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Revisit: Whitney!



Whitney Houston was one of the greatest female vocalists of our time.  Possessing multi-octave range, a soaring delivery, and an extraordinary intensity, she could turn most any song she sang into a symphony of human emotion.

Whitney kept her gospel roots close.  As a teen, she learned to sing as a member of the esteemed Newark-based New Hope Baptist Church Choir; guided by her mother, Cissy Houston, an admired gospel and secular artist in her own right. Adding to Whitney’s rare vocal talent was a special charm and beauty that led to a modeling career and eventually to Hollywood, where she became an award-winning actress.

Before her untimely death in 2012, at the age of 48, Whitney Houston sold millions of records, was critically acclaimed as a live performer, and won countless awards and accolades, including six GRAMMY® Awards.  Her performances on the GRAMMY Awards telecast rank among the greatest ever heard on the show.

Whitney! pays tribute to the musical legacy of Whitney Houston.  The exhibit debuted at the GRAMMY Museum L.A. LIVE on  August 1, 2012, before traveling to the GRAMMY Museum Experience Prudential Center on  October 19, 2018. Through this exhibit, we celebrate the vocal gift and genius that made her one of America’s musical treasures.

New Hope Baptist Church Choir Robe

Gospel music has been the bedrock of nearly all of the great African-American soul, blues, and rhythm & blues singers.  Whitney Houston was no exception.  Brought up in a Christian household and mentored by her mother, Cissy, who sang both sacred and secular music, young Whitney had the ideal music foundation from which to build her singing career.

The New Hope Baptist Church is home to one of America’s premier church choirs.  The church, located on Sussex Street in Newark, was established in 1903.  From the beginning, traditional sacred hymns and later gospel music powered Sunday church services.

When Cissy Houston became choir director and Minister of Music, the New Hope Baptist Church Choir soared.  Cissy, who had sung gospel music as a member of The Drinkard Singers and secular music with the Sweet Inspirations, brought with her a polish and passion that took the choir to new heights.  When her young daughter, Whitney, began to sing as a member of the choir, it was clear that the New Hope Baptist Church featured a vocalist destined for stardom. Whitney Houston never forgot her gospel roots.  Even in her final film, the 2012 re-make of “Sparkle,” Whitney performs the gospel standard, “His Eye Is on the Sparrow.”


Whitney Houston has won more awards than any other female recording artist and performer in history, according to Guinness World Records.  Aside from her six GRAMMY Awards and more than two dozen GRAMMY nominations, there have been Billboard awards, Rolling Stone awards, Emmy Awards, American Music Awards, honors from MTV, Soul Train, Essence magazine, and the NAACP and BET.  From the gospel world came a Dove Award.

In England, she won a coveted Brit Award; in Canada, a Juno Award; and in Germany, a Bambi Award.  VH1 honored her for her charitable work.  She won numerous People’s Choice Awards. Dozens of other honors and accolades were given to her during her career, many of which are on display here.

Together, they reflect not only the recording and performing success of Whitney Houston, but also her commitment to artistic excellence and philanthropy, and her deep connection to her worldwide audience.

The GRAMMY Years

Whitney Houston’s self-titled debut album sold an astonishing 25 million copies worldwide, and in 1986 she won the GRAMMY Award for Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female for the song “Saving All My Love for You.”

Her follow-up album, Whitney, was released in 1987.  It debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard charts, ultimately selling over 12 million copies in the U.S., and millions more abroad.   The album featured the up-tempo mega-hits “I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me)” and “So Emotional,” but also included the acclaimed ballad “Didn’t We Almost Have It All,” and “I Know Him So Well,” a duet she recorded with her mother, Cissy.

Reviews of the album were overwhelmingly positive.  In her critique of Whitney, USA Today’s Edna Gunderson called Whitney Houston, “the greatest voice of all.”  Other critics were equally glowing in their praise. Like its predecessor, Whitney won an avalanche of awards, including another GRAMMY Award in the Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female category for “I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me).” Her performance of the song on the telecast in 1988 drew a rousing standing ovation.

Although I’m Your Baby Tonight didn’t take home any GRAMMY awards, Whitney’s third album sold over 10 million copies.  Perhaps her greatest GRAMMY moment occurred in 1994, when her work on The Bodyguard soundtrack won three GRAMMY Awards for Album Of The Year, Record Of The Year, and Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female. The soundtrack, which sold an incredible 34 million albums, included her signature song, “I Will Always Love You,” which she sang on the telecast that year. It still ranks as one of the greatest performances in GRAMMY history.

Whitney Houston would win one more GRAMMY Award, this one in 1999 for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance for “It’s Not Right, But It’s Okay,” which was the hit single from her My Love Is Your Love album.  In all, Whitney Houston won six GRAMMY Awards and was nominated 25 times.

In Concert

While Whitney Houston’s musical legacy is mostly built on her recording catalogue and films, her concert tours and live performances were every bit as memorable. All in all, she did 10 concert tours, 3 HBO Specials and numerous benefit concerts and awards shows.

Her HBO Specials were:

“Welcome Home Heroes” (1991): After an overnight trip on the USS Saratoga, Whitney performed a free concert at Norfolk Naval Base for the enlisted men and women of Desert Storm and their families. It gave HBO their highest ratings at the time.

