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Whitney Houston: The Dichotomy Of Distinction And Destruction

Whitney Houston, the unparalleled superstar whose prodigious voice impeded any comparison, died Saturday, February 11, 2012, at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Los Angeles, California where the singer was pronounced dead at 3:55 P.M. in her room on the fourth floor of the hotel, according to the Associated Press.

Whitney, 48, was in Los Angeles preparing for Clive Davis’ annual pre-Grammy gala where the singing sensation was set to be the opening act, but succumbed hours before in the hotel’s bathtub with “no obvious signs of criminal intent”. An autopsy has been completed according to TMZ, but results won’t be released until a toxicology report is finalized which takes four to six weeks.

The youngest and only girl from parents John and gospel renowned singer Cissy Houston, Whitney was born August 9, 1963 in the Newark, New Jersey projects. Four years later the family of five, including two brothers, made their exit from the projects in lieu of the Newark riots where a middle-class area in East Orange, New Jersey would become home. Often left home with her father because of Cissy’s constant touring with the likes of Elvis Presley and Aretha Franklin—in hindsight, the invariable absence of her mother could have forged Whitney’s introverted behavior which left her without many friends and faced with bouts of teasing for her gawking looks. Relinquishing a compulsory path to what would become ‘the voice’, Whitney began singing at the New Hope Baptist Church in Newark where she was reared. Her first solo performance “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah” wasn’t quite the reckoning voice we would later hear, but the trilogy of greats in her circle—her mother, Dionne Warwick, and godmother Aretha Franklin began to cultivate the obvious young talent.

After her parents divorced, Whitney began spending much of her teenage years touring night clubs with Cissy. By age 14, Whitney was featured as the lead singer on the Michael Zager Band’s single “Life’s A Party”. That one performance prompted Zager to aid in getting the young talent a recording contract. Cissy declined the offer because she instead wanted Whitney’s focus to be school, at least until graduation. However, offering her chords on Chaka Khan’s hit single “I’m Every Woman” was allowed, a song she would thirteen years later make her own. In the early 1980’s, the singer once-taunted for her looks was scouted for her striking, natural looks while singing with her mother at Carnegie Hall. This move led to the beauty’s ‘Vogue’ appearance and to being the first woman of color to grace ‘Seventeen’ magazine’s cover. From magazine covers to a Canada Dry soft drink commercial, the makings of a star was in full-fledge force as Houston became a duality of the right stuff. While modeling and continuing with nightclub outings with Cissy, Whitney also found herself working with producers Michael Beinhorn, Bill Laswell, and Martin Bisi on an album the three were spearheading called “One Down”, which was credited to the group “Material”. For the “Material” project, Whitney belted out the ballad “Memories”, which garnered the praise as “one of the most gorgeous ballads you’ve ever heard” per Robert Christgau of “The Village Voice”. As news traveled about the slender girl with the big voice, in 1983, an impressed Gerry Griffith, a representative from Arista Records convinced Clive Davis, Arista’s head, to pay attention to this raw talent. Equally impressed, Clive offered the local Newark talent a worldwide recording contract in 1983, but the new signee wouldn’t begin working on her new album immediately because the record company had a difficult time finding material for the sui generis Whitney possessed. Presumably, regretfully many major producers passed on the unknown talent because they had no clue what to do with her voice.

Meanwhile, Whitney recorded “Hold Me” with Teddy Pendergrass which appeared on his album, “Love Language”. The duo made the song a Top 5 R&B hot contender and would also later appear on Houston’s imminent debut album. Clive was unrelenting in satisfying his gut feeling that Whitney could be the next big crossover superstar. So, after months of perusing material, material from Kashif, Narada Walden, Jermaine Jackson, and Michael Masser became the answer to introducing the world to the voice that would know no bounds. After two long (and now unheard of) years of recording, Whitney Houston’s self-titled debut album released on February 14, 1985. Though the album had a beginning slow commercial response, three number-one singles on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart in the upcoming year pivoted the record as Whitney’s best-selling studio album with sales of over 23 million copies worldwide, and as one of the best-selling albums of all time worldwide. ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine praised the new talent as “one of the most exciting new voices in years”, little did they know that that excitement wouldn’t ever be overturned.

