Whitney Houston would have turned 50 on Friday (Aug. 9). If Houston had lived to see this day, she would have much of which to be proud. You could make a strong argument that Houston set the template for the modern pop/R&B diva. She paved the way for Mariah Carey, Beyonce, Alicia Keys, Jennifer Hudson and many others.
Here are just a few of the records she set:
- In June 1987, Whitney became the first album by a female artist to enter The Billboard 200 album chart at #1.
- In April 1988, Houston became the first artist (male, female or group) to reach #1 on the Hot 100 with seven consecutive chart hits. (The old record of six was held jointly by the Beatles and Bee Gees.)
- In February 1993, “I Will Always Love You” became the first single in the “rock era” (which dates to 1955) to log 14 weeks at #1.
Houston headed The Billboard 200 for a total of 46 weeks, which is more than any other female artist since 1955. Her debut album, Whitney Houston, topped the chart for 14 weeks in 1986. Her sophomore album, Whitney, held the top spot for 11 weeks in 1987. The Bodyguard soundtrack stayed on top for 20 weeks in 1992-1993. Houston’s final studio album, I Look To You, spent one week on top in 2009.
Houston is the only female artist to release three albums that each logged 10 or more weeks at #1. The only other artists to achieve this feat are the Beatles and Elvis Presley (each of whom has four) and the Kingston Trio.
Houston had the #1 album of the year on Billboard’s year-end chart recaps twice. Whitney Houston was #1 for 1986. The Bodyguard soundtrack was #1 for 1993. Just two other artists, Elton John and 50 Cent, have had the year’s top album twice with different albums. (Two other artists, Michael Jackson and Adele, had the year’s top album twice with the same album.)
It’s hard to imagine now, but Whitney Houston was a sleeper hit. The album entered the chart at #166 and took 23 weeks to break into the top 10. Whitney got off to a much faster start. It was only the fifth album, and the first by a female artist, to debut at #1.
The Bodyguard has sold 12,069,000 copies, more than any other soundtrack since 1991, when Nielsen SoundScan began tracking music sales. (Only five albums of any type have sold more copies in this period: Metallica’s Metallica, Shania Twain’s Come On Over, Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill, Backstreet Boys’ Millennium and the Beatles’ 1.)
Houston had 39 Hot 100 hits, including 23 that made the top 10. Eleven went all the way to #1. Houston is one of only seven artists since 1955 to amass 11 or more #1 singles on what is now the Hot 100. The others are the Beatles (20), Mariah Carey (18), Elvis Presley (17), Michael Jackson (13), The Supremes (12) and Madonna (12). (Carey is the only artist who emerged after Houston broke big in 1985 to surpass her.)
“I Will Always Love You” was Houston’s biggest hit. In January 1993, it became only the second single to be certified for U.S. sales of 4 million physical copies by the Recording Industry Assn. of America. (The first was USA for Africa’s 1985 humanitarian anthem “We Are The World.”)
“I Will Always Love You” has sold 4,591,000 physical singles and 2,016,000 digital copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan. (It had sold only 910K digital copies by the time of her death.)
Eleven of Houston’s 39 Hot 100 hits were drawn from movies in which she starred or co-starred. In addition, she teamed with Mariah Carey to record “When You Believe” for the soundtrack of the animated movie The Prince Of Egypt. (They performed it on the Oscars in March 1999, where it won as Best Song.) She recorded two of her hits for TV mega-events: “One Moment In Time” for the 1988 Summer Olympics; “The Star Spangled Banner” for the 1991 Super Bowl.
The latter song made the top 20 when it was first released and zoomed into the top 10 when it was re-released in the wake of 9/11. Houston’s is the only rendition of the national anthem to make the top 40 since Billboard introduced weekly national pop charts in 1940.
Houston first hit the Hot 100 in June 1984 as a featured artist on Teddy Pendergrass’ “Hold Me.” She first charted on her own in May 1985 with “You Give Good Love,” which rose to #3.
Several of Houston’s hits had been recorded by other artists before Houston made them her own. These include “Saving All My Love For You” (first recorded by Marilyn McCoo & Billy Davis Jr.), “Greatest Love Of All” (George Benson), “All The Man That I Need” (Sister Sledge), “I Will Always Love You” (Dolly Parton), “I’m Every Woman” (Chaka Khan), “I Believe In You And Me” (The Four Tops) and “The Star Spangled Banner (numerous artists, including Jimi Hendrix and Jose Feliciano).
Houston died the afternoon of Feb. 11, 2012, a day before the Grammys were presented at Staples Center in Los Angeles. The timing was surreal, but somehow fitting: Houston was, for many years, a Grammy darling. In February 1986, when Houston was just 22, she sang her #1 hit “Saving All My Love For You” on the telecast, and moments later won her first Grammy for Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female. (The award was presented by her cousin Dionne Warwick, which undoubtedly made the moment all the sweeter for her.)