“The Concert for A New South Africa” (1994): Whitney performed three concerts in South Africa to celebrate the end of apartheid, and her concert at Ellis Park in Johannesburg in front of 70,000 attendees was broadcast live on HBO.  All ticket proceeds went to South African children’s charities.

“Classic Whitney” (1997): Held in the historic DAR Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C., Whitney performed two concerts – with the second night broadcast on HBO.  The proceeds from ticket sales went to The Children’s Defense Fund.

In addition to her concert tours, Whitney Houston performed on numerous awards shows beyond the GRAMMYs, including the World Music Awards, American Music Awards, the NAACP Image Awards, MTV’s Video Awards, and the BET Awards.  She was also the star of her own television special in 1992 called “Whitney Houston: This Is My Life.”   But it was her patriotic performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the Super Bowl that remains, arguably, her most memorable television performance.

Recording Years

The legendary record company executive, Clive Davis, brought 20-year-old Whitney Houston to Arista Records in 1983 after watching her perform in a New York nightclub. He signed her on the spot. Moved by her soaring voice, natural stage style, and rare beauty, Davis immediately took Whitney under his wing.  He carefully nurtured her talent and selected the songs and session players that were to be a part of her debut recording.  Davis had a long history of successful artists; as head of Columbia Records, he signed Janis Joplin and Santana in the late ‘60s and later, Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel, among others. As head of Arista Records, Davis scored Whitney’s cousin, Dionne Warwick; Air Supply; Aretha Franklin; and Barry Manilow.  Davis clearly had a knack for discovering and nurturing great talent. He was convinced that Whitney could match or be greater than all of his previous successes.

Arista Records released Whitey Houston’s eponymous album in 1985.  It was a powerhouse recording that quickly went to No. 1 on the Billboard charts and stayed there for a remarkable 14 weeks.  The album featured such classic hits as “You Give Good Love,” “How Will I Know,” “The Greatest Love of All,” and “Saving All My Love for You,” which earned Whitney her first GRAMMY Award for Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female.  The album sold 22 million units worldwide and Rolling Stone called Whitney “one of the most exciting voices in years.”

The all-important follow up album to Whitney Houston, called simply, Whitney, was released in 1987. The album featured the up-tempo hits “I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me)” and “So Emotional,” and also included the ballad “Didn’t We Almost Have It All,” and “I Know Him So Well,” a duet Whitney recorded with the mother, Cissy. Like its predecessor, Whitney won an avalanche of awards, including another GRAMMY in the Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female category for “I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me).”  Her performance of the song on the GRAMMY Awards show in 1988 drew a rousing standing ovation.

In all, Whitney Houston recorded seven studio albums, along with “best of” collections, compilations, soundtracks, and live recordings.

Acceptance Speeches

Visitors were able to watch acceptance speeches from 6 of Houston’s GRAMMY Award wins.

  • Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female, “Saving All My Love For You,” 1985
  • Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female, “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me),” 1987
  • Record Of The Year, “I Will Always Love You,” 1993
  • Album Of The Year, The Bodyguard – Original Soundtrack Album, 1993
  • Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female, “I Will Always Love You,” 1993
  • Best Female R&B Vocal Performance, “It’s Not Right But It’s Okay,” 1999

School Group visits Whitney!

Students from the Whitney E. Houston Academy of East Orange, NJ were the first to preview the exhibit when it was on display at the GRAMMY Museum Experience Prudential Center in Newark, NJ.

Fashion & Modeling

Whitney Houston had an affinity for fashion stemming from her modeling career, which began in 1980 at age 16.  “From the beginning, the camera and I were good friends,” she once said.  “It loves me, and I love it.”

She was discovered in New York by an agent for Click Model Management, Inc. and later signed with the prestigious Wilhelmina Models agency.  Whitney was one of the first African-American teens to appear on the cover of Seventeen magazine.  She was featured in other fashion spreads in Glamour, Cosmopolitan, Mademoiselle, and Young Miss.

Eventually, though, the promise of a music career took priority over the ever-increasing demand for fashion photo shoots.  If she felt happy and comfortable in front of a camera, Whitney felt absolutely at home in front of a microphone.

Cissy and Early Years

Whitney Houston’s mother, Cissy, watches video footage of Whitney performing with the New Hope Baptist Church Choir at the exhibit opening in Newark, NJ.

Whitney Houston was born on August 9, 1963 in Newark and raised in nearby East Orange, New Jersey.  Her mother, Cissy Houston, was a well-respected session singer and occasional solo artist; her cousins—Dionne and Dee Dee Warwick—were acclaimed pop artists.  Add close family friends such as popular singers Aretha Franklin, Chaka Khan, Gladys Knight, and Roberta Flack to young Whitney’s inner circle, and it’s easy to see how music deeply influenced her at an early age.

Whitney learned to sing in the church, and quickly became one of the featured vocalists in the New Hope Baptist Church Choir.  When Cissy began taking her teenage daughter with her to New York recording sessions, first as a tag-along and then as a backup singer, Whitney’s vocal talent became increasingly evident.