Whitney Houston's close friends Chaka Khan, Brandy reflect on her life and legacy
Legendary singer Whitney Houston dominated pop music for more than three decades and, to this day, she remains one of the best-selling music artists of all time.
Fans around the world know her as a pop icon, a movie star, a revolutionary artist who enchanted audiences with her iconic voice — and kicked down the door for Black artists who followed her. Nearly 10 years after her death, Houston continues to influence the music industry and inspire the next generations of performers.
“In the beginning, when it came to Whitney Houston being introduced to the world, she was introduced as a princess. And I found out she wasn’t a princess; she was a New Jersey girl,” famed gospel and R&B singer Benjamin “BeBe” Winans told ABC News.
Houston was born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1963 to ex-Army serviceman John Russell Houston Jr. and gospel singer Emily “Cissy” Houston, who was a member of the group “The Sweet Inspirations,” which became known for singing backup to acts like Elvis Presley.
Watch “Superstar: Whitney Houston” on Wednesday, Aug. 11 at 10 p.m. ET on ABC
Cissy Houston taught her daughter how to sing and Whitney Houston began to perform in their church gospel choir.
“My mother and father raised us with the fear of God, but I loved church. It was a family thing and the singing, the praise, the joyful noise we made unto God was amazing,” Houston said.
In 1978, at the age of 15, Whitney Houston was invited to sing background for the R&B singer Yvette Marie Stevens, better known as Chaka Khan.
“I had been working with Cissy for quite a while as a background singer and one day we were in the studio, and she said, ‘You know, I have a daughter who can sing,’” said Khan. She then told her to bring her daughter to the studio. “[Whitney Houston] was amazing, just amazing.”
Khan, who had been a musical inspiration to Whitney Houston, went on to become her mentor and a lifelong friend.
Whitney Houston’s big break
Through the early 1980s, Houston focused on her modeling career. Those close to her said that although she enjoyed singing as a hobby, she never intended to become a famous performer.
“She did not want to be a big star and I used to tease her and tell her God did not give her this gift to keep to yourself,” said Darlene Love, a singer and Houston’s godmother .
As she grew older, her talent and persistence with singing led to opportunities in cities around the country to perform at local clubs and talent shows for emerging talent. It was during these travels that she eventually found her big break.
While in New York City one night, she performed in her mother’s act at the local nightclub Sweetwater’s. Legendary producer and recording executive Clive Davis, who was watching the performance, is widely credited with discovering Houston. In 1963, she signed with his record label Arista Records.
At the time, Black performers were not regularly included on pop radio playlists or MTV’s music video broadcasts. Davis said he helped Houston craft a plan to bridge that racial divide.
Singer songwriter Narada Michael Walden says that Davis’ “genius” was being able to determine the elements each artist needed to be able to “hit on different levels” with audiences around the world.
And he found success with Whitney Houston. Her 1985 eponymous debut album sold 22 million copies, and by 1991, she had seven consecutive No. 1 hits on the Billboard charts.
“She kicked down doors for every Black female artist, every Black artist and artists in general,” said singer and friend Brandy Norwood. The two starred together in the live-action 1997 movie “Cinderella.”
Despite her immensely growing popularity, Houston still received criticism. After she won the 1988 Soul Train Award, critics said that she pandered to white audiences and wasn’t remaining true to her Black identity.
“She had to learn how to live with hearing, ‘You sold out,’” said Winans.
Whitney Houston in love
She found comfort in a man she’d met at those Soul Train Awards and began dating: the singer Bobby Brown.
“When she met Bobby, she felt at home,” said Khan.
In 1992, Houston starred in the romantic thriller “The Bodyguard,” in which she played an actress and singer who falls in love with her bodyguard (Kevin Costner), who had been hired to protect her from a stalker. The film was a massive success and featured an interracial couple on screen, pushing the boundaries at the time.
Houston said in interviews that she felt a lot of pressure around the release of the movie and that it was Brown who helped her get through its production.
“I was scared to death. Terribly frightened. I’d wake up in the morning and I’d go, ‘I can’t do this. This is too much for me. Bobby, I’m going to quit today.’ And he said, ‘No way are you gonna do that. You’re going to do this movie and you’re going to do it well. You can’t quit now. You can’t turn back,'” Houston told ABC News’ Diane Sawyer in 2002.