Seven months later, Houston’s performance on the show brought her an Emmy for Outstanding Individual Performance in a Variety or Music Program. It was the first time that someone had won an Emmy for a performance on a Grammy telecast. It was an indication of what a big star Houston had become, that even the TV community wanted to give her some affirmation.
Houston had other big nights at the Grammys. In 1988, when she was 24, she performed her #1 smash “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me),” which brought her a second Grammy in the pop female category. The following year, she was chosen to open the telecast with “One Moment In Time.”
In 1994, she was again chosen to open the telecast with “I Will Always Love You.” She won three Grammys that night, for Record of the Year, Album of the Year and Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female.
Houston won her sixth (and last) Grammy in February 2000, when “It’s Not Right But It’s Okay” was voted Best Female R&B Vocal Performance. That was her only win in the R&B field.
Just as the Grammys charted Houston’s phenomenal rise, they also reflected her struggles in later years. Her 2009 album I Look To You didn’t receive a single nomination. The album debuted at #1 on The Billboard 200, and has sold more than a million copies, but its songs didn’t really take off as singles. The title song, written by R. Kelly, peaked at #70 on the Hot 100. “Million Dollar Bill,” co-written by Alicia Keys, stalled at #100. The intended anthem “I Didn’t Know My Own Strength,” written by Diane Warren, “bubbled under” the Hot 100 at #119.
There was a big run on Houston’s albums and songs in the weeks following her death—just as there had been in 2009 following Michael Jackson’s death. Three of her albums returned to the top 10 on The Billboard 200. Whitney: The Greatest Hits, which had peaked at #5 when it was released in 2000, shot to #2, where it spent three weeks (behind Adele’s unstoppable 21). The Bodyguard soundtrack rebounded to #6. Her debut album climbed to #9.
Four of her biggest hits re-entered the Hot 100: “I Will Always Love You” (at #3), “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)” at #25, “Greatest Love Of All” (at #36) and “How Will I Know” (at #49).
Houston’s catalog of albums (excluding soundtracks) sold 1,825,000 copies in the year following her death. That’s more than it sold in the seven years preceding her death (1,727,000)—a period in which she released a new studio album.
Jackson and Houston had much in common. Both were the most famous members of prominent musical families (Cissy Houston, who sang a backing vocal on “How Will I Know,” was Houston’s mother; Dionne Warwick and Dee Dee Warwick were her cousins). Jackson and Houston both reached their peaks in the 1980s and early ‘90s. Houston’s 1987 album Whitney debuted at #1 and spawned four #1 singles. Jackson’s Bad, which was released just three months later, debuted at #1 and spawned five #1 singles.
Now, of course, they also share the fact that they both died in mid-life: Jackson was 50; Houston, just 48.
Houston’s death the day before the Grammys doubtless increased the size of the TV audience. The show had a total audience of 39.9 million, which was up nearly 50% from the previous year’s audience of 26.7 million. It was the second highest rated Grammy telecast ever, topped only by the 1984 show when a red-hot Michael Jackson swept the awards.
In the wake of Houston’s death, Adele broke two of Houston’s records. The week following Houston’s death, Adele’s album, 21, surpassed The Bodyguard soundtrack for the longest run at #1 by a female artist since The Billboard 200 became a weekly feature in 1956. 21 spent a total of 24 weeks on top. The Bodyguard held the top spot for 20 weeks.
Three months after Houston’s death, Adele’s DVD Live At The Royal Albert Hall surpassed Houston’s The #1 Video Hits for the longest run at #1 by a female artist since Billboard’s Top Music Videos chart was introduced in 1985. Adele’s DVD has logged 28 weeks at #1, compared to 22 for Houston’s 1986 video.
In addition to her successes on records, Houston starred or co-starred in four theatrical movies (The Bodyguard, Waiting To Exhale, The Preacher’s Wife and Sparkle) and one TV movie (Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella). She served as an executive producer on the latter project, which brought her an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Variety, Music or Comedy Special of 1997.)
The Fine Print: The latest edition of Joel Whitburn’s Top Pop Singles 1955-2012 shows 48 Hot 100 hits for Houston. So how do I get 39? I’m not counting the four songs that re-entered the chart after her death as new hits. I’m also not “double-counting” “The Star Spangled Banner.” I’m not counting “I Didn’t Know My Own Strength,” which merely “bubbled under” the chart. And I’m not counting three songs from 1993-1994 that made the Hot 100 Airplay chart (which is distinct from the Hot 100).