Whitney’s success with her debut album wasn’t immediate, but her unwavering talent wouldn’t disappoint. After the debut on the Billboard 200 at number 120, the dance-funk single “Someone For Me” failed to chart in the U.S. and the UK. The aim was to first appeal to the black audience with the soulful release of “You Give Good Love” which landed at number three on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 while going number one on the R&B charts. The ingenious strategy worked and the album began reaching more successful numbers on the charts while Whitney pushed it even more by touring night clubs nationwide. Houston’s appeal allowed her to perform on popular night shows that usually weren’t open to many black performers. After the jazz-pop ballad “Saving All My Love For You” was released, Whitney was introduced to her first number one hit single in both the U.S. and the U.K. The spike in her chart numbers presented the opportunity to open for singer Jeffrey Osborne on his nationwide tour. When “How Will I Know” was released its peaking to the number one spot would introduce Houston to the MTV audience thanks to the video and the then recent pressure MTV was under for not playing videos beyond their staple audience. This would single-handedly make the Whitney one of the only Black female artists to receive heavy rotation on the network.

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 reaching number one and remaining there for three weeks. With this level of success and an established cross-over fan base Whitney headlined “The Greatest Love Tour”. The album was now an international success, selling over 13 million copies in the United States alone and becoming the best-selling debut album of all time by a female artist. To date, the album has sold approximately 23 million copies worldwide. At the 1986 Grammy Awards, Whitney had amassed three awards including “Album Of The Year”. Despite being an obvious shoe-in for “Best New Artist” the singer was deemed ineligible because of her previous recordings in 1984. Nonetheless, she won her first Grammy Award for “Best Female Pop Vocal Performance” for “Saving All My Love For You”. She performed her Grammy-winning hit that night and that performance granted Houston her first Emmy Award for “Outstanding Individual Performance In A Variety Or Music Program”. She also picked up seven American Music Awards and an MTV Video Music Award, while “Greatest Love Of All” would receive a “Record Of The Year” nomination at the 1987 Grammy Awards. Whitney’s debut 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.

Houston’s second album, “Whitney”, was released on June 29, 1987 by Arista Records. In keeping with the working formula, the album featured productions from Masser, Kashif and Walden again, along with newcomer Jellybean Benitez. It became the first album in history by a female artist to debut at number one on the Billboard 200 in the U.S. and the UK Album Chart, as well as topping the charts in several countries around the world (Canada, Italy, Sweden, Australia, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, Norway, Austria, South Africa, Taiwan and many more). The album’s first four singles, “I Wanna Dance With Somebody”, “Didn’t We Almost Have It All”, “So Emotional”, and “Where Do Broken Hearts Go” all peaked at number one on the Billboard Hot 100, which brought her a total of seven consecutive Hot 100 number-one hits which broke the record of six, previously shared by The Beatles and The Bee Gees. The album`s fifth and final single, “Love Will Save The Day” also peaked in the Top 10 on the Hot 100. However, this album had difficulties moving up the R&B charts. Whitney was certified nine times platinum in America and has sold approximately 21 million copies worldwide. At the Grammy Awards in 1988, Whitney was nominated for three awards including “Album Of The Year”, winning her second Grammy for “Best Female Pop Vocal Performance” for “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)”. She then embarked on the worldwide “Moment Of Truth Tour” which made Whitney one of the top ten highest grossing concert acts of 1987. In the same year, she recorded a song for the 1988 Summer Olympics, “One Moment In Time”, which peaked at number five in the U.S., while reaching number one in Europe. With the huge success of her first two albums, movie offers came, but she chose to pace herself.

