Whitney Houston 1963 - 2012
One of the most celebrated female singers of all time until her image as America's sweetheart was ravaged by drug use
Few pop singers have been gifted with a voice as glorious as Whitney Houston's, and even fewer have treated their talent with the frustrating indifference she did toward the end of her life. She sold more records and received more awards than almost any other female pop star of the 20th century, but spent most of her last years mired in a drug addiction that sapped her will to sing and left her in a shambolic state.
Her death at the age of 48 will send her albums back into the charts, and introduce her music to a generation who knew her only as a troubled character whose commercial success peaked in the 1990s. Though never edgy as a musician – her skills were often wasted on bland adult-contemporary songs – she was more than just a purveyor of anodyne chart hits. Houston was lauded by other vocalists for her impeccable technique and polish, qualities that elevated her above almost every other star of her era.
Houston was gospel-trained, but her voice also lent itself to R&B, pop and ballads, and she was adept at each style. It was a ballad that provided her biggest hit, a 1992 cover version of Dolly Parton's I Will Always Love You. Her melodramatic rendition, featuring one of her most powerful vocals, sold 12m copies worldwide, making it one of the biggest singles of all time.
Her total record sales topped 170m, putting her in an elite group of female superstars that included Mariah Carey and Celine Dion, both of whom were heavily influenced by her emotional, vibrato-laden style.
Houston often gravitated to dramatic songs with lyrics about triumphing over the odds, and has been credited with inventing the "pop diva" genre that has inspired singers to the present day. She was also the first black woman to break through the colour bar at the all-important MTV, which hitherto had played white artists almost exclusively. The station's heavy rotation of her videos made her a familiar face to Middle America, and her mix of glamour, talent and approachability made her an aspirational figure for millions of teenage girls, both black and white. A US magazine editor dubbed her "the first black America's sweetheart".
Houston's success made her rich, enabling her to maintain a cocaine habit that kept her from making records for years at a time in her 30s and 40s. Looking back on her addiction after kicking it in the late 2000s, she said paying for it had been easy, as "there was so much money". But she "didn't think about the singing part any more," and when she did return to touring, the neglect showed. She was unable to get through concerts without breathlessness and frequent halts. Her comeback tour in 2010 was marred by reviews claiming she was unfit to be onstage, and a clip of her sounding wobbly at a gig in Birmingham was played on the TV news.
Houston was born in Newark, New Jersey, to a musical family: she was the daughter of the gospel star Cissy Houston, a cousin of Dionne Warwick and goddaughter of Aretha Franklin. She began singing in her church choir at the age of 11, and as a young teenager occasionally performed at her mother's concerts. Her voice attracted attention, and when she was 15, she and Cissy sang backup on Chaka Khan's 1978 hit I'm Every Woman.
She went on to provide vocals for Lou Rawls and Jermaine Jackson, and simultaneously developed a sideline in modelling. Her fresh-faced prettiness made her a success in front of the camera, and she was the second black model to appear on the cover of the American magazine Seventeen in 1981, when black faces were a rarity in fashion magazines. Even Seventeen hedged its bets by putting a white model next to her in the photo.
By her late teens, Houston had been a featured vocalist on albums by the disco songwriter Paul Jabara and the avant-garde New York funk outfit Material. By then, her style was fully formed; on the Material track Memories, the richness of her tone was balanced by a poise and precision that was uncanny in a teenager. Inevitably, she was offered record deals, and signed with the Arista label, where she stayed for the rest of her life.
Convinced that she had what it took to be a blockbusting star, Arista's influential president, Clive Davis, personally oversaw the recording of her first album. He also turned up with her in 1983 on the Merv Griffin chat show, where she was introduced to the American public. She sang Home, from the soundtrack of The Wiz, and her vocals were flawless, but her frumpy ruffled dress and short, natural hair didn't project what Arista considered the right – saleable – image. By the time her first album came out, in 1985, she'd been given a thorough makeover: the cover photo showed a sleek-haired, golden-skinned sylph wearing an elegantly draped white gown.
