PROFILE: Whitney Houston
'THE voice", as she was once known, has been quiet of late. Whitney Houston's status as soul diva and one of the major pop singers of the past 25 years has been eclipsed by tabloid headlines more concerned with her alleged crack cocaine habit and disastrous marriage than with her vocal prowess.
Now, however, with her first album in seven years, I Look To You, due for American release at the end of this month (and out in the UK in October), Houston is looking to her old mentor, music mogul Clive Davis, to restore her flagging career. She's also depending on her 15-year-old daughter, Bobbi Kristina, for emotional support during her planned comeback, after a decade in which she appeared to be sinking into a squalid spiral of drug abuse, at least partly under the influence of her former husband, R&B singer Bobby Brown. "She encourages and inspires me," she recently said of her daughter.
Now the 77-year-old chief creative officer of Sony Music Entertainment Worldwide, Davis was head of Arista Records in 1983 when he heard a 20-year-old Houston performing with her mother in a Manhattan nightclub, and was so bowled over that he awarded her a 20-year worldwide recording contract.
She became a six-times Grammy Award winner, listed by Rolling Stone magazine as one of the "100 greatest singers of all time", and has sold some 170 million records during her career, including hit singles such as I Wanna Dance With Somebody and I Will Always Love You.
It's been seven years, however, since she made her last fresh studio album, and fans are waiting to see whether, as Davis has suggested, I Look To You will re-establish the 46-year-old Houston's reputation as "one of the all-time great vocalists" rather than a focus of tabloid gossip. Houston rarely gives anything away, but she announced last week that she would give her first full-length interview in years on the Oprah Winfrey Show on 14 September.
Winfrey has claimed this coup as "the most anticipated music interview of the decade", but whether she can persuade Houston to elucidate on just what happened to her life over the past decade or so remains to be seen. It was during her last in-depth interview, in 2002 with the American ABC network's Diane Sawyer, that she admitted to occasional substance use and made her famous comment: "I make too much money to ever smoke crack. Let's get that straight okay? We don't do crack. We don't do that. Crack is wack." She added: "I don't like to think of myself as addicted… I had a bad habit which can be broken. I'm not gonna tell you I'm somebody's junkie."
Whitney Elisabeth Houston was born in Newark, New Jersey, and it would have been surprising if singing, of the soul, R&B and gospel varieties, had not been in her genes. Her mother, Cissy Houston, was a Grammy Award-winning soul and gospel singer who accompanied the likes of Elvis Presley, Aretha Franklin (Whitney's godmother) and Mahalia Jackson before going on to pursue a successful solo career, while Dionne and Dee Dee Warwick were cousins.
Her debut as a soloist was in New Hope Baptist Church in Newark when she was 11, singing Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehova. Three years later, aged just 14, she was lead vocalist in the Michael Zagler Band's single Life's A Party, although her mother wouldn't let her go full-time until she had finished school.
She declined several recording deals until Davis offered her that worldwide recording contract. Houston signed and Davis would become an important mentor, although it wasn't until February 1985 that her eponymously titled debut album won a Grammy and sold 13 million copies.
Whitney, by 1987, wasn't so well received critically, but was a vast commercial success, the first woman artist in pop history to debut at the number one spot in the UK and US album charts. Not everyone was cheering, however. Some black music critics complained that her records were missing the soul which had infused her live performances, and at the 1989 Soul Train Awards, there were a few who jeered her as "an Oreo" – a humiliating reference to a biscuit which is black on the outside with a white filling. Her response, however, was her third studio album, 1990's I'm Your Baby Tonight, which had a grittier feel. It met with mixed reviews, yet sold ten million copies worldwide.
As her career went stratospheric, Houston became committed to various causes. During a stint as a young model, she had refused to work for agencies with business connections to apartheid South Africa, and in June 1988 she performed at Wembley Stadium at the 70th birthday concert for Nelson Mandela – then still in prison – which had a global audience of more than a billion. She established the Whitney Houston Foundation for Children, and after Mandela became president of South Africa, she was the first major musician to visit the post-apartheid country, performing in Mandela's honour.
She took to the big screen in 1992 with The Bodyguard, playing pop diva to Kevin Costner's former CIA agent turned personal security man. Despite decidedly mixed critical reviews, the film was a box-office success and her soundtrack album a huge seller. Further film ventures included the more positively reviewed Waiting To Exhale and the comedy The Preacher's Wife, with Denzel Washington.
In 1992 she married the R&B singer Bobby Brown. Bobbi Kristina, Houston's first child and his fourth, was born the following year. But as she embraced the lifestyle of a pampered pop diva, the Nineties saw Houston's professional image cracking as her behaviour reportedly became erratic, allegations of drug use and weight loss flared in the press, and in 2000 her scheduled performance at the Academy Awards ceremony was suddenly scrapped.
In 2001, the year she signed a 100 million deal for six albums with Arista/BMG, the largest record deal in pop music history, further speculation was prompted by her emaciated appearance at a Michael Jackson tribute show. Her relationship with Brown wasn't faring well either. He got into brawls, received a jail sentence for drink driving in 2003, and also ended up in court for failing to maintain child support for two of his children by an earlier relationship. The singer's father was among those who said her drug problems wouldn't end until she'd got shot of her husband – "Stick with him and you're going to die," he warned.
Houston's reputation was hardly helped by her appearance on her husband's ill-conceived reality TV series, Being Bobby Brown, which attracted appalling reviews. In 2006 the couple separated, and divorced the following year, with Houston winning custody of their daughter.
She appears to have conquered her demons for the present, and told an interviewer earlier this month: "I just want to be recognised for my music… as opposed to talking about Whitney all the time."