When Whitney Houston debuted on the charts at the age of 22, she rapidly became America’s first black pop princess. Houston’s foray into the saccharine world of pop music was a career move that she grew to resent, and she spent a large part of her adult life rebelling against it. Unfortunately, her untimely death curtailed what may have been Houston’s redemption — a return to gospel music.
Whitney Houston’s gospel roots run deep. Her mother Cissy and her aunts and uncles were all a part of the Drinkard Singers, a renowned family gospel group, which at its peak was asked to tour with Elvis Presley. Cissy Houston would go on to win two Grammy Awards for Best Traditional Soul Gospel Album. Her godmother is famed soul singer Aretha Franklin, a living legend who also has strong gospel roots.
As a child, Houston grew up singing in the gospel choir of New Jersey’s New Hope Baptist church, following in the footsteps of her cousin Dionne Warwick, an accomplished singer in her own right. Houston continued in the family way, gigging with her mom at local nightclubs, and later singing background for artists like Chaka Khan, Lou Rawls and Jermaine Jackson.
WATCH FOOTAGE FROM WHITNEY HOUSTON’S LAST INTERVIEW HERE:
Getting into the family business was a natural move for Whitney Houston, even though her mother ensured her she could always take other options. Longtime personal assistant Robyn Crawford shared with Esquire, “She got her chops singing in church, and her mother said to her, ‘You know, you can always sing for free. You can always sing in church. You don’t have to choose the professional life.’”
But the professional life was the realization of her dream, even though it would soon become a nightmare. When Clive Davis discovered Houston in the mid-80’s, he was determined to make her as much of a crossover success as her godmother. To him, this meant sculpting her into a squeaky clean pop princess, a plan that worked, but also earned Whitney Houston the nickname “White-ney.”
As an adult, Houston shattered this image, with her surprising marriage to Bobby Brown and her struggles with drugs and alcohol. She was unhappy, and her career was at the root of her discontent — perhaps she didn’t want to be the star after all.
“I think she would have been happier singing in a church,” Lois Smith, Whitney’s former publicist, told The Daily Beast. “That music was extremely important to her, and I’m not sure those No. 1 hits she had for Clive were what she had in mind.”
Indeed, it would appear that Whitney was planning a return to gospel music. Her last recorded song was “His Eye is on the Sparrow” for the soundtrack of the soon-to-be released movie Sparkle. Her last public performance was of the song “Yes, Jesus Loves Me.” Despite her personal struggles, Whitney clutched to her faith in her final days, often speaking of the Bible and Jesus.
It’s possible that a career shift to more gospel-oriented music may have finally given Houston the life she wanted, and saved her from the personal demons that she battled so publicly. Though she did not live to experience it, gospel music will surely play a large part in her funeral, with performances from Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder, and a eulogy delivered by Marvin Winans. It will be a funeral fit for a star who was a gospel singer at heart.
Follow Kia Miakka Natisse on Twitter at @miakka_natisse