A new book makes a rousing case for Whitney Houston. 7 key takeaways
On the Shelf
Didn't We Almost Have It All: In Defense of Whitney Houston
By Gerrick Kennedy
Abrams: 320 page, $28
If you buy books linked on our site, The Times may earn a commission from Bookshop.org, whose fees support independent bookstores.
Whitney Houston was loved; Whitney Houston was ridiculed.
For most of her life, the incomparable singer was forced to make sense of those intertwined realities. Even as she set towering records and moved mountains with her voice, she was judged at every turn by those who could never step into in her shoes.
Although the love never left, the mockery grew louder in her later years as she fell victim to drug abuse before dying in 2012 at age 48.
“Didn’t We Almost Have It All,” a new book by Gerrick Kennedy, seeks to recontextualize Houston‘s life, looking with compassion rather than scorn.
An award-winning journalist who covered music for The Times from 2009 to 2019, Kennedy makes no secret of his love for Houston throughout the book. In the introduction he remembers hearing her honey-soaked voice for the first time, tracing the way it shaped his musical identity while growing up in Cincinnati.
Alicia Keys inducted the late Whitney Houston into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in a ceremony broadcast Saturday. Read some of the poignant speeches.
“It was the beauty of her voice, a wonderous marvel unlike anything I’d heard,” he recalled of watching Houston run through the clouds in the 1992 movie “The Bodyguard” for the first time. “So light. So pure. So angelic. I never wanted to come back down to earth.”
Kennedy provides a deeper understanding of the human behind the microphone, looking at how family, the music business and impossible expectations weighed down that angelic voice.
Here are seven takeaways from the book, out now from Abrams Press.
12-year-old Brandy sang her way backstage at ‘The Tonight Show’ to wrangle a phone call with Houston
Like many Black girls, the singer Brandy revered Houston. When the faintest opportunity arose to hear her voice, she stopped at nothing to make the dream a reality.
At 12, Brandy attended a taping of the “Tonight Show” that featured BeBe and CeCe Winans as special guests. Even though Houston wasn’t there, Brandy knew she was friends with the Winanses; she sang her way backstage, where she convinced CeCe to call Houston on the phone.
“I couldn’t believe it was her on the other end telling me to have a great summer and sweetly listening as I professed my love of her and my dream to be just like her,” she writes in the book’s foreword.
Four years later, the two were properly introduced at the 1995 Kids’ Choice Awards, where Houston hosted and Brandy performed. Brandy’s mother had told her daughter, “You will see her at the top,” and once it finally happened, Houston gave the prodigy her jacket and hung out with her for the day.
“It was a dream, one of the best days of my life,” she remembered.
Her mother, also a singer, got her break at the 1957 Newport Jazz Festival with Mahalia Jackson
Music was in Houston’s blood. Her mother, Cissy Houston (born Emily Drinkard), made her mark through gospel before finding success in soul, funk and R&B.
While singing with her family as part of the Drinkard Sisters, Cissy got her first taste of stardom when she performed at the 1957 Newport Jazz Festival. Headlined by gospel legend Mahalia Jackson, the festival put the genre before a largely white audience in all its glory, helping bring it to the mainstream.
Cissy sang with the likes of Elvis Presley, Wilson Pickett and her niece, Dionne Warwick. She later facilitated her daughter’s early work; Whitney earned her first credit at 14 as a background singer on Michael Zager’s “Life’s a Party.”
Kennedy highlights a studio session including Cissy, Aretha Franklin and a young Whitney. “Two magnificently blessed voices ... ,” he writes, “singing freely in front of a little girl who would one day become the voice of her generation.”
‘I Will Always Love You’ almost didn’t happen
It’s impossible to remember Houston without hearing “I Will Always Love You,” which contains one of music’s most famous vocal runs punctuated by an elongated delivery on the hook. The song spent a then-record 14 weeks at the top of the Billboard Hot 100.
As Kennedy writes, it almost didn’t happen.
Houston was originally asked to cover Jimmy Ruffin’s “What Becomes of the Broken-Hearted” for the climax of “The Bodyguard,” but the idea was unpopular internally. It was co-star Kevin Costner who suggested she cover Dolly Parton’s 1974 hit “I Will Always Love You,” with an extended a cappella intro to build the drama.
Clive Davis and producer David Foster thought the arrangement wouldn’t work, but agreed to give it a shot. Foster planned to add more instruments later, but once he saw her singing the song live in a ballroom, he realized he didn’t need to change a thing.
