Aug 10, 1998
After singing with Elvis and raising Whitney, Cissy Houston looks back on a life's journey sustained by her faith.
For the 60-member youth choir at the New Hope Baptist Church in Newark, N.J., the threat of fire and brimstone pales in comparison to the wrath of Cissy Houston. "Don't be talking, chewing gum or acting crazy!" Houston bellows, as she sends her charges marching upstairs from the basement for Sunday morning service. Houston's superstar daughter, Whitney, who sang in her mother's choir as a teenager, has heard this tune before. "She don't take no mess," Whitney says of Cissy's brand of tough love. "She's very demanding, but she gave me the outline of what it takes to be the best."
Now Mom is passing that outline along to the rest of us.
In her recently published autobiography How Sweet the Sound: My Life with God and Gospel,
Houston, 64, with cowriter Jonathan Singer, recounts her personal and professional peaks
and valleys, from her early years singing gospel with her family in Newark to her '60s
stint as a' background vocalist for such pop icons as her niece Dionne Warwick, Aretha
Franklin and Elvis Presley. "I wanted to talk about my life and my experiences with
God," she says. "It's important that my children and grandchildren know whence
they came and that there
Of that there should be no doubt. Houston has reaped her
share of awards, including her first Grammy last year for her 1996 gospel album Face to
Face. "She's worthy of any accolade thrown her way," says singer Luther
Vandross, a close friend. "I think she could have made a wonderful opera singer. Her
voice is amazing." Her soprano soared on such landmark recordings as Franklin's
"Chain of Fools" (1967) and Presley's "Suspicious Minds" (1969). But
by the end of the '60s, tired of being on the road and away
Family has always come first for Houston, the youngest of
eight children born to Nitch Drinkard, a Newark factory worker, and wife Delia, a
homemaker She learned what it was like to grow up with just one parent after Delia
suffered her first stroke when Houston was almost 5 and died three years later of a
cerebral hemorrhage. "That was devastating," says Houston, whose father died of
stomach cancer when she was 18. "I didn't know what death
By the time she was 23, Houston, then pregnant with Gary (and separated from her first husband after two years of marriage), was working at the RCA factory in Harrison, N.J., while gigging with the Drinkard Singers alongside such gospel greats as Mahalia Jackson and Clara Ward. While singing on a TV show the following year, she met John Houston, an Army serviceman and confessed "gospel groupie" whom she married in 1959. Secular background work for the Drifters and Dionne Warwick followed, and Houston finally quit her day job, figuring she could earn in two days of session singing what she made in one week of putting together cathode-ray tubes for television sets.
In 1963 she and three other singers formed a backup group that became known as the Sweet Inspirations and performed around the country with various headliners. Despite their touring success, Houston longed for the comforts of home. "I don't know if the road was really for me," she says. "My surroundings have to be a certain status or else I'm miserable. Some of those hotel rooms get on my nerves."
The racism that was prevalent in the South in the '60s
made touring even more of a challenge, but Houston was up to it. "When we used to
travel through the South," she says, "I acted just like I was home, like a fool,
I guess. I would go into a diner and say, 'I would like such and such.' They would say,
`You from up North?' and I said, `Yes, I am,' and they would give me what I wanted. I
guess God was with me." By 1967 the Sweet
The Sweet Inspirations worked similar magic on both their
peers and the public. Shortly after the studio turn with Morrison, Elvis Presley invited
the quartet to sing backup during his now-legendary series of Las Vegas concerts. After
those shows, Houston says, "we would jam with him for an hour, singing gospel. He
really loved it, had a feel for it and was tickled to have four `church sisters' backing
him up." As a token of his gratitude, Presley (whom Houston's husband affectionately
called Elvis Pretzel) presented Houston with a bracelet engraved on the outside with her
real name and on the inside with his pet name for her: Squirrelly. That same year, Houston
and her singing partners scored their own Top 20 hit with the tune "Sweet
Inspiration" and watched their reputation soar. Cissy, in particular, "was a
terrific singer," says Ahmet Ertegun, cofounder of Atlantic Records.
Talent clearly runs in the family. Houston's son Gary also works as a background vocalist and Michael as a songwriter, while Whitney has become one of the world's biggest pop stars. "When she said she wanted to sing, it wasn't anything I wanted her to do," says Houston. "But I knew I had to be there to coach her in the dangers of this business." That remains a full-time gig. "I try to help her cope with it," says Houston of the media hoopla surrounding Whitney's turbulent marriage to singer Bobby Brown. "It's hurting her, and it's hurting me."
But the beat must go on. Although she doesn't stray too
far from her three-bedroom condo in Fort Lee, N.J., Houston is as busy as ever. Last year
she released her second solo gospel CD on the House of Blues label, and she sings backup
on Luther Vandross's forthcoming album I Know. Unfortunately, Houston's romantic life
lately has not been as charmed as her professional one. In the late '70s, after John had a
massive heart attack and a subsequent bypass, Houston felt her husband had changed, and
the couple drifted apart. They separated in 1980 and divorced in 1993. "He's
remarried now," Houston says.
Although the unattached grandmother of six (including Bobbi Kristina, 5, Whitney's daughter with Bobby Brown) is between relationships, Houston hasn't given up on finding Mr. Right. But he'd better be prepared for a party of three. "God said, `And, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world,' " Houston says. "That tells me He'll go anywhere I take Him."
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