Whitney Houston: The diva who had – and lost – it all

From her rise as a fresh-faced teen to her sudden death in an LA hotel room at 48, Nick Hasted charts the highs and lows of a remarkable life

There was shock, and yet minutes after the news was heard, it seemed less surprising. As with the sudden, early deaths of Amy Winehouse and Michael Jackson, the discovery of Whitney Houston's body in her LA hotel room appeared inevitable for someone who had suffered such turmoil in their life.

The full details of her death are yet to be confirmed. It has been reported, so far, that her body was found by a member of her entourage in the bath of her hotel room at the Beverly Hills Hilton. She had been due to attend a pre-Grammy awards party thrown by the man who helped form her talent, Clive Davis, a legendary judge of pop talent and craft. Attempts to resuscitate her failed. Her time of death was recorded as 3.55pm, on Saturday. After a long struggle with drink and drugs, perhaps it was not so shocking after all.

But at her peak from 1985 to the late 1990s, Houston was an influence on every major female pop star, and on the TV talent shows that now dominate the music industry. For young girls belting out "I Will Always Love You" in their bedrooms, and stars from Mariah Carey to Beyoncé and Lady Gaga, Houston was the most important pop singer of the last quarter-century.

Born into a middle-class New Jersey family on 9 August 1963, she seemed anointed for stardom. Her mother was the gospel-soul star Cissy Houston, cousin Dionne Warwick was among the 1960s' most elegant vocal stylists, and her godmother was Aretha Franklin.

But a 1986 Billboard magazine piece by Bud Scoppa revealed the complex background to her "overnight stardom", aged only 22. Arista A&R man Gerry Griffith chanced upon her in 1980 at New York club the Bottom End, when he saw the supporting act Cissy Houston let her 17-year-old daughter guest with her. Astonished by her vocal power, Griffith still judged that "she isn't quite ripe yet". It was another two years before he deemed her ready, and arranged her audition with Davis.

Three years of experiment followed, as Davis and his cohorts constructed the perfect Whitney to unleash on the world. Her strong, octave-cresting voice made her the ultimate vehicle for the "Clive ballad", a longstanding ideal, Scoppa wrote, of Davis, "a sophisticated middlebrow who adores swelling strings and sentimental refrains".

"Saving All My Love For You" was one of several songs to fit Davis's formula on a debut album, Whitney Houston, which instantly made her the biggest female star in the world. Because of her, the "Clive ballad" soon became a global norm followed by female singers and episodes of The X Factor, Britain's Got Talent and their foreign franchises.

A second album, Whitney (1987), completed a record-breaking unbroken run of seven US No 1 singles. The video for the upbeat "I Wanna Dance With Somebody" showed a smartly dressed Houston finishing a show, then secretly letting her frizzed hair down. But ballads such as "Didn't We Almost Have It All" and "I Know Him So Well" kept her in the middle of the road. "She sounds like a lonely little kid who has spent too much time with grown-ups, and has picked up a lot of their habits," Lloyd Bradley wrote in Q with perceptive concern.

It was this bland acceptability, though, which let her help a subtle yet fundamental social shift. This star of Reagan and Bush Senior's America existed a world away from the combative African-American musicians of the 1960s and 1970s. Though the notes she hit had been learned in the gospel tradition, they were not deployed with soulful pain. Her most political act was to sing "The Star-Spangled Banner" in support of the Gulf War at the 1991 Super Bowl.

And yet, following Michael Jackson's lead, the sheer weight of Houston's popularity helped break MTV open to black American acts. Her middle-class respectability contrasted with uglier urban ghetto stereotypes of US black culture. Co-starring as a threatened diva with Kevin Costner in The Bodyguard (1992), their characters' interracial attraction was never an issue. Whitney was beautiful and dully nice enough to be America's first black sweetheart. She was an element in normalising African-Americans in the mainstream which ended with Obama in the White House. "I Will Always Love You", the 12 million-selling single from The Bodyguard's soundtrack, was the pinnacle of her powerhouse vocal style. She had scaled showbiz's peak, and as so often, there was only one way to go.

Then Houston married R&B star Bobby Brown on 18 July 1992, giving birth to her only child, Bobbi Kristina, the following year. Brown was a rougher proposition. He helped patent the New Jack Swing style of soul at the 1980s' end but was thrown out of boy band New Edition for lewdness. His influence was apparent on her best single, 1999's "It's Not Right But It's Okay", with a twitchy thumb-piano hook, which rippled through the pop underground.

Brown and Houston were made for each other in the worst way. The couple flew out of Hawaii in 2000 as their luggage, including marijuana laced with crack cocaine was being inspected. Charges were dropped. But Burt Bacharach, a family friend, had to sack her from performing at that year's Oscars. Brown was arrested for misdemeanour battery on her in 2004. They divorced on April 24 2007. Houston continually denied her drug habit, until a ritual confession on Oprah in 2009.

