Whitney Houston, the big-voiced belter who dominated radio in the 1980s and ’90s and whose cover of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” spent 14 weeks at the top of the Hot 100, passed away tonight at the Beverly Hilton, where Clive Davis’s annual pre-Grammy party was about to take place. (Her cause of death has not been declared yet.) Houston’s catalog is spangled with chart-topping hits (seven of her singles went to No. 1 in a row) and awards that included six Grammys; her commanding presence on the pop landscape was attributable not just to her voice, with its roots in the gospel world and undeniable ability to hit high, glorious notes while also conveying emotion with a single beat, but to her songs’ melding of pop’s glossy aesthetics with R&B, soul, gospel, and disco elements.
Houston, the daughter of gospel singer Cissy Houston and the cousin of Dionne Warwick, was born in Newark in 1963. In the early ’80s she was taken under the wing of music supermogul Clive Davis, who would prove to be a bedrock for her career. Houston’s self-titled debut came out in 1985, and it quickly established her voice—brave and open, muscular yet buoyant—as a force to be reckoned with in pop music. It spawned three chart-topping singles, went 13 times platinum in the U.S., and was nominated for the Album of the Year Grammy. (It lost to Phil Collins’ No Jacket Required.)
Whitney Houston, “How Will I Know”
Whitney Houston, “The Greatest Love Of All”
In 1987 Whitney, Houston’s second album, was released; four of its tracks went on to top the charts, including the Narada Michael Walden-prodced dancepop classic “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me),” which despite its pleading lyric is one of the most deliciously ebuillent songs from an era filled with contenders for that title.
Whitney Houston, “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)”
Whitney Houston, “So Emotional”
Whitney Houston, “Love Will Save The Day” (Morales/Jellybean Classic House Mix)
Houston’s 1991 rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which she performed before Super Bowl XXV, is the only version of the national anthem to reach the Hot 100, and it did so twice—it peaked at No. 20 in 1991 and No. 6 in 2001. It became the standard version of the anthem, the one that so many singers were out to top, her voice soaring around the song’s notoriously difficult leaps and bounds as if it was a scale.
Whitney Houston, “The Star-Spangled Banner” (live in 1991)
In 1992 Houston married Bobby Brown, the firebrand R&B singer who came up in the boy band New Edition. That year she also made her film debut in The Bodyguard, a romantic flick about a man tasked with protecting a pop singer and the two of them falling in love.
Whitney Houston, “I Have Nothing” (live in 1993)
Whitney covered Chaka Khan on the The Bodyguard soundtrack, but its biggest hit was undoubtedly Houston’s lungs-and-all cover of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You,” in which Houston turned the country singer’s sweet ballad into a workout for her voice, a declaration of love that was convincing because of its sheer brute force. The David Foster-produced track spent 14 weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, a record run.
Whitney Houston, “I’m Every Woman”
Whitney Houston, “I Will Always Love You”
She followed up her turn in The Bodyguard with roles in Waiting To Exhale and The Preacher’s Wife, and in 1999 she released My Love Is Your Love. The title song, which was co-written by Wyclef Jean, was remixed into a supple dance track by the DJ Jonathan Peters, Houston’s vocal triumphantly striding through Peters’ lush, yet glitchy bed.
Whitney Houston, “My Love Is Your Love”
Whitney Houston, “My Love Is Your Love” (Jonathan Peters remix)
During the ’00s, a decade where celebrities both already-existent and up-and-coming would be tracked to the ends of their ropes by the always-on cameras of reality TV and the gossip press, Houston stumbled publicly; in a 2002 interview with Diane Sawyer she called herself “either my best friend or my worst enemy.” Her reality show with Brown, Being Bobby Brown, showed her manic and became fodder for people looking to knock down people who were in her orbit; it lasted for a single season on Bravo and got high ratings. The couple divorced in 2007.
Houston released I Look To You, her Davis-masterminded comeback album, in 2009; it was her first proper, non-holiday studio full-length since 2002. The record had tracks penned by the likes of R. Kelly and Alicia Keys, with “Million Dollar Bill” specifically recalling earlier disco-tinged, uptempo hits like her “I’m Every Woman” cover.
Whitney Houston, “I Look To You”
Whitney Houston, “Million Dollar Bill”
When the album came out, she spoke to Oprah Winfrey about her relationship with Brown and her struggles with drug addiction. She also talked about how being on the reality show was a way of mitigating Brown’s jealousy of her bright star: “I knew I was trying to be Mrs. Bobby Brown,” she told Oprah. “That’s what I was trying to do without overshadowing the whole situation, which was difficult.” Look was successful but nowhere near the dominant force of Houston’s earlier albums; “Million Dollar Bill” topped Billboard‘s dance chart, but the record did not have a song that charted above No. 70 on the Hot 100.
In May 2011, Houston voluntarily entered a rehab facility for drug and alcohol addiction. She seemed to be on the comeback trail, though, snagging a role in the remake of the 1972 film Sparkle alongside Cee Lo Green and American Idol winner Jordin Sparks—her first film role since 1996, when she starred in The Preacher’s Wife with Denzel Washington. Earlier today the Hollywood Reporter reported that Houston had been approached to serve as a judge on Simon Cowell’s singing competition The X Factor—Cowell confirmed this on CNN this evening. She was scheduled to attend the annual pre-Grammy party thrown by Davis, her mentor, tonight.
Houston’s voice was criticized by some for being too much—too strong, too showy, an exemplar of the excess that epitomized pop music in the ’80s. That’s not entirely untrue; a side-by-side listen to the versions of “I Will Always Love You” is, to put it mildly, a study in contrasts. But spending the last two hours looking for clips to stud this rundown of her life was like spinning a CD filled with some of the most indelible pop songs of the ’80s and ’90s, and so much of the deep mark left by those songs was attributable to her voice, which announced its presence from its first note and took listeners along for every three- or four-minute ride.
Whitney Houston, “It’s Not Right But It’s Okay”
Houston was 48.