording of the Dolly Parton-penned "I Will Always Love You." In fact, the ad campaign undoubtedly helped "I Will Always Love You" become one the biggest singles in pop music history. It set new records for sales (nearly five million copies) and spent weeks at number one (14), later broken by Elton John's "Candle in the Wind 1997" and Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men's "One Sweet Day," respectively. Meanwhile, the soundtrack eventually sold an astounding 18 million copies, and also won a Grammy for Album of the Year. "I Will Always Love You" itself won Grammys for Record of the Year and Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female.
Once Houston had stopped raking in awards and touring the world, she prepared her next theatrical release, the ensemble drama Waiting to Exhale. A few months before its release at the end of 1995, it was announced that she and Brown had split up; however, they called off the split just a couple months later, and rumors about their tempestuous relationship filled the tabloids for years to come. Waiting to Exhale was released toward the end of the year, and the first single from the soundtrack, "Exhale (Shoop Shoop)," topped the charts. The album sold over seven million copies. For her next project, Houston decided to return to her gospel roots. The soundtrack to the 1996 film The Preacher's Wife, which naturally featured Houston in the title role, was loaded with traditional and contemporary gospel songs, plus guest appearances by Houston's mother, as well as Shirley Caesar and the Georgia Mass Choir.
In 1998, Houston finally issued a new full-length album, My Love Is Your Love, her first in eight years. Houston worked with pop/smooth soul mainstays like Babyface and David Foster, but also recruited hip-hop stars like Missy Elliott, Wyclef Jean, Lauryn Hill, and Q-Tip. The album went quadruple platinum and received Houston's most enthusiastic reviews in quite some time. Moreover, it produced one of her biggest R&B chart hits (seven weeks at number one) in the trio number "Heartbreak Hotel," done with Faith Evans and Kelly Price. Additionally, it yielded the Grammy-winning "It's Not Right But It's Okay." She also duetted with Mariah Carey on "When You Believe," a song from the animated film The Prince of Egypt.
Arista released the two-disc compilation Greatest Hits, a multi-platinum anthology that featured one disc of hits and one of remixes and included new duets with Enrique Iglesias, George Michael, and Deborah Cox, in 2000. It was also announced that year that Houston had signed a new deal with Arista worth $100 million, requiring six albums from the singer. The self-styled comeback album Just Whitney arrived in 2002, followed by One Wish: The Holiday Album in November of the following year. Two years later, her private life became more public through the 2005 reality television series Being Bobby Brown. She eventually divorced her husband and went into intense rehabilitation for drug addiction.
An album of new material was initially set for release by the end of 2007, but delays pushed it -- titled I Look to You, featuring collaborations with Alicia Keys and Swizz Beatz, R. Kelly, Akon, and Diane Warren -- back to September 2009. It became Houston's first number one album since the Bodyguard soundtrack. She toured the world in 2010, and talked about beginning recording for her next album, but entered outpatient rehab in the summer of 2011 for continuing drug and alcohol problems. That fall, Houston filmed a role in a remake of the 1976 musical film Sparkle, starring alongside Jordin Sparks. In early 2012, rumors swirled that Simon Cowell was courting Houston for a mentor spot on The X Factor, but before anything came of it, tragedy occurred. On February 11, the day before the 2012 Grammys, Houston was found dead in her bathroom at the Beverly Hills Hilton. The cause of death was found to be accidental drowning caused by heart disease and cocaine intoxication. The Grammy ceremony paid tribute to her life with a Jennifer Hudson performance of "I Will Always Love You." Houston was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2020. ~ Steve Huey & Andy Kellman