Cissy played a big role in shaping Whitney’s love and talent for music, but she wasn’t her only musical influence. It turns out her older cousin was none other than Dionne Warwick. She had two music powerhouses as godmothers: Darlene Love (the official godmother) and Aretha Franklin, an honorary godmother.
Aretha and Cissy were old friends. The Queen of Soul would later tell MTV News that she remembered a “shy, lovely” Whitney tagging along with her mother to recording sessions.
The Early Years
Whitney Elizabeth Houston was born on August 9, 1963, in Newark, New Jersey, to Emily "Cissy" Houston and John Russell Houston Jr. Whitney was raised in a musical household from a young age. Her mother, Cissy, was a gospel singer who later joined a popular session vocal group called The Sweet Inspirations.
The group found great success and sang songs with legendary artists such as Jimi Hendrix, Elvis Presley, Dusty Springfield, and Van Morrison.
In Church, She Discovered Music
She was raised Baptist with some Pentecostal influences as well. At the age of five, she began singing in the church choir at New Hope Baptist Church in Newark, where she also learned to play the piano. By age eleven, she had graduated as a soloist for the junior gospel choir.
Her mother Cissy took charge of Whitney’s singing, teaching, and mentoring throughout her teens. Whitney attended Franklin Elementary School (now the Whitney E. Houston Academy of Creative and Performing Arts) before transferring to Mount Saint Dominic Academy in Caldwell for her sixth-grade year and graduating in 1981.
A Shy but Talented Young Lady
Performing on stage came naturally to an otherwise quiet Whitney. She began singing when she was five years old, and she could also play the piano so there was no denying her exceptional musical talent.
When she turned 14, she started singing backup for her mother in several New York City cabaret clubs. In 1977, Whitney sang backup on Michael Zager Band's "Life's a Party." Michael was bowled over and even offered her a recording contract, but her mother Cissy declined, wanting Whitney to finish school first.
Born for the Spotlight
Young Whitney never wanted to be in the spotlight. She was perfectly content being a backup singer. Her only wish was to get to perform duets with her mother. Singing backup felt safe for an extremely shy Whitney, but the path she had envisioned for herself changed, slowly but surely. Thanks to her mother, she met and sang background vocals for big names in the music business.
Among them was Chaka Khan and her 1975 smash hit "I’m Every Woman." Whitney was only 15 at the time. She would later transform the song into a chart-topping number on her soundtrack album to "The Bodyguard."