The movie also debuted Houston’s rendition of Dolly Parton’s song “I Will Always Love You,” which to this day holds the record for being the best-selling single by a female artist in music history.
In the same year as the movie’s release, Houston married Brown. Those close to her say their relationship became complicated by her busy schedule and growing fame.
“I would say that the man she married was a mistake, but that was not a mistake to her,” said Winans. “I think it was really, really hard because she was Whitney Houston, he was Bobby Brown, and then it became he was married to Whitney Houston. That’s difficult for a man.”
Houston’s friends say that she eventually became physically and emotionally exhausted by her work and began to take breaks from singing.
“There were times that she got tired and just said, ‘You know what? I’m just gonna walk away from all of it,’” said Winans. “And then sometimes, she started missing some of the concerts.”
Her friends say conflicts within her relationship with Brown also began to wear on her.
Whitney Houston battles her demons
After Houston gave birth to a baby girl Bobbi Kristina Brown in 1993, her relationship with her husband was deteriorating.
“Everybody has marital problems,” said Winans. “It’s just [that] she’s Whitney Houston, and so, it’s going to be magnified. It’s going to be splattered all over the place.”
Houston also said that she missed spending time with her daughter Bobbi Kristina.
“I’m dying to come home, to see her little face. I try to talk to her at least three times a week, although it’s very hard to talk. It’s worse to talk sometimes than not to,” Houston said.
Those close to her say that the pressure from being in the public’s eye amid the strain of her relationship culminated in her eventual drug use.
“She talked to me about the pressures of this business. And media and fame and what it could do,” said Norwood. “Everyone in your business. Everybody wants this from you, wants that from you. That can be very straining on someone’s life and someone’s mind and someone’s spirit.”
Rumors began to swirl about her drug use in 2001, after a performance at the Michael Jackson “30th Anniversary Celebration, The Solo Years” concert in New York. By that time, Houston had already lost a significant amount of weight and her voice had declined.
“I can tell you that I am not self-destructive. I’m not a person who wants to die. I’m a person who has life, who wants to live,” Houston had said at the time in response to her critics.
“It is hard on you physically, mentally, the whole thing. I can understand how you’d feel like you had to do certain things in order to get yourself up,” said Love, referring to her drug use. “But like I said, that’s what kills entertainers.”
In 2002, Houston spoke to ABC News’ Diane Sawyer about the ongoing drug rumors. The singer alluded during the interview to having used a variety of drugs in the past, but she seemed to draw the line at crack cocaine in what turned into an infamous rant.
“First of all, let’s get one thing straight,” she told Sawyer in 2002. “Crack is cheap. I make too much money to ever smoke crack. Let’s get that straight, OK? We don’t do crack. We don’t do that. Crack is wack.”
For a few years after the interview, Houston remained private while she reportedly dealt with her tumultuous relationship. She and Brown divorced in 2007.
“She had passed through so much with the divorce,” said Winans. “I really think she died of a broken heart.”
Houston returned to the public eye with the 2009 release of her final studio album, “I Look to You.” That year, she revealed in an interview with Oprah Winfrey that she had been struggling with substance abuse and that she had attended a rehabilitation program.
“Whitney Houston wanted to be loved. She did not feel loved,” said Khan.
Two years later, in May 2011, Houston voluntarily checked herself into a rehabilitation program for drug and alcohol treatment. By February 2012, she was in Los Angeles for the Grammy Awards.
“I spoke with her three days before she passed away,” said Norwood. “She made me promise to always be myself; do not let this business or anybody change the core of who you are. I feel like she told me that because she had been through a lot and she wanted me to stay strong.”
The 48-year-old singer was found dead on Feb. 11, 2012, in her bathtub at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Houston had accidentally drowned, according to the coroner’s report, but it also noted that heart disease and cocaine use had been contributing factors in her death.
“It’s tragic how she passed, and she had been through so much. I just didn’t like the way she had to die,” said Norwood.
It has now been almost a decade since Houston’s funeral one week after her death, yet her friends and loved ones say they still feel her immense presence in their lives.
“You start to ask yourself the question: ‘As a friend, as a brother, did I do enough?’” said Winans. “But then you start to realize, ‘She was a Jersey girl.’ She was going to make the decisions she made, and she did, and she lived her life the way she wanted to live her life.”
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