Whitney Houston spawned three No. 1 singles (“Saving All My Love For You,” “How Will I Know,” and “Greatest Love Of All”) and stayed at the top of the charts for 14 weeks. As much as the hits from Whitney Houston seem like the epitome of ’80s pop cotton-candy genetically engineered to guarantee Houston’s success, the singer’s rise was actually several years in the making. Houston spent her teens touring clubs with her mother, gospel singer Cissy Houston, who guided her daughter’s burgeoning talent via personal lessons and connections with other popular singers, including her cousin Dionne Warwick and Whitney’s godmother, Aretha Franklin. After Whitney sang back-up on Chaka Khan’s 1978 hit “I’m Every Woman” at the age of 15, she got her first offers to make an album. But Cissy insisted she finish school first, so Whitney instead pursued a modeling career and studio work with various R&B and jazz producers, including Bill Laswell. In 1982, she sang the lead vocal on “Memories” by Laswell’s group Material. The following year, Davis “discovered” Houston in a New York City nightclub, and spent the next two years prepping her for stardom and looking for the right material to break her to a wide audience.

After Whitney Houston became an international smash, Houston embarked on the most successful period of her career. 1987’s Whitney was another hit machine, turning out “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” “Didn’t We Almost Have It All,” and “Where Do Broken Hearts Go.” Houston’s early run of hits established a persona that was enormously appealing to a mass audience, though some found her carefully managed good-girl image cold and alienating. This dichotomy can been seen most clearly with the ballad “Greatest Love Of All”: Fans saw the song as an expression of positivity and humanism, while detractors bemoaned that the horrific self-absorption of the lyrics (which tell us that the greatest love of all is, conveniently, self-love) typified the absolute worst aspects of ’80s yuppie-dom.


But even people who couldn’t stand Houston’s ubiquitous hits or lack of edge could not deny the most inescapable song of her career. The year after performing what’s still the most celebrated rendition of The Star Spangled Banner in recent memory at Super Bowl XXV, Houston appeared in the box office hit The Bodyguard, but more importantly headlined the massively successful soundtrack, which sold millions on the strength of her cover of Dolly Parton’s all-time great love song, “I Will Always Love You.” As good as Parton’s original version is, Houston wrested “I Will Always Love You” from Parton’s capable hands and made it her signature song, boldly opening the track with 45 seconds of unaccompanied singing. “I Will Always Love You” has since became a wedding-song cliché, and therefore inspires massive eye-rolls among those overly impressed by their own cleverness and cynicism. But if you’re honest about the squishiest, truest parts of your own heart, the climactic final 90 seconds of “I Will Always Love You”—the part where Houston holds every note of every syllable until every single person in the room is bawling—own you. Even psychotic America-hating terrorists are powerless against it.

After that, music was put on the back burner for Houston. She married Bobby Brown in 1992, and contrary to popular belief this didn’t completely derail her personal life, at least not immediately. For much of the ’90s, Houston focused on movies, starring in Waiting To Exhale and The Preacher’s Wife, and producing and starring in the made-for-TV film Cinderella, which drew an astounding 60 million viewers. But by 2000, the first cracks in Houston’s polished and highly lucrative façade started to appear. She looked thin and unhealthy in public appearances, and started missing concerts and showing up several hours late to interviews and photo shoots. Before that year’s Academy Awards, she was fired from the show due to being stand-offish with producers over her shaky, ill-prepared vocals for a planned performance of “Over The Rainbow.”


In 2001, she signed a massive $100 million record contract, the biggest deal in history at the time, but Houston at this point had slid past her peak and appeared headed downward. One of her lowest points came during a 2002 interview with Diane Sawyer, when a jittery-looking Houston denied smoking crack (“Crack is wack”) in a pained, scratchy rasp. At one point Sawyer asks Houston what’s the biggest devil haunting her. “That would be me,” Houston says, with an awful, sickening smile. We'll find out how right she was in the days ahead.