“I’m Your Baby Tonight”, Whitney’s third studio album, was released in October 1990. Whitney was given more control as she had a hand in production and producers she wanted to work with. As a result, the album featured productions from Babyface and Antonio Reid, Luther Vandross, and Stevie Wonder. The album showed Whitney’s range from tough, rhythmic grooves, soulful, beautiful ballads and up-tempo dance tracks. Whitney also tried her hand at arranging and co-produced “I’m Knockin'” with her tour musical director Rickey Minor. The album peaked at number three on the Billboard 200 and went on to be certified four times platinum in the states, selling 10 million copies worldwide. The first two singles, “I’m Your Baby Tonight” and the soul ballad “All The Man That I Need” each hit number one on both the Pop and R&B singles charts respectively. This made her the female artist with the most number ones at the time. The third and fourth singles “Miracle” and “My Name Is Not Susan” peaked at numbers nine and twenty, respectively and the fifth single, “I Belong To You”, peaked in the Top 10 on the R&B charts, while yet another single, the duet with Stevie Wonder entitled, “We Didn’t Know”, made the R&B Top 20. Whitney also chose to cater to her Japanese fans and released a Japanese version which featured the tracks “Higher Love” and “Takin’ A Chance” (a number one Hit in Japan). Houston performed “The Star-Spangled Banner” at  Super Bowl XXV on Jan. 27, 1991.  Due to the success of her spellbinding rendition, the anthem was released as a commercial single and reaches the Top 20 on the US Hot 100, making Houston the only act to turn the National Anthem into a pop hit.

In 1992, a clear success, Whitney was ready for family and married R&B singer Bobby Brown (July 18, 1992) and made her big screen debut, opposite Kevin Costner, in “The Bodyguard”, which became a huge success at the box office, thanks in large part to the accompanying soundtrack. The movie grossed more than $121 million in the U.S. and $410 million worldwide. It is currently among the top 100 highest grossing films worldwide and “USA Today” listed it as “one of the 25 most memorable movie moments of the last 25 years”. Whitney recorded six songs for “The Bodyguard Soundtrack” (released November 17, 1992), which featured productions from David Foster. The album was co-executive produced by Whitney Houston and Clive Davis. The soundtrack’s lead single and a career defining song was a cover of the Dolly Parton’s hit “I Will Always Love You”. It peaked at number one on the Billboard Hot 100 for a then-record-breaking 14 weeks and topping the charts in Europe, Australia, and Japan. The song has sold approximately 9 million copies worldwide, making it the best-selling single by a female solo artist. The soundtrack debuted at number one and remained for twenty consecutive weeks. The follow-up singles “I’m Every Woman”, a Chaka Khan cover and “I Have Nothing” both peaked in the top five. The album was certified seventeen times platinum in the United States with worldwide sales of 38.5 million copies and went on to become the best-selling soundtrack album ever. Whitney won three Grammy Awards for the project including two of the Academy’s highest honors, “Album Of The Year” and “Record Of The Year”. The songs “Run To You” and “I Have Nothing” were nominated as “Best Original Song” at the Academy Awards 1994. One year earlier, Whitney gave birth to her first child, daughter Bobbi Kristina on March 4, 1993.

At the height of her imploding, amazing career Houston began to show signs of wear and tear. “Redbook” declared 1994 as her “toughest year of all”. She experienced a miscarriage while engaged in a taxing 22-city tour, she took on the incessant rumors about her bad-boy husband, endured constant criticism about how she was raising her daughter, and had dealt with a persistent stalker. Reports highlighted some of her allegedly impatient, snippy, and erratic behavior, such as snapping at fans that sought autographs. Rumblings of marital difficulties continued into 1995, compounded by Brown’s stint at the Betty Ford Clinic for alcohol abuse.

In late 1995, Houston starred in “Waiting to Exhale”, a reworked version of a popular novel by Terry McMillan about four black women struggling to find harmony in their lives. The soundtrack featured three songs by the pop-star and was produced by Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds. Both the movie and its soundtrack had a wide-reaching fan base, with Houston holding her own in an ensemble cast also featuring Angela Bassett, Lela Rochon, and Loretta Devine. The following year she starred in “The Preacher’s Wife”, about a young woman who is having difficulty in her marriage to a minister as they try to build a new church together. Though it was not critically well-received, she earned an NAACP Image Award in 1997 as outstanding lead actress for this role.