Whitney Houston, as the debut was titled, was praised not for the music, which was unexceptional dance-pop, so much as for the promise the 21-year-old singer showed. "Obviously headed for stardom," predicted Rolling Stone magazine. It sold 3m copies in the US in its first year, and eventually about 25m globally. It also won a Grammy award, the first of six in her career.
The next few years saw her break the Beatles' record for the greatest number of No 1 singles in a row – she managed seven – and become America's highest-earning black female entertainer. Her ubiquity on radio and TV paved the way for other African-American singers and groups such as Mary J Blige and Destiny's Child, who became hugely popular.
Her accessibility to all ages and cultural backgrounds helped less easily marketed artists like Blige, but, as culturally significant as she was, Houston was primarily an entertainer. Despite occasional involvement in issues such as the fight against apartheid, which saw her appear at the concert for Nelson Mandela's 70th birthday, she was not an activist. Whatever her private views on politics and race, her public self was always poised and wholesome. Ironically, a venture into a more urban, soulful sound on the 1990 album I'm Your Baby Tonight elicited a sceptical reaction from some black critics.
Commercially, her most barnstorming project was the 1992 film The Bodyguard. Kevin Costner played the titular guard, while Houston played a film star and sang on the soundtrack. Her acting won her a Razzie award for worst actress (which did not deter her from making several more films, and getting better reviews), but the soundtrack became the biggest album of her career, selling 44m copies and spawning I Will Always Love You. The song was inescapable, spending 14 weeks at No 1 in the US and roosting at the top of nearly every other pop chart in the world.
The same year, she married ex-boy band member Bobby Brown, who came to be widely blamed for her downward spiral. "The princess marries the bad boy," Houston wryly described the union years later. The marriage produced her only child, Bobbi Kristina, but Brown was jealous of his wife's success and was emotionally abusive. Her drug use began around that time, and by 1996 she was a daily user. She made one other album that decade, the well-reviewed My Love Is Your Love (1998), but by the turn of the century stories about her behaviour were rife.
Houston turned up late for events or missed them altogether, was dropped as a performer at the 2000 Oscars because she was "out of it" at rehearsals, was arrested for marijuana possession and looked skeletal at a Michael Jackson tribute in 2001.
Promoting her 2002 album, Just Whitney, she told a TV interviewer, "Crack is cheap. I make too much money to ever smoke crack. We don't do crack. Crack is whack." But she was freebasing cocaine, and as the decade went on she was photographed looking dishevelled and frighteningly haggard. She and Brown would spend a week at a time taking drugs and watching TV, she later said. In her addled state she agreed to appear on a reality show called Being Bobby Brown (2005)and succeeded in losing the last remnants of her dignity, telling her husband in one episode: "I need to poop a poop."
Even in a decade in which celebrities regularly suffered humiliating falls from grace, Houston's was shocking. Narcotics and her toxic relationship with Brown ravaged her looks and robbed her voice of its ability to soar through concerts.
Her mother forced her into rehab in 2006, and the following year Houston divorced Brown. Her last album, I Look to You, came out in 2009 to generally positive reviews. Her name still retained enough star-power to sell out most of the gigs on the tour promoting it, but many fans complained that her voice was no longer up to the rigours of touring.
In May 2011 Houston underwent a further period of rehab. Last autumn she returned to acting for a remake with the American Idol winner Jordin Sparks of the 1976 film Sparkle. Filming of the story of the effect of fame and drugs on a singing group of three sisters was completed recently.
Houston was found dead, the cause not immediately clear, in a hotel room in Los Angeles, where she had gone for Davis's pre-Grammy party. That this should happen after so many wasted years comes as a sad contrast to her gilded years as America's sweetheart.
She is survived by her mother, two brothers and her daughter.
• Whitney Elizabeth Houston, pop singer, born 9 August 1963; died 11 February 2012
Caroline Sullivan The Guardian 12 February 2012