Whitney Houston was more than just a singer. For the post-Civil Rights generation, her voice represented the promise of a new day.
Through her mother, Cissy Houston, a sought-after back-up vocalist, her cousin Dionne Warwick and her godmother, the great Aretha Franklin, she was well aware of the days when great black singers came through the “colored only” back door, regardless of their God-given talents.
Born Whitney Elizabeth Houston on August 9, 1963, her childhood was one of great transition and promise. In a nation transformed by the Civil Rights Movement, she was part of a generation poised to take the full advantage of new opportunities. In many ways, her voice represented this generational breakthrough. And, in the beginning, she did not disappoint.
Even before Whitney Houston became a household sensation and a national treasure, she was in serious training. Like many great singers, her voice was nurtured in the black church. It was honed in her early teens as she traveled with her mother on the club circuit. Sometimes, she graced the stage alone where she never failed to wow audiences. At just 15, she even sang background vocals on one of Chaka Khan’s greatest hits “I’m Every Woman,” which she later covered in 1992.
Her natural beauty also attracted attention and she became a successful teen model, even gracing the cover of Seventeen magazine, and appearing in numerous spreads at a time when it was not customary for a black model to do so. Still, her destiny was in music, and when she hit the big time, it changed the industry forever.
Her February 1985 self-titled debut album, Whitney Houston won instant praise with no critic in doubt that her voice was one heard only once in a lifetime. She not only had the pedigree, but also delivered the goods. She floated to the top of all the charts in the United States and beyond with such instant classics “You Give Good Love,” “Saving All My Love” and “All At Once.” Her MTV-friendly “How Will I Know” helped break the channel’s color line for black female singers and received significant airplay.
A year later, her debut album ascended to number one on the Billboard 200 and spent a grand total of 14 weeks there. By the time she released her remake of “Greatest Love of All,” a classic graduation song in many black communities, there was no denying her superstardom. That first album sold 13 million copies in just the United States and 25 million worldwide. She became the first female artist, not just the first black artist, to have the number one album of the year. In fact, her first Grammy win was for Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female.
But that was only the beginning for Whitney. Throughout those early years, she was on a roll, thrilling us with stirring renditions of the national anthem, literally changing the way it would be sung for decades to come. Her second album, Whitney, sold as well as her first, reaching 20 million albums worldwide. In black households everywhere, long before karaoke became a national pastime, “Didn’t We Almost Have It All” and “Where Do Broken Hearts Go” were sing-along staples.
By the time she redefined Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” for the soundtrack of her blockbuster 1992 film debut The Bodyguard, which grossed over $121 million domestically and $410 million worldwide, no one could have imagined that she could ascend even higher above the clouds, especially musically.
Her remake became a number one single throughout the world, including Australia, Austria, Belgium, Germany, New Zealand, Norway, the United Kingdom (where it set a U.K. record for longest-running single for a female singer), Japan (where it stayed on the charts for 27 weeks) and the United States. To date, the song has sold over 4.5 million copies in just the United States.
WATCH NBC News’ coverage of Whitney Houston’s passing
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Her amazing track record for topping herself made Whitney the most loved American female singer in the world at the time. The many artists she influenced read like a who’s who of the music industry and include Celine Dion, Christina Aguilera, Jessica Simpson, Kelly Clarkson, Jennifer Hudson, Beyonce, Lady Gaga, Leona Lewis, Alicia Keys, Brandy, Toni Braxton, Mariah Carey and Adele.
But she made strides in other arenas too, especially for black women. Instead of following up her spectacular film debut The Bodyguard with a similar, more mainstream film, she signed on to the film adaptation of Terry McMillan’s best-selling novel, Waiting To Exhale, a first of its kind, and in December 1995, took it to number one at the box office, grossing over $67 million domestically, which is still a record for a black film featuring an all-female cast. Her remake of the black film classic, Sparkle, had been highly anticipated.
Despite the headlines her up-and-down marriage to fellow singer Bobby Brown, a union which resulted in her only child Bobbi Kristina, and long reported drug use generated in the latter part of her career, Whitney Houston’s legacy cannot be tarnished. To this day, her combined album, singles and video sales for Arista, her longtime recording home, top 170 million. She also received an astounding 30 Billboard Music Awards, 22 American Music Awards as well as 6 Grammy Awards, among many other accolades.
In the best of times, Whitney Houston represented the pinnacle of the African American dream. At her height, she was beautiful, poised and talented. Her voice was one not easily duplicated, though many tried. Like the greats; Billie Holliday and Dinah Washington, who precede her, Whitney Houston’s voice will be referenced many, many generations from now as one of the greatest ever.
Follow Ronda Racha Penrice on Twitter at @rondaracha