Whitney Houston: Singer and actress whose talent was overshadowed by addiction

 

Whitney Houston, who has died at the age of 48, was a dazzling performer who blazed a trail for a new generation of black female singers, from Beyoncé Knowles to Mary J Blige.

In her Eighties heyday, Houston became the queen of the power ballad and single-handedly invented the concept of the pop diva. Even the sappy production and anodyne lyrics of her biggest singles couldn't dent her reputation as an artist of unrivalled vocal talent. She had a voice that could raise roofs and bring down buildings. Powerful, yet pure, it was the standard to which subsequent female singers would aspire.

She also set a lofty standard in terms of sales. Over two decades, Houston sold more than 100 million albums and won six Grammy awards. In the mid-Eighties she had seven consecutive No 1 singles in the US, among them "Saving All My Love for You" and "How Will I Know?", breaking records previously held by Elvis Presley and the Beatles.

But these achievements were to be eclipsed by her tumultuous private life. By the late Nineties her singing career had foundered amid reports of marital problems and drug addiction. Her last record, 2009's I Look To You, received lukewarm reviews – The New York Times called Houston "no longer invincible but showing a diva's determination" – and was, compared with her earlier sales, a commercial failure.

Music was in Houston's DNA: she was the daughter of John Houston, a music manager, and Cissy Houston, a gospel singer. Her godmother was the soul legend Aretha Franklin and her cousin the chart-topping singer Dionne Warwick. At 11, she began singing backing tracks for her mother and performing as a soloist in the junior gospel choir at her local Baptist church.

Among Houston's first paid jobs was as a backing vocalist for Chaka Khan and Jermaine Jackson. Her striking looks also earned her several modelling contracts in the early 1980s, with companies including Sprite and Revlon. Frances Grill, from New York's leading fashion agency, Click, worked with her when she was a teenager. "She had something, a combination of sexuality and innocence," she said.

In 1982, the 19-year-old Houston was discovered by a talent scout who convinced the head of Arista Records, Clive Davis, to sign her. Davis had started Arista in 1975, and had launched the careers of a series of successful singers and songwriters, from Billy Joel to Barry Manilow. Houston's first minor hit was "Hold Me", a duet with Teddy Pendergrass which went into the top five in the US R&B charts. During this time Houston also began auditioning for acting roles, including the part of Sondra Huxtable on The Cosby Show.

In 1985 she released her eponymous debut LP. The album was slow to take off, though, following the release of the singles "Saving All My Love for You" and "How Will I Know?", ended up breaking the record for the best-selling debut by a female artist. Houston was also one of the few African-American artists who received exposure on the then nascent MTV in the 1980s.

Not everyone was happy about Houston's rise to superstardom. In 1989 she was booed during the Soul Train awards by the audience who, it was reported, felt she had turned her back on her African-American roots. But her star was in the ascendant and for the next few years her career went from strength to strength. Her rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner" before the 1991 Super Bowl, at the time of the Gulf War, turned her into America's sweetheart.

The following year she starred in the Hollywood film The Bodyguard with Kevin Costner. Houston played a singer who was being hounded by an obsessive stalker. The soundtrack alone sold 37 million copies and the single "I Will Always Love You", a cover version of a Dolly Parton song, spent 14 weeks at No 1.

In 1992 Houston married the R&B singer Bobby Brown, who had hits with "My Prerogative" and "Every Little Step". She admitted to having been first attracted by his confrontational manner: "I always get curious when someone doesn't like me," she said. The following year she gave birth to a daughter, Bobbi Kristina.

More film roles followed, including 1995's Waiting To Exhale and The Preacher's Wife in 1996. By the late 1990s, however, rumours began circulating about Houston's erratic behaviour. There were reports of unreliability, cancelled concerts, and drink and drugs binges. One former colleague recalled how Houston had kept staff waiting for a photo shoot for 12 hours, finally appearing with no apology or explanation.

In 2000, shortly before the release of a Greatest Hits package, she and Brown were found in possession of marijuana at Hawaii airport, though they returned to the United States mainland before the police arrived, and the charges were dropped. That same year her close friend and office manager Robyn Crawford resigned, a woman whom Houston had once described as "the sister I never had".

In 2001 Houston was removed from rehearsals for the Academy Awards ceremony after she repeatedly forgot the words to her own songs. A year later, in an interview with ABC, Houston admitted to having used alcohol, marijuana, cocaine and prescription pills, but denied ever using crack cocaine. "I make too much [money] for me to ever smoke crack. Crack is whack," she said.

When she appeared at a Michael Jackson tribute concert that same year, her skeletal appearance and unsteady stance shocked fans and raised questions about her health. By this time Houston's commercial standing appeared to be stalling. Her 2002 album Just Whitney barely scraped the top 100 in the UK and sold only three million worldwide. Her next LP, 2003's One Wish: The Holiday Album shifted less than a million.

In March 2006, Brown's sister exposed Houston's continuing drug addiction by selling pictures of the singer's bathroom littered with drug paraphernalia to the press, claiming she was doing it for her sister-in-law's own good. She maintained that Houston was suffering from frequent hallucinations and paranoia. Pictures of the singer released at the same time in which she looked confused and haggard seemed to back up the notion that all was not well.

Those close to Houston, including her family, laid much of the blame for her problems with her husband. It seemed Houston's marriage was blighted from the start, with rumours of ferocious arguments culminating in violence. Brown allegedly hit his wife when she was pregnant (Houston reportedly had a string of miscarriages after the birth of her daughter Bobbi).

In December 2003 police were called to the couple's home in the Atlanta suburb of Alpharetta and Brown was charged with attacking his wife, causing her serious facial injuries. Meanwhile, Brown's womanising continually made headlines, along with his many run-ins with the law.

In 2007 Houston and Brown were divorced. At that time Houston had reportedly been making efforts to overcome her addictions, seeking help both through prayer and rehabilitation. Apparently short of money, Houston auctioned off many of her possessions. In 2010, in an interview with Oprah Winfrey, Houston claimed she was finally drug-free.

That same year she embarked on her first world tour in a decade. It quickly sold out, proving that Houston still had the capacity to draw a crowd, though it was beset by last-minute postponements and cancellations. When Houston did make it on stage, she appeared thin and her voice strained.

Despite her well-publicised problems, Houston continued to be honoured for her achievements by the likes of MTV, Black Entertainment Television and the American Music Awards. She is survived by her mother, two brothers and her daughter.

Whitney Elizabeth Houston, singer and actress: born New Jersey 9 August 1963; married 1992 Bobby Brown (divorced 2007; one daughter); died Los Angeles Saturday 11 February 2012.

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