Presented by GRAMMY.com, Songbook is an editorial series and hub for music discovery that dives into a legendary artist's discography and art in whole — from songs to albums to music films and videos and beyond.
Throughout her lifetime, Whitney Houston received plenty of nicknames. But the one that is perhaps most fitting — and most enduring — is "The Voice."
Between her stunning five-octave range, perfected melisma technique, and ability to convey raw emotion in every note, Houston was truly a one-of-a-kind talent. And with 11 No. 1 singles, more than 400 awards (including six GRAMMYs), and 200 million albums sold, her legacy remains unmatched even 10 years after her passing.
On Dec. 23, Houston's remarkable story is getting the big-screen treatment with the highly anticipated authorized biopic, I Wanna Dance with Somebody. The Sony Pictures Entertainment film stars British actress Naomi Ackie as Houston, and celebrates the late singer's iconic career while helping audiences "discover the Whitney you never knew."
As the daughter of gospel singer Cissy Houston and cousin to Dionne Warwick and Leontyne Price, Houston was practically destined to be a star. She was discovered by legendary record executive Clive Davis while singing backup for her mother at just 19 years old. Two years later, Houston launched to stardom with her debut self-titled album, and she instantly became an unstoppable force in music and beyond.
Amid her success, Houston's personal struggles with drug abuse and her troubled marriage to Bobby Brown were also put on public display. Sadly, those struggles culminated in an untimely death in 2012, shocking and saddening music lovers everywhere.
To honor her legacy ahead of the release of I Wanna Dance with Somebody, GRAMMY.com is revisiting the unforgettable hits, history-making moments, and masterpieces that made Houston an international superstar and one of the most awe-inspiring vocalists of all time.
Listen to GRAMMY.com's official Songbook: An Essential Guide To Whitney Houston playlist on Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon Music, and Pandora. Playlist powered by GRAMMY U.
Two years after the world was introduced to Houston's vocal prowess on The Merv Griffith Show — where the then 20-year-old delivered a memorable performance of The Wiz's "Home" — she released her debut studio album, Whitney Houston. Despite slow sales at first, the success of No. 1 hits "Saving All My Love for You," "How Will I Know," and "Greatest Love of All" led Whitney Houston to becoming one of the best-selling female albums of the '80s.
Uptempo, synth-heavy tunes such as "Someone for Me" and "Thinking About You" offset an otherwise ballad-heavy LP. Other standouts include duets with Jermaine Jackson ("Nobody Loves Me Like You Do" and "Take Good Care of My Heart") and Teddy Pendergrass ("Hold Me"). The album also helped Houston earn her first GRAMMY in 1986 (Best Pop Vocal Performance for "Saving All My Love For You") as well as two other nominations, including Album Of The Year.
Houston's second studio effort, the similarly titled Whitney, was initially criticized for also sounding too similar to its predecessor. But that certainly didn't hold it back from massive global success — especially with an earth-shattering lead single like "I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me)."
Along with "I Wanna Dance with Somebody," Whitney scored Houston four more No. 1s with "So Emotional" and classic ballads "Where Do Broken Hearts Go" and "Didn't We Almost Have It All." Her pop-leaning hits had many accusing Houston of "selling out," and she was even famously booed at the 1988 Soul Train Awards. Whatever naysayers believed, there was no denying Houston was a legend in the making: Whitney's four No. 1s marked seven consecutive No. 1 singles from the singer, a feat that still hasn't been achieved by another artist to this day.
Houston closed out the decade with the inspirational "One Moment in Time," a believe-in-yourself anthem for the 1988 Summer Olympics that seemed to represent then 25-year-old Houston's own hopes and dreams. ("I want one moment in time/ When I'm more than I thought I could be," she declares in the chorus.) "One Moment in Time" missed the top spot in the U.S., but it became Houston's third No. 1 in the UK, further solidifying her international appeal — and in many ways, felt like a catalyst for her dazzling rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner" at the 1991 Super Bowl.
For R&B Lovers
In late 1990, Houston's third studio album, I'm Your Baby Tonight, acknowledged the years-long criticism that her music wasn't "Black enough" — one of the aspects of her career that I Wanna Dance with Somebody addresses head-on. Embracing the sounds of new jack swing, the singer asserted more creative control, handpicking L.A. Reid and Babyface as producers, and recruiting Luther Vandross and Stevie Wonder as additional collaborators.
Houston's slightly new musical direction paid off: The album's first two singles, "I'm Your Baby Tonight" and "All the Man That I Need," reached No. 1 on the Hot 100, with third single "Miracle" cracking the top 10. While "My Name Is Not Susan" was Houston's first solo single to miss the top 10, it proved that she was as R&B as they come. What's more, the album's closer, "I'm Knockin'", gave Houston her first producing credit.
After amassing a long string of movie soundtrack hits from 1992 to 1996 (more on that later), 1998's My Love Is Your Love marked Houston's first studio album in nearly a decade. The LP took a deep dive into the R&B she teased with I'm Your Baby Tonight, particularly on songs like "Get It Back" and "Oh Yes"; she even dabbled in reggae for the first time on the title track.
My Love Is Your Love opens with the female empowerment anthem "It's Not Right but It's Okay," on which Houston displays the level of sass, grit and maturity that can only be learned through real-life experience. The song's vocal power earned Houston a GRAMMY for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance — her first and only win in that category. (The track also received a high-energy Thunderpuss remix, which flipped the smooth neo soul classic into what a 2017 Fader piece dubbed "an LGBTQ club classic" and Houston's "most iconic gay anthem.")
