Whitney Houston’s Highs and Lows… As Seen On TV

Chris Willman
Stop The Presses! (NEW)

Television was how we experienced most of Whitney Houston's most culture-consuming triumphs... and also where we went to assess her state of health and mind when substance abuse and marital problems took a toll. From her Super Bowl supremacy to "whack is crack," and from Grammy greatness to "Being Bobby Brown," here are 13 of the moments that galvanized TV (and eventually web) viewers.


Record mogul Clive Davis first used his influence to introduce Houston to home audiences via the unlikely vehicle of Merv Griffin's daytime talk show. Looking a little less glamorous than the diva we'd soon come to know, the 21-year-old sang "Home," a ballad from "The Wiz." "We won't forget that name," affirmed Merv, theretofore not really regarded as a prophet.


Houston and MTV were a marriage waiting to happen. But her previous music videos had been more on the sedate side, and MTV was then still facing charges of being rock-ist and resisting breakthrough black artists. Those two things both changed in a big way with "How Will I Know," which had an upbeat Houston dancing through colorful settings and establishing herself as an all-purpose pop diva rather than just light-R&B balladeer. Suddenly, she was the country's foremost African-American Girl Next Door.


Houston chose "Saving All My Love for You" for her first first appearance on the Grammys. With this knockout performance, she bowled over the non-MTV-savvy masses... and, incidentally, earned an Emmy that same year for outstanding performance on a variety program.


The burgeoning superstar was a standout on the kudocast for the second year in a row, this time really selling America on the idea that loving Whitney Houston was "The Greatest Love of All."


Sure, it turned out to have been pre-recorded, as nearly all Super Bowl music performances are. But it hardly mattered whether it was live or Memorex when Houston sang a song in the key of Francis Scott Key. There was no doubt who the real Super Bowl winner was that year. Whitney's reading of the anthem is often listed as one of the great moments of music on television, and a single of the tune made it to the top 20 in 1991 and the top 10 when it was re-released in 2001.


Suddenly, Houston was the queen of patriotism, so it only made sense that she would follow up the National Anthem with a rousing "Battle Hymn of the Republic." She debuted her equally jazzed-up version of the number at the "Welcome Home Heroes" concert in Norfolk, Virginia, which was broadcast live on HBO (even to non-subscribing cable households) and later released on DVD.


Despite being one of the two biggest movie songs of the '90s (the other being Celine Dion's "My Heart Will Go On"), Whitney Houston's signature tune from "The Bodyguard" wasn't eligible for an Oscar, having been composed by Dolly Parton more than two decades before. So she never got to sing "I Will Always Love You" at the Academy Awards, but she did get to sell it for all it was worth at the Grammys, nailing the high notes that would always be demanded of her on uneven tours to come.


After being dogged with drug rumors as her career slowed down in the late '90s and early 2000s, Houston finally sat down with Diane Sawyer to discuss the allegations in a memorable 2002 interview. Her most infamous denial centered around the notion that she was too wealthy and high-class to do the worst drugs. "Crack is whack," she said, instigating one of the most unfortunate rhyming memes of the 21st century.


Could there be a more regrettable celebrity-couple reality show than "Newlyweds: Nick and Jessica"? Yes, there could, as Houston agreed to participate in Brown's reality series for Bravo, which would not have gone through without her. America has rarely felt more icky about being a fly on the wall. The show only lasted one season and, much to the relief of Houston's true fans, was never released on DVD. Still, any series that popularizes the catchphrase "Hell to the no!" can't be all bad.


In 2009, Houston was releasing her first album in seven years, "I Look to You," which would also turn out to be her final studio effort. In promoting it, the singer also promoted the idea that she had finally cleaned up—the confessions including a demonstration of how she'd smoked rock cocaine in conjunction with marijuana.


Houston was back "and better than ever," according to Diane Sawyer, who not only hosted a comeback performance on "Good Morning America" but even joined in singing (and dancing to) the chorus of "I'm Every Woman." Unfortunately, Sawyer was pretty much alone in that biased assessment, as attendees at the Central Park gig that was taped for GMA noted that she didn't sound bad but also took long breaks from singing so that the backup singers or audience (or Sawyer) could fill in the slack. Houston admitted she was winded, which she blamed on being tired from taping Oprah's show earlier.


Houston hadn't undertaken a major American tour since the 1990s, and that was not to change with the release of "I Look to You." But she continued to play overseas... and if there was any thought that word of her vocal limitations wouldn't get back to the States, that was proven wrong by the ubiquity of YouTube. Evidence quickly surfaced of the not-up-to-snuff performances that led some audiences in Australia and England to ask for their money back.


Houston's final live performance wasn't a particularly notable one, but after her death less than 48 hours later, YouTube recordings of it were analyzed like the Zapruder tape. She got up on stage and sang "Jesus Loves Me" with Kelly Price for less than 60 seconds, almost drowned out by the appreciative whoops of the nightclub crowd. It wasn't the kind of swan song that any singer would choose to go out on, but there was some comfort for fans that this daughter of a gospel-singing dynasty was last heard from singing a spiritual.