Houston announced in November of 1996 that she was pregnant again, but suffered another miscarriage that December. The following year she played the Fairy Godmother in the highly-rated CBS television movie “Cinderella”, which won an Emmy Award. However, the scrutiny of her behavior continued with more prevalent canceled appearances. Her first recognizable missed show was the “Rosie O’Donnell Show” in November of 1997. She blamed her absence on the stomach flu, but was seen out and about with her husband later that day. Also that year, she and Brown separated for about a month, but were soon back together. The next year, rumors were running rampant about possible drug use on her and Brown’s behalf, which Houston denied. Despite Houston’s claims that her missed scheduled appearances were due to illness, the rumor mill had gone into full speculation mode that Houston was not well. A string of other missed appearances followed. Three weeks before the 2000 Academy Awards ceremony, Houston, who had been scheduled to help induct her mentor, Clive Davis, into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, failed to appear at the induction dinner. Houston’s publicist told the media that, according to the South China Morning Post, “voice problems” were the cause for Houston’s absence. Three weeks later, after Houston failed to perform at the Oscars, her publicist cited a sore throat as the reason. Then, in January of 2000, Hawaii airport security officials discovered 14 grams of marijuana in Houston’s luggage. Houston did not wait for police to arrive. Rather, she boarded her flight, which took off before law enforcement officials appeared. Drug possession charges were filed against Houston after the Hawaii airport incident, but were dismissed in March of 2001.

Whitney would go on to further battle some drug and alcohol demons publicly and enter rehab a few times. At her lowest, she would become tabloid fodder who was disgraced from the very crown she made and later mishandled. She and Bobby Brown divorced April 24, 2007 after allegations of ongoing assault, wild-partying, and repercussions of shunned fans.

“He was my drug,” she said. “I didn’t do anything without him. I wasn’t getting high by myself. It was me and him together, and we were partners, and that’s what my high was – him. He and I being together, and whatever we did, we did it together. No matter what, we did it together,” a sober Whitney told Oprah in their one-on-one interview in 2009.

Whitney was supposed to be in the midst of her comeback. She worked on her first movie “Sparkle” in more than a decade which is still set for its release in August 2012. It’s a remake of a 1970s singing-group drama, costarring Jordin Sparks, which ironically was to start the late Aaliyah when Houston decided to produce the film years ago. Aaliyah’s untimely death halted the production until Houston was approached to act in the film this go-round.

Whitney gave us many memories to remember the voice that may be gone but never silenced.

Her highlights include: the only artist to chart seven consecutive #1 Billboard Hot 100 hits (“Saving All My Love For You”, “How Will I Know”, “Greatest Love Of All”, “I Wanna Dance With Somebody”, “Didn’t We Almost Have It All”, “So Emotional”, and “Where Do Broken Hearts Go”), the first female artist to enter the Billboard 200 Album Chart at #1 (her second album “Whitney”, 1987) and the only  artist with seven consecutive multi-platinum albums (“Whitney Houston”, “Whitney”, “I’m Your Baby Tonight”, “The Bodyguard Soundtrack”, “Waiting To Exhale Soundtrack”, “The Preacher’s Wife Soundtrack” and “My Love Is Your Love”). “The Bodyguard Soundtrack” is one of the Top 10 biggest-selling albums of all time (at seventeen times platinum in the U.S. alone) and Whitney’s career-defining version of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” is the biggest-selling U.S. single of all time (at four times platinum). Whitney is the fourth best-selling female recording artist of all time according to the “Recording Industry Association Of America” and is the most awarded female artist of all time according to the “Guinness Book Of World Records”.

As she once stated, “I almost wish I could be more exciting, that I could match what is happening out there to me,” —she no longer has to be in pursuit. Rest well…the one and only greatest gift of all.

By Deidre White

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