“When she opened her mouth,” Foster later wrote, “I realized that Kevin Costner had come up with one of the greatest ideas in the history of movie music.”
She abandoned her romantic relationship with Robyn Crawford to avoid industry backlash
Before her rise to stardom, Houston was in a relationship with Robyn Crawford.Kennedy writes that it was a powerful love, a bond that formed “almost immediately.”
After she signed a record deal, however, she told Crawford they could be only friends as she feared being ostracized for her sexuality. Houston broke the news to her lover through a slate-blue Bible, a reminder that their love was forbidden by the church.
The two remained good friends, with Crawford serving as Houston’s assistant and later creative director until 2000. Still, questions around her sexuality followed, despite Houston’s denials.
“You mean to tell me that if I have a woman friend, I have to have a lesbian relationship with her?” Whitney told Rolling Stone in a 1993 cover story. “That’s b—.”
The relationship was not officially confirmed until Crawford’s memoir “A Song for You” was released in 2018.
Filmmaker Kevin Macdonald first suspected Houston had been abused after viewing old interview footage
The director of the authorized warts-and-all 2018 documentary “Whitney” suspected childhood abuse after rewatching early interviews; the way she “shrank into herself” reminded him of earlier interview subjects who had survived it.
In 1999, Whitney Houston was at the peak of her fame post-“The Bodyguard.”
An off-the-record conversation during the final weeks of filming confirmed the director’s suspicions. Macdonald then adjusted the documentary, leading up to the allegation that Whitney and her brother Gary were molested by their cousin Dee Dee Warwick (Dionne’s sister).
In the film, Gary went public about the abuse. Mary Jones, one of Whitney’s close friends, went on camera to say the singer had once told her, through tears, that she was molested at a young age. Cissy, Dionne and Robyn Crawford strongly denied the allegations. Dee Dee died in 2008, 10 years before the film was released.
Houston introduced Bobby Brown to cocaine
Many onlookers suspected Houston’s pairing with Bobby Brown was a transactional relationship rather than true love. Even the way they met seemed too convenient: at the 1989 Soul Train Awards, where Whitney was booed and Bobby made audience members swoon.
Houston was often viewed as a sellout, having “abandoned” her Blackness to become a hit-making machine. As the couple sank deeper into drugs the condemnation went the other way, toward the “bad boy of R&B,” notorious for his outbursts and run-ins with the law.
Although Brown drank and smoked weed, it was Houston who introduced him to cocaine after he caught her doing a line on their wedding day. Houston had her first hit at 14, supplied by a friend of her brother.
“Whitney often said cocaine wouldn’t go where she was going, but there was a deep naivete in thinking she could kick the habit after money and fame made indulging easily accessible — that’s how addiction works,” Kennedy writes.
America wasn’t ready for Whitney Houston
Kennedy argues that Houston didn’t fail her audience; we failed her. Too many fans saw her as a voice instead of a human, discarding her once age, cigarettes and drugs clipped her range.
Kennedy celebrates her voice in its later, lower register. “It was the voice of a woman who had lived — often with wild abandon, as we’d learn after ‘The Bodyguard,’” Kennedy writes. “Whitney always sounded alive.”
Robyn Crawford, Whitney Houston’s best friend for years, says in a new memoir that they had a physical relationship — until the late singer got a record deal.
Moreover, society couldn’t accept her for who she was. Questions about her authenticity — her straightness, her Blackness — dogged her even as she soared. “We gossiped about whether she was gay,” Kennedy writes. “We derided her for getting with Bobby — some of you reading this might have even had an office pool going on how long they’d last. We dismissed her music as not ‘Black enough’ for years, and then we chided her for being too ghetto after she dropped the princess act and stopped hiding the Newports.”
We still pry into celebrities today, as we’ve made strides toward acceptance. Artists who don’t identify as straight have more room to be themselves, and those struggling with addiction are met with love rather than treated as a sideshow. Even fame-damaged artists like Britney Spears can use social media to bypass mainstream channels and connect directly with fans.
These new realities inform Kennedy’s ultimate question: What would have happened if Houston were coming up in the 21st century?
The answer, he believes, is that she “would thrive if she arrived now, just as she was. We would have been more appreciative of her artistry. We would have been kinder to her and Robyn. And we would have supported her when the devil on her back pulled her to darkness, instead of shaming her for her choices. The sad truth is we’ll never know.”
Love a good book?
Get the latest news, events and more from the Los Angeles Times Book Club, and help us get L.A. reading and talking.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.