The Prom Queen of Soul

Whitney Houston is sleek, sexy, successful -- and, surprise, she can sing

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Whitney Houston holds her award for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance at the 30th Annual Grammy Awards March 2, 1987

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Today the women are back in the record stores, and they have dragged rock's first generation in with them. Chanteuse pop is in style again, stronger than ever, in the work of some young and veteran smooth sisters. Warwick won a Grammy for Bacharach's That's What Friends Are For, and Aretha was back at No. 1 with a George Michael duet, I Knew You Were Waiting ( for Me). Streisand's return to Broadway -- or rather to The Broadway Album -- went platinum last year. New voices are enriching the old melodic sound too. From Britain, Sade translated her Afro-exotic features and bossa-nova ballads into a boffo LP. Anita Baker poured the ache of jazz into pop and sold a couple million copies of Rapture. All over the dial, female singers are anchoring distinctive personalities to the sound of soul on silk. But none have hit the plangent chord struck by John and Cissy Houston's little girl.

"With her looks and talent," says Warwick, "she had all the credentials. Her success was something that was supposed to happen. And like all of us in the family, Whitney was singing from the moment she came out," on Aug. 9, 1963, in Newark. After the Newark riots of 1967, the Houstons moved to a two- story house in East Orange, where Cissy still lived until this March. For the most part they were an ordinary family, except that Mom would occasionally hit the road to sing backups for Elvis, Aretha or Dionne. While Cissy toured with her group, the Sweet Inspirations, John, the group's manager, tended the three children. Whitney's half-brother Gary Garland, 28, sings duets and backup in her act; her brother Michael, 25, is the production manager on Whitney's tour.

Whitney was Daddy's girl, and the lure was mutual. "I used to give her flowers," says John, 66, who runs Whitney's three companies. "I helped her with term papers in high school -- she'd call me on Tuesday for a paper due on Wednesday. She's always been great with that 'Daddy' bit." Says Whitney: "He was Mom's support network while she was on tour. He changed diapers, cooked, did my hair and dressed me, all the while providing Mom with advice and answers."

Whitney's sweet inspiration was Emily ("Cissy") Drinkard Houston, now 53. Whitney calls her "my teacher, my friend, the lady in my life." John credits Cissy with teaching their daughter "how to talk, walk, stand, project, greet people. She took care of Whitney's teeth, got involved with how she dressed." Cissy was a strict and loving mom. If she thought Whitney needed a spanking, Whitney got one. "Cracking gum or sitting with your legs open were considered unacceptable," Whitney says, "and I'd better not come back from the yard with scratched knees." Cissy says Whitney "didn't date young. I didn't allow it. Period. But she did go through a rebellious teenage phase, mostly small stuff: staying out late, not washing the dishes. She was lazier than hell, stubborn and opinionated. When she was 16, I told her she wasn't going to make 17 because I was gonna kill her."

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