There never was a mature phase to Houston’s career, a period when adult experience lent wisdom or sorrow to her work. Her innocent image was corrupted, and her ability to work dissolved. Her 2001 re-signing with Arista, scheduling her to record six albums for $100m, proved foolishly optimistic. Her last three desultory LPs sold in puny figures compared to her peak, as she ceased to matter. 

Chris Roberts, watching her UK debut at London's Wembley Arena in 1986, had reported a star who was "confident, self-possessed but without the folly of excessive ego... white-hot before an insatiable band". Simon Price saw her for The Independent in April 2010, lurching "awkwardly from one horror to the next", confused and missing the high note of "I Will Always Love You".

Houston's legacy is hard to claim as a positive one. But that doesn't lessen the shame of her decline from the hopeful belting out "Tomorrow" from Annie to the corpse discovered in an LA hotel.

Goodbye Whitney: Tributes from the music world...

'I just can't talk about it now. It's so stunning and unbelievable. I couldn't believe what I was reading coming across the TV screen.' - Her Godmother, Aretha Franklin

'She was the most beautiful woman I think I ever saw... Thank you for giving us your talent, and one of the most beautiful voices I've ever heard.' - Elton John

'First of all, I want to tell you I love you all. Second, I would like to say, I love you Whitney. The hardest thing for me to do is to come on this stage.' - Former husband Bobby Brown performing a show in Southaven, Mississippi, hours after her death

Arts and Entertainment
Relocation, relocation: Zawe Ashton travels the pathway to Northampton

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Three was launched a little over five years ago with the slogan: “Three, is a magic number, yes it is.”

BBC Trust agrees to axe channel from TV in favour of digital move

TV
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Armie Hammer in the new film of ‘The Lone Ranger’

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Arts and Entertainment
The audience aimed thousands of Apple’s product units at Taylor Swift throughout the show
musicReview: On stage her manner is natural, her command of space masterful
Arts and Entertainment
Channel 4 is reviving its Chris Evans-hosted Nineties hit TFI Friday

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford plays Indiana Jones in The Last Crusade (1989)

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
A Glastonbury reveller hides under an umbrella at the festival last year

Glastonbury
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miles Morales is to replace Peter Parker as the new Spider-Man

comics
Arts and Entertainment
The sequel to 1993's Jurassic Park, Jurassic World, has stormed into the global record books to score the highest worldwide opening weekend in history.

film
Arts and Entertainment
Odi (Will Tudor)
tvReview: Humans, episode 2
Arts and Entertainment
Can't cope with a Port-A-loo? We've got the solution for you

FestivalsFive ways to avoid the portable toilets

Arts and Entertainment
Some zookeepers have been braver than others in the #jurassiczoo trend

Jurassic WorldThe results are completely brilliant

Arts and Entertainment
An original Miffy illustration
art
Arts and Entertainment
Man of mystery: Ian McKellen as an ageing Sherlock Holmes
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Kitchen set: Yvette Fielding, Patricia Potter, Chesney Hawkes, Sarah Harding and Sheree Murphy
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Evans has been confirmed as the new host of Top Gear
TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

    Making of a killer

    What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
    UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

    Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

    Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
    Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
    Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

    Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

    Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most
    Katy Perry prevented from buying California convent for $14.5m after nuns sell to local businesswoman instead

    No grace of God for Katy Perry as sisters act to stop her buying convent

    Archdiocese sues nuns who turned down star’s $14.5m because they don’t approve of her
    Ajmer: The ancient Indian metropolis chosen to be a 'smart city' where residents would just be happy to have power and running water

    Residents just want water and power in a city chosen to be a ‘smart’ metropolis

    The Indian Government has launched an ambitious plan to transform 100 of its crumbling cities
    Michael Fassbender in 'Macbeth': The Scottish play on film, from Welles to Cheggers

    Something wicked?

    Films of Macbeth don’t always end well - just ask Orson Welles... and Keith Chegwin
    10 best sun creams for body

    10 best sun creams for body

    Make sure you’re protected from head to toe in the heatwave
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon files

    Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games
    Women's World Cup 2015: How England's semi-final success could do wonders for both sexes

    There is more than a shiny trophy to be won by England’s World Cup women

    The success of the decidedly non-famous females wearing the Three Lions could do wonders for a ‘man’s game’ riddled with cynicism and greed
    How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

    How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

    Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
    Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

    One day to find €1.6bn

    Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
    New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

    'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

    Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
    Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

    Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

    The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
    Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

    Historians map out untold LGBT histories

    Public are being asked to help improve the map