The album also featured a few notable collaborations, including then-rising R&B stars Faith Evans and Kelly Price on "Heartbreak Hotel" (not to be confused with Elvis Presley's 1956 classic) and Missy Elliott on "In My Business." But the undeniable standout is Houston's highly anticipated duet with fellow diva Mariah Carey, "When You Believe," which was also the lead single for The Prince of Egypt soundtrack.
With three multi-platinum albums under her belt, Houston set her sights on Hollywood and made her acting debut alongside Kevin Costner in 1992's The Bodyguard. The movie was an instant hit, but the soundtrack is what made it truly iconic. The album sold 45 million copies worldwide — more than double of any of Houston's own LPs — and remains the best-selling soundtrack of all time.
In 1994, The Bodyguard soundtrack won a GRAMMY for Album Of The Year, and its goosebump-inducing lead single "I Will Always Love You" — a cover of Dolly Parton's 1974 country ballad — won Record Of The Year as well as Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female. Now memorialized as Houston's signature song, "I Will Always Love You" was inducted to the GRAMMY Hall Of Fame in 2018 and added to the Library of Congress's National Recording Registry in 2020 for being "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant."
Perhaps the impact of The Bodyguard and its soundtrack was due to the fact that both captured Houston at her vocal prime — as exhibited in "I Will Always Love You" as well as singles "I'm Every Woman" (a Chaka Khan cover), "I Have Nothing," and "Run to You." And though hard-rock tune "Queen of the Night" is easily Houston's most forgotten single from the soundtrack, it reached No. 1 on the Billboard Dance Club Songs chart (one of the singer's 14 on the tally).
Houston's box-office success continued in the mid-90s with 1995's Waiting to Exhale and 1996's The Preacher's Wife. The former film spawned "Exhale (Shoop Shoop)," the singer-turned-actress' 11th and final No. 1 hit. Both soundtracks contain some of Houston's finest vocal performances, as demonstrated in covers of The Four Tops' "I Believe in You and Me" and Annie Lennox's "Step by Step."
In 1997, 60 million households tuned in to see Houston and mentee Brandy star in a made-for-television remake of Cinderella. While an official soundtrack was never released, fans treasure the singers' showstopping "Impossible/It's Possible" duet, and final number "There's Music in You," performed by Houston.
Three months prior to Houston's untimely and tragic death in 2012, she had finished filming a remake of the 1976 film Sparkle, starring American Idol winner Jordin Sparks. Before her passing, Houston recorded "Celebrate," a duet with Sparks as well as "His Eye Is on the Sparrow." Both were posthumously released in June 2012.
Houston ushered in the 21st century by renewing her Arista contract for $100 million. Despite signing the biggest record deal for a female artist at the time, Houston's public image had been tarnished in the years leading up to 2002's Just Whitney, which is arguably the most underrated album of her nearly three-decade career.
"See I don't understand/ Why you keep peepin' me/ When you don't even like me," she sings on lead single "Whatchulookinat," a direct aim at the media's extensive scrutiny surrounding her and then husband Bobby Brown. That same frustration can be heard in "Try It On My Own" and "Tell Me No," the latter of which is a rock-tinged, mid-tempo ballad that flexes her versatility. There are some bright spots on the album, too, in tracks like "One of Those Days," "Dear John Letter," and "Love That Man.".
Following a couple of rehab stints and her divorce from Brown, 2009's I Look to You signaled that Houston's best days were seemingly ahead. As the then 46-year-old songstress noted herself to the UK publication Digital Spy, the album encapsulates "the changes that we go through, the transitions that we go through, the tests that we go through." I Look to You debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, marking her first No. 1 album in more than 20 years.
The 11-track project honors Houston's musical legacy while also looking to the future, enlisting in-demand hitmakers including Alicia Keys, Swizz Beatz, and Tricky Stewart. The title track and the Diane Warren co-written ballad "I Didn't Know My Own Strength" speak to Houston's resilience, while "For the Lovers" and the Loleatta Holloway-sampling "Million Dollar Bill" present a more celebratory mood. While some critics pointed out the deterioration of Houston's vocals, the inner peace, strength, and triumph heard throughout the entire record made her comeback glorious and worth the wait.
For Holiday Stans
Upon the arrival of Houston's 2003 Christmas offering, One Wish: The Holiday Album, her music had taken a back seat to her and Bobby Brown's tumultuous marriage. Although One Wish was Houston's lowest-charting album, it's filled with delightful interpretations of holiday standards like "The First Noël," "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and "Little Drummer Boy," the latter of which featured her then 10-year-old daughter Bobbi Kristina Brown. It also contains covers of "Who Would Imagine a King" and "Joy to the World," both of which originally appeared on the Oscar-nominated soundtrack to The Preacher's Wife in 1996.
Houston's holiday album may have fallen flat, but her rendition of "Do You Hear What I Hear?" — which appeared on 1987's A Very Special Christmas compilation album benefiting the Special Olympics — remains her biggest holiday success. (A vinyl edition of the album was released in 2021, with a new version of "Do You Hear What I Hear?" featuring a cappella group Pentatonix.)
Whether Whitney Houston is singing holiday classics, gospel hymns, dance-pop, hard rock, or straight R&B, you feel it because she feels it — inspiring generations to come and cementing her legacy as "The Voice."
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