Whitney Houston was born in what was then a middle-income neighborhood of Newark, New Jersey, the third and youngest child of John and gospel singer Cissy Houston. Her mother, along with cousins Dionne Warwick and the late Dee Dee Warwick and godmother Aretha Franklin were all notable figures in the gospel, rhythm and blues, pop, and soul genres. Houston was raised a Baptist, but was also exposed to the Pentecostal church. After the 1967 Newark riots, the family moved to a middle class area in East Orange, New Jersey when she was four.
At the age of eleven, Houston began to follow in her mother’s footsteps and started performing as a soloist in the junior gospel choir at the New Hope Baptist Church in Newark, where she also learned to play the piano. Her first solo performance in the church was “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah.”
When Houston was a teenager, she attended a Catholic single-sex high school, Mount Saint Dominic Academy, where she met her best friend Robyn Crawford, whom she describes as the “sister she never had.” While Houston was still in school, her mother continued to teach her how to sing. In addition to her mother, Franklin, and Warwick, Houston was also exposed to the music of Chaka Khan, Gladys Knight, and Roberta Flack, most of whom would have an impact on her as a singer and performer.
Houston spent some of her teenage years touring nightclubs where her mother Cissy was performing, and she would occasionally get on stage and perform with her. In 1977, at age 14, she was a backup singer on the Michael Zager Band’s single “Life’s a Party.” Zager subsequently offered to obtain a recording contract for the young singer, but Cissy declined, wanting her young daughter to finish school first. Then in 1978, at age 15, Houston sang background vocals on Chaka Khan’s hit single “I’m Every Woman,” a song she would later turn into a hit for herself on her monster-selling soundtrack album The Bodyguard. She also sang back-up on albums by Lou Rawls and Jermaine Jackson. In the early 1980s, Houston started working as a fashion model after a photographer saw her at Carnegie Hall singing with her mother. She appeared as a lead vocalist on a Paul Jabara album, entitled Paul Jabara and Friends, released by Columbia Records in 1983. She appeared in Seventeen and became one of the first women of color to grace the cover of the magazine. She was also featured in layouts in the pages Glamour, Cosmopolitan, Young Miss and appeared in a Canada Dry soft drink TV commercial. Her striking looks and girl-next-door charm made her one of the most sought after teen models of that time. While modeling, she continued her burgeoning recording career by working with producers Ben Dover, Bill Laswell and Martin Bisi on an album they were spearheading called One Down, which was credited to the group Material. For that project, Houston contributed the ballad “Memories.” Robert Christgau of The Village Voice called her contribution “one of the most gorgeous ballads you’ve ever heard.”
Houston had previously been offered several recording agencies (Michael Zager in 1980 and Elektra Records in 1981). In 1983, Gerry Griffith, an A&R representative from Arista Records saw her performing with her mother in a New York City nightclub and was impressed. He convinced Arista’s head Clive Davis to make time to see Houston perform. Davis too was impressed and offered a worldwide recording contract which Houston signed. Later that year, she made her national televised debut alongside Davis on The Merv Griffin Show
Houston signed with Arista in 1983 but did not begin work on her album immediately. The label wanted to make sure no other label signed the singer away. Davis wanted to ensure he had the right material and producers for Houston’s debut album. Some producers had to pass on the project due to prior commitments. Houston first recorded a duet with Teddy Pendergrass entitled “Hold Me” which appeared on his album, Love Language. The single was released in 1984 and gave Houston her first taste of success, becoming a Top 5 R&B hit. It would also appear on her debut album in 1985.
With production from Michael Masser, Kashif, Jermaine Jackson and Narada Michael Walden, Houston’s self-titled debut album was released in February 1985. Rolling Stone magazine praised the new talent, calling her “one of the most exciting new voices in years” while The New York Times called the album “an impressive, musically conservative showcase for an exceptional vocal talent.” The first single, the dance-funk “Someone For Me,” failed to chart in the US and UK. The next single, “Thinking About You,” reached the top ten of the US R&B Chart, as the album sold modestly. The release of the next single, the soulful ballad “You Give Good Love,” peaked at #3 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100, and went to #1 on the R&B Charts. As a result, the album began to sell strongly, and Houston continued promoting the album by touring nightclubs in the US. She also began performing on late-night television talk shows, which was not usually accessible to black acts. The jazzy ballad “Saving All My Love for You” was released next and it would become Houston’s first #1 hit single in both the US and the UK. She was now an opening act for singer Jeffrey Osborne on his nationwide tour. At the time, MTV had received harsh criticism for not playing enough videos by African-American artists while favoring rock acts. The next single, “How Will I Know,” peaked at #1 and introduced Houston to the MTV audience thanks to its video. This would make the singer the first African-American female artists to receive heavy rotation on the network. By 1986, a year after its initial release, Whitney Houston topped the Billboard 200 album chart and stayed there for 14 non-consecutive weeks. The final single, “Greatest Love of All,” became Houston’s biggest hit at the time after peaking #1 and remaining there for three weeks. At the time, Houston released the best-selling debut album by a female artist. Houston then embarked on her world tour, Greatest Love Tour. The album had become an international success, and was certified 13x Platinum (diamond) in the United States alone, and has sold a total of 25 million copies worldwide.
At the 1986 Grammy Awards, Houston was nominated for three awards including Album of the Year. She was ineligible for the Best New Artist category due to her previous duet recording with Teddy Pendergrass in 1984. She won her first Grammy award for ‘Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female’ for “Saving All My Love for You.” At the same award show, she performed that Grammy-winning hit; that performance later winning her an Emmy Award for Outstanding Individual Performance in a Variety or Music Program. Houston won seven American Music Awards in total in 1986 and 1987, and an MTV Video Music Award. The album’s popularity would also carry over to the 1987 Grammy Awards when “Greatest Love of All” would receive a Record of the Year nomination. Houston’s debut album is currently listed as one of Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time and on The Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame’s Definitive 200 list. Whitney Houston’s grand entrance into the music industry is considered one of the 25 musical milestones of the last 25 years, according to USA Today. Following Houston’s breakthrough, doors were opened for other African-American female artists such as Janet Jackson and Anita Baker to find notable success in popular music and on MTV.
The rest is music and narcotic (sorry Whitney!) history.
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